In his new book, How to Know A Person, David Brooks explores how we truly get to know a person and establish a relationship. As I read it, I realized that his conclusions are consistent with the Be There Dad approach to engaging and building relationships with our children. Joined with Be There Dad notions, some are worth sharing among our dads.
Being an “Illuminator”
Mr. Brooks describes two types of participants in a conversation. He calls the first a “topper”. Simply put, this is someone who seems to always have something additional or better to say. For example, if you say you shot a ninety-two playing golf this weekend, the topper would respond that he shot ninety-one. If you have recently travelled to Chicago for the first time, the topper will describe the many times he has been to that city. Toppers seem to be thinking about how they can outshine the other person’s story. The focus is on themselves.
On the other hand, there is a person he calls an “illuminator”. In conversation, this person responds in a manner that illuminates the other person. So, when you share your golf score, the illuminator will make comments or ask questions that expand on yours. “That is a wonderful score. Which course did you play? How often do you play? ” Or, “How did you like Chicago? Where did you have dinner? Did you have a chance to go sightseeing? What did you see?” All these questions put the focus on the first person. As importantly, those questions allow the illuminator to know more about the person and build a deeper relationship.
This perspective begs the question, in the two scenarios above, who comes away from the conversation feeling better? Which person feels more valued? The one who has been “topped” or the one who has been “illuminated?
As parents, isn’t one of our greatest challenges getting our kids to talk to us? Won’t this approach of illumination be valuable when we think about the conversations we have with them? If we constantly think about how we can focus on what our children are telling us and seek to understand, won’t they be likely to talk more?
When we speak with our children, do we show interest in their story? Do we really listen to what they are telling us? Do we make them feel that what they say is important? When the conversation has ended, are they the one who feels best? Illumination is beneficial when they come to tell us about something like scoring a touchdown or their performance in the dance recital or a grade on a test; but it becomes critical when they come to us with a problem or a concern for which they are seeking feedback or advice. We can only truly get to know our children, understand them, help solve their problems and guide them if we listen. When we seek illumination, we seek to listen.
Small Conversations lead to Big Conversations
All the while, parents should remember the value of illuminating every conversation. Talking about the small stuff makes it easier to talk about the big stuff. Becoming comfortable with early kindergarten conversations about coloring inside the lines, leads to comfort in later conversations about the potentially life-changing matters like the proverbial “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” Often children come to us looking for affirmation – not only that they have succeeded in some activity, but for assurance that they are heading in the right direction-emotionally and socially. The mutual benefit of illuminating our children is that it allows us the opportunity to better understand, so we can provide appropriate support.
From Knowledge to Wisdom.
It seems to me as parents we guide our children on a continuum from knowledge towards wisdom. That is, when our children are very young, our purpose is to give them knowledge about how to do things necessary to survive. We teach them to eat, to walk, to say words.
As they grow, that knowledge needs to expand. How to eat in a socially acceptable manner. How to walk on various surfaces, to skip and to run. Adding more words to their vocabulary, forming sentences and creating thoughts.
They continue to grow and our involvement continues to evolve. Parents add wisdom to the knowledge. We add why they should eat foods like fruits and vegetables. How to behave in different social situations. How to use their motor skills to play sports or dance. Flowing from stories of our own experience, our wisdom adds to their abilities to fulfill their own potential.
While children learn more and more… from parents, from teachers and on their own, parents’ need to impart knowledge decreases and the need for wisdom increases. We allow our children to grow as they acquire knowledge, letting them learn to be self-sufficient as they are able. Imparting the wisdom that only experience can produce is the next step. When the knowledge of how to drive a car is complete, parents add the wisdom of how to drive in different kinds of weather, how to predict and avoid dangerous situations, and sometimes when not to drive. Wisdom enhances children’s ability to make their own good decisions.
Mr. Brooks proposes that often we just need to “accompany” others. For parents, I think this looks a lot like humility. Similar to a piano player who accompanies a singer, we come to a point when our role evolves again. We learn to just play along, provide the music and support so the child can be the “star” of the performance. We take a back seat knowing that our presence may not be seen in the spotlight, but that our contribution has become critical in a different way.
Whether it is preparing for a test, a game or a dance recital; in their performances of life, we allow them choose their own music. We allow them to choose the arrangement. Where and when they will perform. We are there only to support. And while we may make suggestions and recommendations (add wisdom) we allow them to grow by making their own choices when they can. We remember that is how they learn about results and consequences; and grow towards becoming self-sustaining.
Illuminate, Add Wisdom and Support
If we have carefully listened to our children as we have illuminated their conversations, we will understand what they want to sing, how they want to perform and what they hope to accomplish. And if along the way we have let them acquire the knowledge and skills necessary, then supplement those with wisdom, our children will be positioned to make good choices, chase their dreams and fulfill their purpose while we accompany them from behind the scenes.
A dad is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you if you ever forget the words.