A CONVERSATION WITH JONATHAN McKEE
Parenting’s a tough training ground. Tougher than most of us mums and dads realise, especially when we’re young and starting out. Few of us qualify with honours. In fact, the opposite, really. Most of us just scrape through, scoring more ‘D’s than ‘A’s, and making more mistakes than we’d care to admit. Jonathan McKee knows what that feels like. He’s helped raise three kids of his own, and has been working with young people for a quarter of a century. Somehow, in between, he’s authored over 20 books and led parenting workshops all over the world. We caught up with him recently to talk about one of his recent books, ‘If I Had a Parenting Do-Over’ … and ask him what he’s learned over the years in his roles as parent/youth worker/parenting facilitator.
GRAPEVINE: Most of us mums and dads learn by messing up. What’s been your biggest regret on your own parenting journey?
JONATHAN MCKEE: For me personally, I regret focusing so much on boundaries that it interfered with bonding. I thought that ‘raising my kids right’ meant being strict with them. I believed that the way to achieve ‘good kids’ was by not letting anything go. But, as I look back, I realise that didn’t work. I’m not saying that it’s better to let them do whatever they want – just that it’s important to find the balance between boundaries and bonding.
I’ve asked hundreds of parents that same question, and many of them expressed the same regret: not enough bonding time!
Hindsight is wonderful, of course! Looking back it’s easier to see that hanging out with your kids, chatting with them, and just being together, is so much better than racing around from activity to activity, putting in more hours at the office, trying to ‘get ahead’, or almost anything else! When I think back on my own parenting, the moments when I really felt I was able to pass my values on to my kids was when we sat down and talked – when we engaged in meaningful conversation. And I wish we’d had more of that.
My mistake was thinking that my rules were going to raise my kids. But, in fact, it was being with them, loving them and talking with them that did that.
GV: Okay, so how do you suggest parents find the balance between boundaries and bonding?
JONATHAN: I think it’s important, first of all, to understand that both are extremely important. Bonding – just hanging out with our kids, wrestling on the floor with them, going out for pizza together – is vital. But boundaries are also necessary! They’re essential for protecting our kids: “No, you can’t have your phone in your room at night” … “You need to be home by this time” … etc. But many of us, when we reflect on our parenting, would find that we gravitate more towards one or other of those parenting practices.
Sadly, when we’re so focused on boundaries that we neglect bonding time, we miss out on building that relationship, and lose out on those great conversations in which we’re able to pass along our values and beliefs. Conversely, if we’re so intent on just being our kids’ friend that we neglect to give them appropriate boundaries, they’re likely to wander into trouble.
It’s hard to find the exact line – the ‘perfect’ balance between boundaries and bonding – but it’s important to try.
GV: If parents are finding – as you did – that they were erring more towards boundaries, what could they do to tip the scales back towards bonding?
JONATHAN: In extreme cases, I recommend that parents (without telling their kids) go on a ‘boundary fast’. You promise yourself that, for a week, instead of immediately instructing your kids or correcting your kids or checking up on them, you’re going to look for opportunities to engage them in conversation.
Boundary-focused parents tend to arrive home and immediately turn into a drill sergeant, demanding answers: “Did you finish your homework?” “Tell me about that test!” “What time did you get back?” It’s like we’re a parole officer checking to make sure our kids aren’t violating any conditions of their parole – just waiting until they step out of line. But, when we’re doing that, we miss out on bonding with them.
Parents often complain to me about their teenagers gaming for hours and hours. Our tendency is to come up with a helpful boundary – perhaps we decide to limit him to two hours a day – and then, when we come into the room, we’re immediately determined to enforce it: “How many minutes has it been?! Make sure you’re off at eight!” Instead, we could try chatting with him about what he’s doing … “That looks cool – what’s your avatar holding? Show me how it works … Can I play with you?” All of a sudden something that could be a bone of contention becomes an opportunity for connection. It’s far easier, having spent time playing with your kid, to then say, “Oh, what time is it? I guess we’re at our limit – we’d better stop.”
You’re still enforcing the boundary, but you’re not just about the rules.
