By Invitation Only: Entering Your Child’s Inner Space

By Invitation Only:

Picture yourself surrounded by an invisible wall—invisible but with a door so strong no pushing can force it open. Inside this private space is where you are truly yourself, where your values and real feelings exist. No one can control your thoughts and feelings in that private space. Furthermore, no one who has not been inside really knows you, yet no one can get into your “inner space” unless you open the door and invite him in.

Nor can you get into the “inner space” of anyone else without his invitation. As parents, we long to be close to our children, yet that door is closed unless the child himself wants you there and feels comfortable having you there.

Brigham Young gives us a clue: “The greatest lesson you can learn is to know yourselves. When we know ourselves, we know our neighbors.” (Quoted by Thomas Cottam Romney, World Religions in the Light of Mormonism, p. 398.) How do people get into your “living space?” Or, how are they shut out? This should offer some clues about how we relate to our children.

To the right [below] are some sample situations. Check an answer according to how you would feel.

Suppose someone were to say to you—

Check the feelings you are likely to have—

Check what you would feel like saying in response—

1. “I think you should put in more time at the office. I don’t see how you can get ahead at this rate.”

___discouraged ___hurt ___angry

___ “I’m tired of hearing you say that.” ___ “You wouldn’t care if I dropped dead from overwork.” ___ “Can’t you see I’m doing all I can do?”

2. “You’re showing poor judgment in this situation. You should know better by now.”

___want to fight back ___angry ___stupid

___ “Oh, yeah, what do you know about it?” ___ “Is that so? You know just about everything, I guess.” ___ “I am aware of a few things whether you know it or not.”

3. “I’ve told you a thousand times, and I’m telling you again. …”

___bored ___stubborn ___tuned out

___ “Save your breath. I heard you the first time.” ___ “Here we go again. …” ___ “Why don’t you listen once in a while instead of telling so much?”

4. “I just heard that Gene got a big promotion. You’re just as smart as Gene.”

___put down ___hurt ___turned off

___ “You’re never satisfied, no matter how hard I try.” ___ “You think you’re being awfully subtle, don’t you?”

5. “I guess I can’t trust you anymore.”

___inadequate ___defiant ___hurt

___ “When have you ever?” ___“You said it—I didn’t.” ___ “I might as well have the game as the name.”

6. “It’s silly to feel that way about such a little thing.”

___misunderstood ___put down

___ “What do you know about it?” ___ “I still feel the same way.” ___ “You’re a big help.”

Did you check almost all the feelings and many of the quick “comebacks”? If most or all of the above remarks do not turn you off and make you want to retaliate in kind, you are very unusual. For most of us, such statements are door-closers, yet many parents say exactly this type of thing to their children. Then they wonder, when they are in a warm mood, why their child is not.

By the time a child is a teenager, power tactics no longer work. If parents do not influence a child through his respect for them, the doors may close permanently.

Recently a group of high school students talked openly about home problems in front of a group of adults. First, they deeply resented being compared unfavorably with brothers and sisters or friends. They wanted to be accepted for themselves, not for how much better they would be if they were like someone else. It is highly unlikely that a child will let into his inner space someone who “disapproves” of him.

Another door-closer the young people mentioned was using the Most Hated Words: never and always. In the first place, they say, it exaggerates, and besides, they do not relish being constantly reminded of their shortcomings. For example, parents often say, “You always leave your coat on the hall table.” (The girl knows full well she hung it up only yesterday.) “You never do a decent job on the lawn.” (Only last week the youngster tried to do a superb job—which, incidentally, Dad did not comment on.) “Why don’t you ever call when you are going to be late after school?” (The boy knows that he called on Monday to ask if he could stay for the wrestling meet.)

It is a wise parent who recognizes that, if he wants to keep doors open, he cannot consistently ridicule, belittle, preach, demand, threaten, compare unfavorably, or exaggerate faults—all of which happened in the above cases.

