Talk Less. Smile More. An Effective Parenting Approach with Teens (That Will Enable You to ??? Less)

talk less. smile more.

This weekend is a big weekend. My 16-year old daughter and I are away together – something we haven’t done in I don’t remember how long. It’s big for her because we are looking at colleges. It’s big for me because this much uninterrupted quality time together with my teenage daughter has the potential to catapult our relationship forward or backward.

Naturally, I want to do everything in my power to ensure that I move things in the right direction. So this last week, I thought long and hard about how to make that happen. I meditated and dug deep. And I landed with one simple motto.

“Talk less. Smile more.”

I am so grateful to Lin Manuel Miranda, who penned this lyric in “Hamilton,” one of the greatest musicals ever written.  While I go about daily life, there are many phrases from his songs that pop into my head (because Lin is a genius at taking the mundane and making it profound). But for me, “talk less. smile more” is the most powerful. They are words to live by. The lyrics that follow can also be seen as good advice to follow, but not always applicable. 

Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for. (Aaron Burr)

You can’t be serious. (Hamilton)

You wanna get ahead? (Aaron Burr)

Yes. (Hamilton)

Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead. (Aaron Burr)

There isn’t a day that goes by without these words echoing in my head. The truth is though, that I fail to succeed in following them more times than I care to admit). But this weekend I was determined to “Talk less and smile more,” for two reasons.

  1. The last thing I want is to diminish my relationship with my daughter. Having over two full days together,  just us and no real distractions, means that my comments (aka guidance and observation of things I wish she did differently) could in fact ruin our relationship.
  2. I was given more or less this same advice nine years ago, and I failed to take it. And while I am not yet sure of the impact my actions will have, I am fairly certain there will be some negative consequences.

Let me explain. When at the doctor for my daughter’s three year checkup, I was pregnant with my second child. Dr. Zimmerman (who is a wise old man), offered some unsolicited advice that went something like this… 

New York women tend to talk too much. And it’s to their own detriment. There is no need to talk through everything with your child. You don’t owe her an explanation for everything that happens or for each request. 

He provided some examples. If you ask your daughter to wear a jacket and she doesn’t want to, it’s not necessary to respond to her, or to justify it with a comment like, “It’s cold outside and I don’t want you getting sick.” To put it simply, he assured me that no good will come from this habit. And worse…it’s a dangerous precedent to constantly explain your decisions to your child, even when (especially when), you’re doing it to prevent them from being upset. While it might make life easier at that moment, it will absolutely makes life harder down the road.

I took a moment to digest this. Being young, naive and hormonal, I just couldn’t comprehend the adverse effect of talking and explaining things to my daughter. I told him how I thought doing this would make her smarter and better able to manage situations. In his typical style, Dr. Z provided a different example that I could wrap my head around.

We often give a play-by-play to our children of what we are doing. Like, “I’ll be right back. I hear your sister getting up from her nap. I’m just going to scoop her up.”  Or “We’re going to the store. Your sister ran out of diapers.” Dr. Z explained that constantly being bombarded with comments like these may have a negative impact on my older daughter. He said it was quite possible that she would interpret this dialogue as, “Life now revolves around my sister. I am not important.” 

Aha! Okay, those concrete examples made total sense. Being the literal person that I am, I took his advice and in the early stages, never said anything to either child about having to leave them or do things for the other child. And even as they grow, I always try my best not to do that unless absolutely necessary. 

While I’m proud of myself for listening to how to manage in situations like those, I wish I heeded the warning about not explaining everything. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t. Perhaps it’s because I thought I knew better. Or because I didn’t want to deal with fall-out of just saying things without justifying/explaining. Or because, well, talking (and overtalking) is simply who I am, for better or for worse.

It wasn’t until I heard this simple lyric, “Talk less. Smile more,“ played repeatedly (the Hamilton soundtrack was playing around the clock in my house for months), that Dr. Z’s advice crystallized. It was at that point that I wished I could turn back time.

As we all know, we can’t go back (and it does no good to dwell on the past). We can however, learn from the past and move forward.

This was my second chance. I made strides in my interactions with others outside of my immediate family.  Occasionally, my husband even asked me, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you talking?” And my children wondered as well. They simply weren’t accustomed to the quieter version of me. The one that didn’t feel compelled to fill up every blank space by talking.  But (and this is a big BUT), while I have had success changing my interactions with others, I have found it waaaayyyy more challenging to practice this same philosophy in parenting. Believe me when I say, I have tried. And continue to put in the effort. I think about it and try hard each and every day. 

The truth is that I struggle to determine the times when it’s okay to talk less versus when it’s necessary to talk. I worry about what will happen if I don’t speak or respond in situations.

By not speaking, how are my children going to learn right from wrong? For example, when my daughters go straight to their room after school without saying hello, like many teenagers do. Or when we pick them up and the second they get in the car they go right on their phones. Am I supposed to ignore these behaviors that my husband and I agree are unacceptable? (By the way, I use these examples because they have more or less been rectified). 

By not speaking, am I condoning improper behavior? For example, there are circumstances when texting just isn’t okay. When a face-to-face or phone conversation is necessary. Sure, we have taught our daughters this, but when they don’t apply this approach to a particular scenario, I am eager to point it out so they understand – in context – in which situations texting isn’t a viable method of communication. On the flip side, with so many of these little things happening in a given day, if I am constantly pointing out / correcting / teaching them, I worry that my girls will interpret what I intend to be life lessons as they never do anything right. And that’s obviously not the message I want to send. 

So now I am here, at what I consider a pivotal moment in my relationship with my daughter. And frankly, a little part of me wishes that I answered yes to my husband when he said he wanted to go with her to visit schools (because I was mentally exhausted before the flight even took off Friday night). My plan is not only to keep all of this in mind throughout the weekend, but also to talk even less, and smile even more. I will let some of the non egregious things slide. I want her to lead the way. I want to follow her. And I will guide and/or support her only if and when she says she wants it. Afterall, it won’t be long before she is on her own and I won’t be there to “support and guide her” in the same way I can now.  

I am hoping the third time’s the charm and that I can live by this ideology from this weekend forward. Wish me luck!




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