My 8-year-old keeps surprising me.
I love her to death, but she’s a bit of a space cadet. 99% of the time, she doesn’t hear a word you’re saying because she’s goofing around.
Trying to talk to her about important things (logistics, life lessons, etc.) is worse than pulling teeth, unless you enjoy repeating yourself over and over. Getting her to sit still and listen, or move efficiently from Point A to Point B, is a herculean task.
She’s rarely serious. Not aloof, just silly, the way a kid should be.
And she can be moody, of course, often preferring to listen to music in the car instead of making conversation.
But every once in a while, at the oddest times, a switch will flip somewhere inside of her and she’ll suddenly get 100% genuine.
The other day, we were sitting in Chick-Fil-A.
I was chowing down on nuggets while she worked her way through a chicken sandwich, layer by layer. First, the top bun, then the breading, then the chicken, then the bottom bun. Don’t ask me why.
We sat in a comfortable silence. She didn’t seem in the mood to talk and that was fine by me.
Suddenly, and I don’t remember how, we started talking about college. Out of nowhere, she had all these thoughts about what she would study one day and what it might be like. Most surprisingly, she had all these questions for me. What was college like for me, what classes did I take, what did I like and not like about it.
And as we talked, she actually listened and absorbed.
Moments later, she was back to licking stray puddles of ketchup off her sandwich wrapper. Trying to leave the restaurant and get back to the car was a gauntlet of distractions, silliness abound.
As suddenly as the moment had begun, it vanished.
Days later, we were driving together to pick up her sister from daycare, in another comfortable silence, just enjoying the music.
After weeks and weeks of me fruitlessly asking if she was excited about starting the 4th grade, only to receive shrugs and one-word answers, it all just started pouring out of her, out of nowhere.
Not just her desire to get the “cool teacher” who has beanbag chairs instead of desks in his classroom (we’d been hearing about that one all summer), but the real stuff.
She started talking about what she liked and didn’t like from grades K, 1, 2, and 3, and what she hoped might happen this year. About her friends and her teachers. I told her about my elementary school and how it was different from hers in a lot of ways.
And she asked questions about it. Questions! And she listened to the answers!
Parents of 8-year-olds will know how rare and unusual that is.
It’s all reminded me of an article I read years back, called The Myth of Quality Time.
It’s about how we all think we can schedule important conversations and powerful moments of bonding, when in reality, they are meant to happen naturally, organically as a function of spending a large quantity of time together.
You can’t manufacture the spontaneous discussions that pop up in the quiet moments between songs in the car.
You can’t schedule being in the right place in the right time when someone’s got something on their mind they need to unpack.
God knows you can’t make your kids open up to you. I’ve tried. It’s impossible.
When my daughter’s not in the mood to share, the jaws of life couldn’t get a genuine answer to “How was your day?” out of her.
You just have to sort of be prepared to hang around until they’re ready to talk.
You wanna know what’s going on with them, what they’re thinking? They’ll tell you. Just at a time that’s completely unpredictable and impossible to be prepared for.
It’s why I’ve started to really like the comfortable silences with my daughter (they’re definitely better than the uncomfortable ones). I used to feel like I needed to fill them, be the “super-engaged” dad who always had a story, always had a lesson, always had a topic of discussion ready.
Right now I’m pretty happy to just chill out and settle into those moments, to give them space to turn into something more.
When they don’t, that’s cool, too. I know I’ll be ready next time.