The three words that transformed my parenting

parenting teens tell me more Jun 24, 2020

“Well, you just need to…”

I stopped mid-sentence.

Matt had been telling me about a project at school that was frustrating him—or to be more specific, a team member for the project who was frustrating him. Matt has big feelings and a crystal clear (in his own mind) sense of right and wrong, and these tend to rub uncomfortably against middle school group assignments. Certain I knew the answer to his woes, I jumped in—while he was still talking—with a solution.

But as soon as that first phrase was out of my mouth, I watched him shut down. His face closed off. He looked away. He sighed. There she goes again, I could feel him thinking.

So I stopped. Took a deep breath. And started over.

“I’m sorry, that’s not fair,” I apologized. “I know it’s not that simple. Tell me more about what’s going on.”

It took him a minute to get over my imposition, but soon we were back on track. He shared his situation, how he has tried to resolve it, and his thoughts on what to do next. I was able to offer a few nuggets of wisdom, but mostly I tried to help him think it through on his own.

Parenting has been a wilder ride than I ever imagined, but parenting tweens/teens is a whole new level… maybe a whole different theme park. Learning how to give them independence and guidance at the same time is a juggling act I have not yet mastered. But three little words have helped me tremendously: Tell me more.

Slow down, Mama

I don’t think I realized how much I rushed through parenting until I learned this phrase. I mean, life with three kids (who often seem like they’re going in six different directions) is crazy and chaotic. Sometimes I feel like I need to cut through the red tape of whatever they’re telling me about and get to the heart of the matter so we can move on. This might mean jumping in with “here’s what you need to do” like I started to do with Matt that day. Or maybe it’s a dismissive, “Huh. That’s interesting,” when they’re telling me the latest “celebrity” gossip (I put that in quotes because they’re usually talking about some YouTuber, and I cannot take that level of celebrity seriously.) or describing their recent videogame victory.

But here’s what I have learned: Sometimes a kid coming to you with conflict doesn’t just need a solution. Sometimes they need a few minutes to talk it through, to process. And even when they’re ready for a solution, it is going to stick a lot better if they have a hand in crafting it than if you (ahem, I) just present it to them (or force it on them). Tell me more provides the perfect opportunity for both of those things.

And when they are talking about YouTubers and videogames, well… they need us to hear that, too. They need to feel heard because that helps them to feel loved. And believe it or not, it helps them listen better, too. When they feel heard and respected, they can more easily show that same kindness to others.

No more one-word answers

On the other side of the fence, sometimes my kids don’t seem to want to talk at all! Tell me if this sounds familiar…

“How was your day?”


“What did you do?”


“How did your science presentation go?”


“Do you think you did OK on the math test?”


Is it just me, or is your blood pressure rising??? Why do our kids shut us down when we are trying so hard to love them???

Honestly, sometimes I think it is because we are trying so hard. Our questions can come across as an interrogation or as a little needy, and teens especially seem to be allergic to those approaches. But when I say tell me morethey do. I’m not sure why exactly, as I am far from an expert on human psychology. But I have some suspicions… I think it takes the emphasis off the end result and puts it on the experience. In other words, “How was your math test?” might come across as an underhanded way of asking if their grades are up to par. “Tell me more about your math test” sounds like you want to know their experience—you want to know them better. Again, it makes them feel seen, like you want to understand them, not just test them.

tell me more

The magic key

It is amazing how those three little words open up the doors of communication. They tell my kids that I really want to hear what is going on in their lives and minds, not just dictate what I think they should think and feel. And they make me stop and really listen, not just assume I know their opinions, feelings, or motives.

Tell me more is like a magic key that opens up conversations with my kids—not to mention my husband, friends, and just about anyone I want to engage with. Something in that phrase holds validation and an invitation to be seen and heard. Where questions can sometimes feel pushy or like they are trying to lead a conversation a certain way, “tell me more” leaves it to the other party to open whatever doors they are comfortable with.

Raising little adults is not for the faint of heart, and I don’t claim that it always goes smoothly in my house. But using this phrase has opened so many doors of communication, and I love the conversations I can have with my kids when I remind myself to listen and understand just a little more (and then just a little more) before I speak.

Someday, when my children are laughing at the things mom always said, I’m sure this phrase will be on the list. But I’m ok with that… because it works.

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