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Do parents really want to know everything?

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LISTENING – CALMLY Parents want their kids to trust them as confidantes, but sometimes it takes willpower to remain objective and calm. (Illustration:

Many years ago, when I was a sophomore in college, my parents came to visit. We wound up, as we often did during their visits, at dinner at Commander’s Palace. It was one of those nights when everyone sort of syncs, and conversation is non-stop and lively. I’m guessing it must have been after a couple of cocktails, but somehow we got on the subject of the things I had done in high school and hadn’t told them about – like the time I walked through the door one Saturday night and looked at my parents, who were reading in the family room, and said, “Hi! If the police call, it wasn’t me.”

Anyway, the night went on and on, sitting there in the Commander’s dining room, as I unearthed all the stories I had never shared with my parents before. We laughed all night, and it became one of those moments we would talk about for years to come.

But recently, I’ve been comparing that night to my current situation. Suddenly, I have my own college student, and I’m really not sure how much I want to hear. This one has always been a talker – when she came home to visit for the first time, we laughed because I accidentally said out loud, “I forgot how much you talk!” And that’s been a great asset to a mom. Maybe until now?

My parents tell me I am so lucky that my child shares so much with me, and I know that is true. But sometimes knowing too much about what happens on Saturday nights is knowing too much. I’m not that cool.

Thinking about all of this made me wonder if I am the only parent struggling with whether or not we want to hear it all. 

“Sometimes our daughter will be in the middle of a story,” one couple says of their college freshman, “and she’ll go, ‘Why am I telling you all of this?’ It’s because she wants to, and that’s good!”

They cite the example of a recent weekend, when the daughter called on a Sunday to say she had “had fun and met a boy” at a party. “We’re happy about that,” the parents say, “but then we saw the pictures of what she wore and had to have the conversation of, ‘What kind of message are you sending when you wear that?’ And she [the daughter] says, ‘Guys, I’m fine,’ and then we look at each other and think, ‘Could we really handle it if she told us everything?’ We want to hear the story, but then we get the texts of the late-night pictures…”

Then there are the parents who wish they could just get something. A mother of three boys in their late-teens and early-20s says, “I have friends who come talk to me because they don’t know anything that’s going on [with their kids and their friends], but they know, ‘If I talk to her, I’ll find out,’ because my kids are talking. But I can also say that some of those parents who don’t get anything out of their kids really don’t want to know.”

Another father of two teens and a 10 year old says he thinks the kids are telling us things to gauge our reactions. “They use us as a sounding board and then decide by our reactions if what they’re talking about is okay or not. They still need us to guide them, and they’ve got to tell us what is going on so that we can do that.”

The bottom line for one mother of a college freshman and a recent college graduate is that when the kids go to college, the parents become consultants. “We prepared you to go out into the world, and now we are here on a consultant basis,” she tells her kids. “We can’t tell you when to go to bed and when to go in and out, and we have to be okay with you – our client – telling us whatever you need to in order to consult with us. We want them to trust us enough to talk to us. If they don’t share, we can’t consult with them anymore.”

Put it that way, and I’m all in for any kind of consulting that my child needs, and any sharing that goes with it. Even if it means putting aside my own memories of young adulthood and mustering – from very deep inside – all the calm and collected willpower I’ve got.

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