My middle schooler is trying to tell me about something that happened to her, and I immediately start asking questions. I interrupt her and offer my advice. I give her directives. She stops mid-sentence and says, “You’re the worst person to tell things to.” My jaw drops. I can’t believe she feels this way. When I’m able to speak again I say, “Please go on. I’m sorry.” She says, “No. Ask Dad. He actually listened to the whole story.”
Maybe you, like me, have found it difficult to understand what your child wants as they get older. What once might have seemed easy, like offering a hug or having a good talk, isn’t as straightforward anymore. Our growing kids seem to be trekking across uncharted lands, exploring new social and emotional territories so they can become the people they will be. As parents it can feel like we’re just keeping up, barely able to catch our breath.
We want to parent “right.” We want our kids to feel good about themselves, and we want to give them the resources and support they need to succeed. But sometimes we get in their way. And sometimes we get in our own way. Of course there are beautiful moments and moments of peace, but very often being a parent can be confusing. “After ages 5 or 6,” says Carla Hershman, LICSW, a Seattle therapist, “there is more separation. We can keep [our kids] safe, but not in the same way.”
I asked boys and girls from 5 to 15 years old for advice they would give parents of kids their age. I also asked them how they want their parents to show them they care and what they want parents to know about what it’s like being their age. I want to thank these kids for their contributions and their willingness to share their perspectives.
Kids ages 5 to 8
A 5-year-old respondent wants parents to know that kids his age need love, and he likes his parents to show him they care with nice words and hugs, while his 8-year-old brother prefers that his parents show him love by playing games with him. Older kids recall that when they were younger they wanted their parents to help them with tasks, read them books, snuggle with them, and do art with them. One 11-year-old remembers that as a kindergartner he liked “extreme affection” and appreciated his parents “applauding everything” he did. Another writes that she liked her parents “cooking for me, hugging me.” A teenager reflects on her kindergarten years as a time when she liked “hugs and kisses and all the little things” from her parents.
Kids ages 9 to 10
This group of children was also clear about their desire to be close to their parents. Their advice for raising kids their age includes “spend lots of time with them,” “take some time off to always listen,” and “give space, but not too much.” “Don’t be too hard on us,” answers a 10-year-old boy; another notes, “We need quite a bit of attention.”
When asked how they liked their parents to show they care, a 10-year-old girl writes, “By talking to me about life.” “Snuggling me while watching movies with me and hugging me,” a 10-year-old boy answers. These kids want parents to know that “it’s hard to fit in.” “At school,” one girl writes, “you’re with moody friends that switch between liking you and not liking you.” “Life can be tough,” a 9-year-old boy answers. “Honestly,” writes one teen, “just enjoy still having a kid, and get ready for puberty. It’s gonna be a change.”
Kids ages 11 to 12
The responses from the kids in this group show how they are beginning to ask parents for more space. Writes one respondent, “I would tell [parents] not to ask so many personal questions unless the child wants them to.” “Give [us] chances,” another writes. “Don’t raise your voice immediately.”
Parents can show they really care by giving kids “freedom and lots of time to hang out with friends.” One kid recommends “leaving me alone unless I ask for help” and that parents “yell as little as possible.” A 12-year-old girl offers this insight: “If we’re upset and we say it’s nothing, it’s really something. So if we tell you to go away, please come back. Even if we say ‘leave’ we want you to be there.”
“I like them to just tell me they love me,” one boy answers. Another wants “acknowledgement, love, support.” An 11-year-old boy asks for “lots of one-on-one time together,” while a 12-year-old boy suggests that parents “set up a hangout with friends or host one.”
One kid wants parents to know that “at my age I’m sort of stepping into a new world, almost. And sometimes I like my personal stuff to be personal.” “I like freedom and hanging out with my friends,” one boy writes. “I like [parents] to know enough to help me and comfort me. I don’t like them knowing enough that they micromanage everything I do.” One 12-year-old girl says that she sometimes feels she might be growing up too fast or choosing clothing that is too mature, and she argues with her mother about this. But she wants her mother to tell her to “slow down,” that it is too fast. Echoing her, one boy explains, “Sometimes you get feelings you don’t know the reasons for.”
Kids ages 13 to 15
By the time kids become teenagers, parents can feel that they and their sons and daughters are speaking different languages. One 14-year-old girl writes, “Sometimes I wish they would understand that I’m in a bad mood and need my space. They tell me that’s fine, but then get mad when I snap because I’m in a bad mood.” She adds, “This is a time for us to experiment and figure out who we are. Have guidelines, but let us make our own decisions.” “High school can feel isolating,” writes a 15-year-old boy. “If you think that your kid feels alone, make sure you give them support and activities they will feel engaged or interested in.”
They may be getting older, but these kids still need their parents. “I want to spend time with my parents, and occasionally I need a favor,” one writes. They like their parents showing they care by “talking” and “little positive comments here or there. Say when you’re proud; don’t just think it.” These kids appreciate their parents “supporting me, sympathizing, teaching me to be a good person,” and “driving me, cooking for me, respecting my decisions.” These teenagers want parents to remember “that we all make mistakes.” They admit they are “moody” and know “it can be hard on everyone. Be patient.”
Although there is no magic potion to make parenting trouble-free or easy, the good news is that the approach we take with our kids can mirror the approach we take to nurture any good relationship. We can get closer to our kids by engaging them, listening to them, respecting them, showing them we care, and meeting them on their own terms.
As kids mature, “if things are going well,” Hershman says, “they’re becoming their own person with separate ideas and with separate experiences. We can’t be with them in the same way. For lots of parents, it can be sad or worrisome that they’re less needed. Kids are also separating, and it’s just as scary at times for them.”
Our kids want us to understand them. They want to have a good relationship with us. But we need to give them room to be themselves, and there are ways to show them we love them even when they don’t seem to want our kisses and hugs or input as much as they used to. Especially as children get to middle school and high school, “it’s still your job to stay authentically connected to them in an emotional way,” Hershman says. “You can tell them ‘OK, take some space, but I’m still here, and I’m still going to check on you.’”
I’m proud to say I might have learned something from the kids I surveyed. The other evening my daughter came up to my room where I was reading. She sat by me on my bed and began telling me about her plans for the next day. I put my book down and remembered to listen, truly listen. I didn’t interrupt this time. I chimed in only after she was finished talking. A moment or two passed, and I asked her if she wanted me to come downstairs with her. She leaned back into my propped-up legs and said, “No, I like being up here with you.”
When parents are patient and understanding, kids respond. Kids appreciate when we listen to them and show them we respect their opinions, when we gather clues about their state of mind and what’s important to them. Letting them know we care is essential; they need to feel that from us. They want to hear that we love them — even in those moments when they might be scowling at us.
Ronit Feinglass Plank is a mother, writer, and teacher who has led Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS) groups in the Seattle area.