I’ve been watching two construction crews for the past eight months or more. Both are within four miles of my home and both are building a bridge. They’ve taught me a lot about life and parenting.
I meet every week with five or six men at a local recovery center. They share things like, “My Dad never spent much time with me. We didn’t really talk. He was busy and I was more or less in his way. Maybe if Mom hadn’t been so messed up on drugs he’d have had more time, but you know, he had his hands full.” All of them aspire to do a better job with their children, but few of them have. I help them toward their goals and coach them on reestablishing a line of communication between themselves and their kids. What I tell them is much like what the local crews have done building their bridges.
First, you have to clear debris. One of the crews had to remove logs, trash, rocks, earth, even an old car door before construction could begin. The other crew had to clear trees, old fencing, and earth on the banks of the stream they were spanning. Heavy equipment was used to remove those obstacles; likewise, there is stuff in relationships that needs to be dealt with to clear the path for communication. The best way I know to begin reconstruction is through humility and honesty.
Ask for a meeting with your child. When you are finally together, begin by stating where you are and what you plan to build. These correspond to the land survey and the blueprint for a bridge. “Son, I love you. I want us to communicate and work together better.” “I love you,” says where you are and “I want us to communicate and work together better,” says where you are headed. It’s broad, but it is the starting point. So, to begin removal of the debris, ask this question, “Son, I want to hear your side of things. Would you tell me of any time or way I have hurt or disappointed you?” This is heavy equipment in operation, getting down to the root of the distance between you both. Wounds, like a river carving a gash between two river banks, divide loved ones from one another.
Listen. Can I repeat that for emphasis? Listen to what he says. Do NOT explain anything. Certainly, there may have been legitimate reasons that you did or said what you did, but that’s NOT the point at this time. Something caused the logs and car doors to be in the stream, but it doesn’t matter; the point now is to get them out. Your child FEELS hurt, angry, distant, disrespected, unloved, like he is the problem or a burden. Respond to their FEELINGS. “I have hurt you. You sound wounded. It must be painful to feel disrespected by your dad. I’m sorry. I don’t want to continue making you feel that way. I hope you can forgive me.”
If they forgive you immediately, rejoice! If not, don’t pressure them. Hey! It was YOU who called the meeting, so give them some time to think it over and get back to you. Your job now is merely to make the apology and let them know you will work to avoid hurting them in the future.
Next, builders dig down to bedrock. I was impressed at how long and messy that process was on our local construction sites. It didn’t seem they’d ever get all the metal pylons driven. These metal pieces were huge I-beams, up to 30 feet or longer. A crane held them on end while a ten-foot jackhammer rammed them into the bedrock. The crew must have been driven in sixty or seventy of them. It took weeks and weeks. Trust is the I-beam that must be established between you and your child. Trust is granted initially, but once lost or tarnished, it is earned. Earning it back takes time and effort. Prove to your child you mean business about this relationship thing. Being honest and vulnerable was a start, but they’ll need more. Trust simply means that your words and actions are consistent, reliable, dependable, trust-worthy. Without trust, a relationship crumbles. Too few I-beams allow a bridge to give way under the weight of traffic.
Trust building takes many forms and shapes. It can’t be scheduled. It happens on the fly, in the course of life, little by little. Like the many raps of the jackhammer, trust is built gradually and with consistency. If you promise to be at his ballgame, make SURE you show up. Tell the client you’ll have to call them back, reschedule, leave for your child’s ballgame, but make sure that you follow through on meeting your obligations to your child. Also, keep on listening to your child. Ask questions about THEM periodically. Don’t make it an interrogation, but get to know what they are doing and MOST importantly, how they are FEELING about what’s going on in their life. When they say, “I’m just doing school stuff,” respond to the feeling you perceive they are expressing. In this case, you might say, “Sounds boring.” You may perceive sadness or discouragement in their reply so respond, “So, is school stuff causing you some sadness or discouragement?” Keep listening to their FEELINGS because that’s reaching into the bedrock of their heart.
Don’t make it an interrogation.
Above-ground construction follows laying the foundation. Of course, this involves a wide variety of activities from wood framing, to welding, to mixing and pouring concrete, to paving, painting the stripes, and posting signs. Communicating with your child is not always or even typically a one-on-one deep conversation. It happens around the table, in the car, on the way to school, when you are busy, when they have a request, and on and on. Communication, healthy communication, is the goal, but it is more than the transfer of ideas or information. Healthy communication between child and parent, at its core, communicates value and esteem. HOW you talk with them is more important than HOW MUCH you talk. Not taking away from talking with them often, my point is that the heart behind your comments is more critical than the content of them. There are several ways this can be done. I believe that complimenting character is the most powerful.
Value comes by complimenting a person’s character. Flattery is NOT what I’m talking about here. Flattery is making comments, even nice ones, about anything that is theirs, but not them. “Nice shoes!” is flattery. “I like your haircut,” is flattery. “Your truck is awesome,” is flattery. “You are a hard worker,” is a character compliment. Character is who they are rather than what they do. A guy who builds with wood is a carpenter, but there are honest ones and there are cheats, which would you rather be known as? “You have worked hard and been honest with me. I appreciate that very much,” says so much more than, “The cabinets look good.”
Practice noticing and complimenting your child’s character.
Practice noticing and complimenting your child’s character. Tell him, “Son, I noticed you working on your homework. I’m proud of you for putting in the time to complete your assignments. Follow-through is rare in people these days. Glad you have it.” Wow! Tell me he won’t remember that. Don’t you know he’ll be MORE inclined to do his homework next time? Don’t you see how you’ve just strengthened his view of himself and shaped his future? Words are powerful, especially coming from a father. Scripture says words have the power of life and death; you can give your child life or destroy them with yours.
Bridge building can’t be hurried, but once constructed, they make traversing dangerous rivers and canyons a breeze. For every parent and child, difficult days are certain to be ahead. The effort to construct a strong bridge of communication is worth every ounce time and patience required. Though it takes energy, the benefits and rewards will span a lifetime.