“The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out” Proverbs 20:5
Every once in a while I am blown away by things my children say that reveal just how deep the waters of their heart run. Much of the time it seems they are consumed by thoughts of trucks, poop, and candy. In the moments that they reveal to me the “deep waters” of their heart it is a true delight to connect my heart with theirs.
I am very fond of this proverb because of how it instructs parents to draw out, with understanding, the inner life of their child. I imagine a bucket constructed of “understanding” lowered into a well that returns with a deeper knowledge of the child’s inner life. How does a parent begin to make himself into this “bucket” of understanding? I believe our children feel understood and thus share more of their inner life when they experience acceptance, humility, and contingency.
It is important for parents to accept the emotions, thoughts, and experiences of their children no matter how “wrong” or “different” they may seem. A parent and child could experience the exact same event yet have drastically different perspectives on what happened. Children feel understood when parents accept and value their version of an event. This includes those times when a child is angry, frustrated, or disappointed with their parent. Some parents may disallow the expression of anger, or disappointment in the name of respect or obedience. It is important that parents accept the strong feelings and be able to “hold” them for the child. This stance of acceptance creates an environment in which a child feels safe to share those most difficult emotions that even they may not totally understand.
I once heard a speaker say that the best thing he ever did as a parent was to apologize to his children when he messed up. Approaching your child with an attitude of humility is a powerful part of drawing out his inner life. This approach acknowledges that your child is the expert on his experience. Be open to what may seem like contradictory statements. Ask clarifying questions that allow your child to explain more of his beliefs. If his values seem illogical or immature refrain from passing judgment, just keep wondering, the more he talks the more refined his values will become. Humility establishes you as the go to person for working out his ever-evolving system of values and beliefs.
Communication is contingent when the parent and child are changed by what has been expressed. In his book, “Parenting From the Inside Out, How a deeper Self-understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive” Daniel Siegel states that in contingent communication, “the receiver of the message listens with an open mind and with all his or her senses. Her reaction is dependent on what was actually communicated, not on a predetermined and rigid mental model of what was expected.” Contingent communication is flexible. Parents are able to pick up on slight nonverbal changes to determine a course of action. Decisions are made based on the needs of their child rather than an overly rigid rule or schedule. Contingency allows for parent and child to influence one another through verbal, and non-verbal forms of communication.
As parents strive to understand their child with acceptance, humility, and contingency, periods of misunderstanding are normal. There will always be times when parents are unable to understand what is happening in their child. There will also be times when a parent fully understands their child, but is unable to change what happened or what needs to happen. The exciting part is that the more we use our bucket of understanding the better we get at it. The more our children experience communication as accepting, humble, and contingent the more they will share from the deep waters.