GV: You talk about the value of getting a glimpse into your kids’ world – including, as you’ve just mentioned, using their interests as a springboard for bonding and conversation. Tell us more!
JONATHAN: When parents realise how much goes on with their kids that they don’t know about, they often overreact and think they have to start spying on them – but I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that the more we notice – really notice – our kids, the more we bond with them. And the more we bond with them, the more influence we have on the decisions they make.
When it comes to online safety, for example, you could do everything right as a parent – take every precaution, be vigilant about checking your kids’ devices and preventing them from accessing inappropriate sites – but the chances are your kids will still be exposed to pornography. So, knowing that, the most useful thing for parents to do is to discuss what porn is, talk about sex, and teach your kids what to do when they’re exposed to questionable material.
Your goal should be to keep an open line of communication with your kids and create a climate of continual conversation. Be willing to walk into your kids’ world a bit, to find out about their video games or other interests, to chat with them about those things. This will provide you with an entry point, a chance to discuss how they can navigate their world and make good choices.
GV: I like your point: it’s about noticing our kids – not stalking or spying! Do you have any tips or tools to help parents really notice their kids?
JONATHAN: Well, here’s an important one: I think as parents we need to listen more and lecture less. If you’ve ever sat in a counselling or therapy session, you know that, in an hour-long session, the client probably talks for about 54 of those 60 minutes. And the therapist tends to say, “Tell me more about that …” and “Hmmm … how did that make you feel?”
Sadly, as parents, conversations with our kids are often the exact opposite – with us talking for 54 minutes! So the first tool might be: take some duct-tape and apply it across our mouths! After all, the best way to notice our kids and learn more about them is to get them talking. I realise that this is difficult, that sometimes, when we try to talk to them, all we get in response is a grunt. But that’s probably because we’re asking the wrong questions, like, “How was school?” or “Did you finish your homework?” – no kid wants to answer either of those!
Kids have no problem talking to their friends for an hour about some girl or some guy, or some new app or song or video. So, by paying attention, we can start asking them about things they clearly want to talk about … and then we’ve got to put that duct-tape over our mouths and listen! The more we get them talking, the more they’ll feel connected to us – because they’ll realise, Mum/Dad really cares about me and really listens to me – and the more we’ll learn about them. Then they’ll start to come to us and talk when their friends are frustrating them – I mean, sometimes teenagers can be pretty self-centred, and if our kid tells their friend, “I had a crap day!” chances are their friend’s going to respond with, “Oh, that’s nothing! Let me tell you about my day!” We as parents are more likely to be empathetic: “Really? Tell me about it …”
One of the things I notice as a youth worker is, when kids are being picked up after school, so many parents don’t look at them or even say a word. They just drive off! Unfortunately, lots of kids are encountering that brick wall of silence – and when their parents choose to talk, it’s only to check up on them and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do!
What a difference it would make if we were to notice our kids, get into their world, and engage them in meaningful conversation …
GV: It must be frustrating for kids to feel ignored! It’s certainly frustrating for parents when their kids do that to them! Of course, we parents face more than our share of frustrations – and, in the moment, we can get pretty angry! How can parents diffuse things and calm down when they’re ‘in the moment’?
JONATHAN: In the book there are several changes I encourage parents to make. Two of them – ‘Letting it Go’ and ‘Pressing Pause’ – are about being careful to not overreact. Looking back at my own parenting (because I was strict, and wanted to teach my kids respect and obedience), they’d barely step out of line before I jumped on them! And often I’d lose my cool – which is another big regret of mine. Most parents feel the same, I find – they wish they’d been more patient and responded with more understanding. They wish they’d taken time to understand the ‘why’ behind the behaviour instead of just jumping in and punishing …
Experts talk about healthy kids being those who feel safe – and have a good, open relationship with their parents. If we overreact or freak out whenever they broach certain topics, our kids won’t feel safe, and they won’t talk!
Another really important thing to watch for is the impact of shame. There’s a bunch of interesting research coming out now about the effects of shame on kids. Picture yourself as a parent disciplining your kid, staring down at him, accusing him, shaking your finger at him and telling him how much he disappoints you … What’s more effective? That? Or would it be more helpful if you came alongside your kid, put your arm around him, and said: “It looks like you’ve got off course here, son – how can we help you get back on track?” Obviously, walking with your kids, helping them through something, being someone safe who navigates the journey with them – those things are so much more effective.
