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Talk Less. Smile More. An Effective Parenting Approach.

It’s been a long time since my daughter and I spent an extended period of quality time alone together. My daughter is a teenager. Now that she is beginning to tour colleges, I see it as an opportunity to grab as much time with her as I can before she flies the coop.  Frankly though, I’m petrified. Having that much uninterrupted quality time together with a hormonal teenager whose job it is to distance herself from her mother, has the potential to catapult our relationship backward. Naturally, I want to do everything in my power to ensure that I move things forward and bond with her. 

Before our first trip together, 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 the musical hit “Hamilton.” There truly isn’t a day that goes by without these words echoing in my head. But there probably isn’t a day that goes by that I fail to keep my mouth shut at a time when I should! 

Following this mantra is my #1 goal for these college trips with my daughter. The last thing I want is to diminish my relationship with her. Being together – just the two of us without any real distractions – means that my comments (aka guidance and observation of things I wish were different) could (and likely would) negatively affect our relationship.

In fact, I’m sure it already has. And the sad part is that I was given this same advice nine years ago and didn’t listen. Our pediatrician, Dr. Zimmerman (a wise old man), offered some unsolicited advice at my daughter’s three year checkup. He said 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.”

Then 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…he explained that it’s a dangerous precedent.  Constantly explaining your decisions to your child, even when (especially when), you’re doing it to prevent them from being upset, might make life easier at that moment, but it will absolutely make life harder down the road.

I took a moment to digest this. Being young, naive and hormonal (I was pregnant with my second at the time), I just couldn’t comprehend the adverse effect of talking and explaining things to my daughter. In fact, I told him that I felt like talking to my daughter in the way he suggested I didn’t, 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’ve grown, I’ve always tried my best not to do that unless absolutely necessary. 

While I’m proud of myself for listening in those situations, I did not heed the warning about not explaining everything when in other scenarios. I’m not sure if it’s because I thought I knew better, or because I didn’t want to deal with the fall-out of just saying things without justifying/explaining. Or maybe it was because talking (and overtalking) is simply who I am, for better or for worse.

So in 2015 when I heard this simple lyric, “Talk less. Smile more,“ played repeatedly (the Hamilton soundtrack was playing around the clock in my house for months), Dr. Z’s advice flooded my head. I wished I could turn back time. But it doesn’t do any good to dwell on the past. I would learn from my mistakes and move forward.

This was my second chance. I made strides in my interactions with others outside of my immediate family. Listening a lot, and talking a little. 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 me 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 talking less and smiling more while interacting with others, I have found it waaaayyyy more challenging to practice this same philosophy in parenting. Believe me when I say, I tried. I think about it and put in the effort 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? Am I supposed to ignore behaviors that my husband and I agree are unacceptable? Like when my daughters would go straight to their rooms after school without saying hello (like many teenagers do). Or when they would get in the car upon pickup and go right on their phones. (FYI: I got permission from my girls to 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. So many little things like this happen 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 teenage daughter. And frankly, a little part of me wishes that I answered yes to my husband when he offered to take her on college visits. I was already mentally exhausted before we even went on one. I am hoping that another phrase holds true, “the third time’s the charm.” and that I can live by this ideology moving forward!

Do you also talk too much and struggle with when to keep quiet with your daughter?

Do you think you would benefit from adhering to the mantra, “Talk less, smile more?”  

It’s important to distinguish when it applies. Good parenting involves plenty of talking, like about their days, friends, concerns, dreams, etc. But when it comes to teaching, disciplining and correcting our children, less talking really is better.

Do you find yourself on repeat when it comes to certain things, then what you’re saying isn’t working. If it was, you wouldn’t need to keep saying it. Most children stop listening and your words just become noise – noise that they want to stop.

Start talking less by omitting needless and/or counterproductive words (and even entire conversations).

When you approach things with fewer words, your daughter is more likely to listen because she will think it’s important.

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