Icebreaker Parenting

I don't have much in common with my kids. While I spend most of my days contemplating whether everyone hates me, my children are strategizing how to best shake down my husband and I for ice cream. These divergent interests make us highly incompatible, and all of our conversations are stilted. Every day, I feel like I'm on a blind date with my kids and that blind date is going very poorly.

Sometimes, all I have as a life preserver in our interactions are ice breakers. I learned a few techniques at squelching an awkward silence at cotillion in sixth grade, but, unfortunately, none of these topics seem to apply to the relationship I have with my children; I already know how many pets and brothers and sisters they have. Instead, I have to get a bit more creative.

One night, as I made spaghetti and Darla concocted a lonely salad just for me, I attempted to break the ice with her. I could hear the water boiling and air conditioner hum in the other room. Greg and Jude were at soccer practice, so it was just the two of us, and it was utterly silent.

"Think of something to say to her, quick," I thought. "Make it something interesting, so you don't seem as boring as an office building."

"If you could be any animal," I asked Darl, "what animal would you be?"

"Easy," said Darla. "A unicorn."

"Ok," I said, holding back my initial desire to want to remind her that unicorns are mythical and don't count. "Why would you be a unicorn?"

"Why wouldn't I?" she asked as she grabbed a fistful of kale to put in my salad bowl.

"If I were an animal," I said slowly since I forgot I'd have to participate too when I asked the question, "I'd be a house cat because I could lie around all day under a sunbeam and everyone would take care of all my needs."

Darla laughed and then stared at me.

"So, why do you think you want to be a unicorn," I asked, again. "What magic would you do?"

Darla continued to stare at me. I gave up.

I think my kids also feel like our conversations suck, especially since all they do to help drive it forward is to ask me how old I am over and over and over again. It has gotten to the point that my only response to this is "Is that a real question? Can you please ask me something substantial?"

Most parents seem to know how to engage their children. They look at the clouds and build castles in the sky. They imagine wild scenarios together about small children made out of lollipops who fight crime. They have long conversations about their kids' days; these parents even insert funny voices and fantastic ideas into the discussion to keep their kids engaged.

I don't know how to do this. I know how to make my kids dinner, clean the house, get them to doctor's appointments, and read them stories. Keeping them engaged and excited is as foreign a concept to me as relaxation.

In a way, I feel a lot like my mom. She was a quiet woman with twelve kids and a husband, all of whom didn't know how to talk in anything other than a yell. When I look back at my childhood, I remember her as a hushed whisper in the front seat of our station wagon, drowned out by my dad's deep baritone. I would lean forward in my seat and strain to hear the information she was conveying to us in the back, but even the air conditioner could carry her voice away from me. Most of the time, I just watched her cook and clean for hours and hours. There wasn't enough energy in one human to run the house and make chitchat.

The only time I heard her talk was when she would read long novels like "Island of the Blue Dolphin" or "Little Women" to my sister Sarah and I at bedtime. I loved how soft and even her voice was as she recounted the lives of late 19th century women whose greatest joys were to sew and who only wanted oranges for Christmas. My eyes would half close as she talked, and I would snuggle in under my blanket, pretending I was living a life of privation with only one candle to light our book and just enough coal to keep us warm for the night. When our nightly chapter ended, I was sad because I knew it would be almost another 24 hours before I would hear my mom's pretty voice, again.

As a mom, I have inadvertently imitated my mom's style of parenting. Sometimes, I realize that I have been silently working while my kids look up at me expectantly for over an hour. I look back, and I don't know what to say; I feel like an awful mother. All the parenting books say talking to kids is crucial for children's development, but I don't think they'd be interested in anything I have to say unless they want to discuss Sharp Objects' twist ending.

But I guess that wouldn't be an appropriate thing for us to talk about. Tonight, instead, I'm gonna try out the Red Robin storytelling technique where we build off each other's sentences to create a complete story. While I'm confident, it's going to end when someone says, "then he pooped on his head," at least we'll be sort of talking.