Maintain your boundaries, by all means. But remember: it’s through these dialogues with your children that you’ll have the opportunity to share your wisdom and experience, and present truth that will protect them in a world that’s so full of damaging lies.
And never underestimate the value of the question mark …
GV: The question mark? What do you mean?
JONATHAN: As we shift from a ‘lecturing’ approach to a ‘listening’ one, it’s much more effective to say Should you …? rather than You should …! The value of making it a question is that it invites kids into the decision-making process – which is essential if we want them to be able to make decisions on their own one day!
If my daughter comes and asks if she can have an app, instead of just saying “No!” it’s a much better learning experience if I say, “I don’t know – should you? Let’s look at it together.” Adding the question mark is a relief for parents because, realistically, we don’t have all the answers! Sometimes we don’t even know what they’re talking about when it comes to tech!
The other good thing about a question mark is that it puts the burden of proof on our kids. It requires them to show us why they think it’s a good idea, so they know what the process is like: doing that research … weighing up the pros and cons … and then making a decision. This is much better, when you consider that one day they’ll be at uni or off flatting and they’ll have to make those decisions for themselves. Giving them the chance to do that on an ongoing basis as they grow – teaching them to work through the ethics of things and make considered choices – means that by the time they move out they’ll have done this hundreds of times, and gained knowledge, wisdom, and experience in the process.
I talk in the book about this process of ‘incremental independence’, which I call The Segue …
GV: Can you explain how that works?
JONATHAN: The Segue is basically a slow dissolve from the many boundaries we have to put in place in early childhood, to a place of freedom and trust that we reach together, as our kids enter young adulthood. The key thing to remember is to keep an eye on the calendar – meaning, of course, that time marches on. And, one day, they’ll be 19 and independent of our influence when it comes to their decisions.
The question we need to be asking ourselves then is: Have we equipped them for that day?
I’ve met so many parents in my workshops who think that the best way to raise their kids is by shielding them from every possible hardship and blocking every temptation. But by not giving them the opportunity to think things through, and denying them the opportunity to learn how to make these decisions on their own, we do our kids a disservice.
I’m not advocating for a ‘school of hard knocks’ approach – but rather an intentional, incremental injection of independence. This way, our kids learn our values through conversation, through decision-making, and through practise.
In my own home, I talked to my younger two and admitted that maybe I was stricter than some of their friends’ parents when they were younger … but I told them we were working towards having no rules by the time they were about 17.
GV: Woah, that sounds risky! How has it worked out?
JONATHAN: Great! I explained that, by their last year of high school, there would be basically no rules (aside from the general expectations of everyone in the household). Some of our friends thought we were crazy, but it worked so well! It’s not like my kids ran out and suddenly started throwing wild parties! In fact, it was quite the opposite – many other kids who were restricted and told ‘no’ about everything rebelled and snuck out and did what they wanted! But my girls had the freedom at that point to watch whatever they wanted, stay out as late as they wanted, hang out with whomever they wanted … as long as they told me where they were going and what they were doing, and kept the lines of communication open.
It was funny because often they’d forget, and they’d ask us, “So, can I go?” And I’d say, “I don’t know – can you? Is it a smart choice?” They were navigating these decisions for themselves. And what happened then was they began coming to us for advice, rather than permission – they trusted us because we were giving them the freedom, and it all worked out amazingly well.
I’m sure some parents reading this are thinking, “That American hippie is letting his kids do whatever they want!” – but remember, when my kids were 13 or 14, I’m sure they thought that we were the strictest parents on the block! I told them, “You may think we’re strict now, but there’s a big difference between a 13-year-old and an 18-year-old. And I’m not saying ‘no’ to these things, I’m saying ‘not yet’ – because I want to prepare you. When you’re in your last year of high school, I promise you that your friends will be jealous, because you’re going to be able to do whatever you want, and they’re still going to be under their parents’ rules!”
