The secret’s in the sauce…. And the sauce is made of relationships.
Picture a big bowl of pasta. There’s your choice of noodle salted and cooked to perfection. It’s chock-full of hand rolled meatballs, has the rich flavor of sautéed garlic, onion, peppers, fresh herbs and spices, and grated cheese flakes across the top. Now imagine that each ingredient in that bowl represents an area that we as parents seek to provide our children, doing our best to set them up for a successful and happy life. Perhaps in your bowl there may be great schools, tutors, various sports, music lessons, a faith base/community, a broad range of experiences/travel, whatever you may value in your pursuits to best launch your children. Now you add to that bowl, a fine sauce. It pours over everything, seeps between and into each ingredient, enriching and enhancing all the other flavors and textures. What’s in that amazing sauce? It’s made of our relationships, and the complex skills needed to navigate them. Without a great sauce all those other ingredients are left dry and unfulfilled.
This year we did the usual back to school little interviews with the kids. We hit all the important questions… favorite color, who’s your teacher, what grade are you starting. When I came to “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” I couldn’t help but put my weird mom spin into it. Each child heard, “In addition to a nurturer and keeper of positive relationships, what do you want to be when you grow up?” (Thankfully I got giggles from the kids, and not eye rolls.) It’s fun to see them imagine their future professional selves, but I couldn’t escape dropping that extra little seed of “healthy relationships first.”
Research continues to show us that very happy people have strong social connections. It’s not wealth or status, but positive relationships that bring most contentment. Yet, how much time do we spend intentionally practicing these critical skills with our children? We line them up in droves to repeat athletic drills on the field, or sit them down to run math facts, but do they know how to give a true apology, can they really see a situation from another perspective, do they recognize the power of words, can they deliver a sentence to someone hurting, can they verbalize their own hurt?
My daughter signed up to do an after school activity at the start of the year. For a number of reasons, she decided she didn’t want to continue with it. She came to me, we talked and eventually I told her that if she wanted to opt out, then she needed to be the communicator to the teacher. Full on break down. Tears. Stomping away. Declarations of “I can’t.” Pleading that I do it for her. I was firm that she needs to practice and develop the ability to communicate EVEN WHEN IT’S HARD. We talked about how there will be many, many times in life when it’s difficult to find words for your feelings, or when a situation is awkward and hard to navigate, whether it be at school, in a job, with a partner, or family member, but that we can’t come out the other side successfully without doing it, and doing it well.
So, with encouragement she sat down and penned a letter to her teacher. And……It stunk. Truly. It basically said only that she decided not to participate. There was no statement relaying what lead her to this decision, so that she could provide the teacher with any context of understanding. Possibly more importantly, there was no statement attempting to offer understanding of the TEACHER’S PERSPECTIVE. There was no acknowledgement of thanks for all the extra time and effort this teacher puts in outside of school. So we discussed, we talked it through, we PRACTICED what she might say in her letter, and then back to writing a new draft she went. We finally got there and she took ownership of communicating what was difficult. She managed to maintain a great relationship with this teacher, and even build a stronger bridge.
Nurturing the development of complex relationship management skills is crucial for our kids long term happiness in this life. As parents, I think there’s a call for us to begin adjusting our mindsets as to how we raise kids adept in this area. Traditionally we have viewed growth of relationship skills as something that happens naturally over time, and hopefully they’ve grasped it enough by launch time to get by. But somewhere in the cracks of time between everything else, it’s on our shoulders to not just shuttle everyone safely to the next day but to build little people capable of traversing the layers of interpersonal dynamics. Practicing these skills needs to become just as intentional as drilling multiplication tables or repeating the sequence of a new soccer move. It’s their relationship know-how that will enhance or hinder every other area of their life.
We all want our kids to be happy in life. But are we focusing on the right ingredients to get there?