Although parents are people with feelings of frustration, fears of rejection, and anger, too, we cannot afford the luxury of venting these feelings against our children if we want them to feel warm toward us. After all, parents are the adults. Engaging in a conflict with a child is behaving like a child. We have to be more mature. Granted, we may not always give the appropriate answer, or make the right response, or ask the best question. But if we do not improve our ability to do so, the door will not stay open.

Look again at your own reactions to better understand your child. Ask yourself: “Whom do I let into my private space?” And a second question: “How do they act so that I feel free to open the door and let them in?” Try to answer these questions sincerely, then see how your thoughts compare with those of that same group of students:

“He doesn’t fly into a rage when I make a mistake—even if it’s a pretty bad one.”

“She sometimes mentions something special and unique that she has noticed about me.”

“He trusts me to do a job when I’m assigned.”

“She told me how I had influenced her life. I was surprised and pleased. No one ever said anything like that to me before.”

“He lets me have my own feelings, without telling me I shouldn’t feel that way.”

“He tells me things about himself, even some of his sacred experiences, as if he trusts me with important things.”

“She tells me exactly what she likes about an idea I have.”

“I can tell he likes me because he doesn’t always bring up my faults.”

“He acts real, like he’s not perfect yet, either.”

“We sort of tease each other and joke around.”

These comments alone could serve as a checklist for parents.

How can parents further learn to open doors? Select door-openers from this list:

1. You shouldn’t talk about your friend that way. I’m sure he’s doing the best he can.

2. Is there a way we can solve this problem together?

3. Sounds like something has really gone wrong in your chemistry class.

4. Don’t talk any more about it. I said do it, so just do it.

5. That is the lamest excuse I have ever heard.

6. I can see you have some strong feelings about that.

7. I don’t care what other kids do; we have certain rules around here.

8. You’re really mad at your brother right now.

9. You’d better watch it, young lady, if you know what’s good for you.

10. You really feel I’ve been unfair in what I’ve asked you to do.

11. You’re going to take seminary, and I don’t want to hear any more about it.

12. I feel really upset when you are out so late. Sometimes I get afraid that you are hurt or something.

13. Listen, son, if you’d get down to work, your teacher would like you just fine.

14. Sounds as if you’re afraid that I’m going to insist you take that job.

By now you should have been able to pick out 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 14 as the door-openers. The others are generally sure-fire door-closers.

It would appear that certain conditions must exist inside your child’s “space” before he will invite you in.

He Must Feel Understood.

“Sometimes it seems impossible to do everything you have to do.”

“It kind of hurts when Jan and Marie go to a show without you.”

He Must See You As Real and Human.

“I really blew that one. I hope I get another chance.”

“Explain what you mean; maybe I’m wrong on that.”

He Must Believe You Respect Him, His Feelings, and His Opinions.

“Tell me about Linda. If you like her so much, there must be something to her.”

“Let’s have a family council and get your ideas about our summer vacation.”

He Should Hear You Frequently Express Appreciation.

“You remembered your mother’s appointment and got the car here in good time.”

“By participating in family night, you set a good example for your younger brothers.”

He Wants You to Genuinely Enjoy Life and Laugh with Him.

Hug him, tease him a little, tell a joke.

Start practicing good door-openers. Your child will see your family life, your value system, the gospel, and your total life-style more favorably if you do. Then, perhaps, occasionally he will say, “Dad, I am really worried about whether I can get into college or not.” Or she will say, “Mom, Bill wants me to go steady, and I’m kind of scared.”

If you have learned about your own reactions, and thus your child’s, you won’t say, “What do you mean, you’re worried about getting into college? We all go to college.” Or “You know that it isn’t good to go steady at your age. Just tell him that you won’t do it.” Instead, you can keep the door open with, “Sounds like there are some things we really need to talk about.” Inside that wall where your child lives there is warmth and love waiting.

Dr. Rasmussen, mother of six, is a member of the Primary General Board and of the Church Teacher Development Committee. She serves as organist in the Pleasant View Second Ward, Sharon East (Utah) Stake.