Having watched my youngest daughter enter this new phase of making her own decisions certainly made me feel better when she was at uni and later went travelling in Europe. She’d been making her own choices for a long time, whereas some of her travelling companions were experiencing this freedom for the first time ever – and their inexperience showed. My daughter’s not perfect, but she was using good discernment to make her choices, because she’d practiced it.
It’s good for parents to remember that our values are passed along far more through conversation than through curfews – it’s the bonding and that
incremental independence we give them that helps them grow into their best selves.
GV: You spoke earlier about the value of ‘pressing pause’ – not just in the heat of the moment when you’re angry with your kids, but also when you’re tempted to launch into a lecture instead of listening. What are some practical steps parents can take to do that?
JONATHAN: I think that the power behind the pause is that you’re buying yourself time. Most of us don’t do well in the moment, and that’s probably why many of us have heard advice like, “Count to 10 when you’re angry!” But what pressing pause really does is, it allows us to show love and compassion to our kids. It’s having enough respect to tell them that you need time to think and cool off so that you can have a reasonable, calm dialogue about things.
When we give ourselves that time – to think, to pray, to discuss the situation with a spouse or a friend – we’re going to make a much better decision. I used to make the mistake of jumping right in with confidence and tackling the situation head-on – but I’ve learned that you lose nothing by pressing pause. In fact, you gain a lot of clarity and insight.
GV: We’ve come full circle with our parenting do-over. So let’s ask: how can we create more opportunities to bond with our kids?
JONATHAN: One of the tips in the book that I’ve enjoyed sharing the most is: Just Say Yes! Quite simply, it’s the practice of saying ‘yes’ to any and every chance to bond with your kids. As I said before, I made the mistake with my older kids of being too busy to simply hang out with them – I allowed busyness to get in the way of bonding. So with my youngest daughter, I made a pledge that no matter how lame or boring the task – even if she just wanted me to stand in a queue with her to fill out the paperwork for her driver’s license – I’d say yes.
She’d pop into my office and ask me to go for a bike-ride or to grab lunch with her. And sometimes I would absolutely not have time to do that; I’d be snowed under with work, and instead of the midnight bedtime I’d hoped for, this would now mean I wouldn’t get to bed until probably two in the morning! But I would look at her and I’d say yes – and I have never regretted doing that.
Look, I’ve heard people say that love is spelled ‘T I M E’ and I’d agree. Talk is cheap – we can all say that we love someone, but that’s not the same as showing it! Just yesterday I was talking with a friend who told me that whenever he wanted to talk with his dad, his dad would put him off and say, “We’ll talk later …” He really felt that his dad was never there for him. I could tell that, even to this day, my friend held deep bitterness and hurt because of that rejection.
We absolutely must make time for our kids. For our kids to feel loved, we need to make it a priority to hang out with them – full stop!
GV: What would you say is the most important thing for parents to remember?
JONATHAN: One of the things I tell parents in my workshops is: Don’t be so worried about blocking out the lies that you forget to teach your kids the truth. Don’t, for example, be so concerned about finding the perfect porn-blocking software that you forget to actually have conversations with your kids about respect, about what your values are when it comes to sex and sexual intimacy …
Sometimes we forget that the best defence is a good offense – the more we equip our kids with the truth, the more they’ll recognise the lies. The parenting moments that will help, far more than anything else, are the conversations we have with our kids. Parents often struggle with how to engage their kids in meaningful conversation, so they just avoid it altogether. And that’s a big mistake.
We need to look for opportunities to dialogue about truth every day. We need to talk together on the way to school, when we get home, at the dinner table. We need to look for ideas and resources that open up conversation. We need to share our opinions – and we need to listen to theirs.
JONATHAN MCKEE IS THE AUTHOR OF NUMEROUS BOOKS, INCLUDING HIS BRAND NEW “THE GUY’S GUIDE TO FOUR BATTLES EVERY YOUNG MAN MUST FACE” … AND “THE TEEN’S GUIDE TO SOCIAL MEDIA & MOBILE DEVICES”. JONATHAN SPEAKS TO PARENTS WORLDWIDE, ALL WHILE PROVIDING FREE HELP FOR FAMILIES AT WWW.THESOURCE4PARENTS.COM.