Ep 56: Make Meaningful Connections

Joanna Guest shares the lessons she (re)learned about meaningfully connecting with your kids while curating her book, Folded Wisdom, a collection of the best of Joanna’s dad’s 4775 notes to her and her brother. An inspiring story packed with parenting take-aways.

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Full show notes

Do you ever feel like the week goes by and you haven’t really connected with your teen? You might look back to find that every conversation was about getting somewhere on time, making a plan for dinner, or providing reminders about something that needs to get done. Maybe you had the best intentions–you sincerely planned to bring up a touchy subject or share something deep–but life just got in the way. You’re not alone.

Connecting with kids can be hard. It’s a common complaint from parents in today’s busy, over-scheduled, technology-driven world that they haven’t had the time to build a more meaningful relationship. So how can you connect with your teen on an intimate level when life is passing by too quickly? That’s the subject of this week’s Talking to Teens podcast episode, “Make Meaningful Connections.”

This week I spoke with Joanna Guest about what parents can do to break out of the mundane industrious pace of life, start connecting with kids, and develop positive, memorable, and real moments with your family. Joanna is the author of Folded Wisdom: Notes from Dad on Life, Love, and Growing Up, a beautiful and heartwarming book about how her father made meaningful connections with her.

When Joanna’s younger brother, Theo, showed no interest in reading, a teacher suggested their dad write notes to pique the little guy’s curiosity. Joanna’s dad took the idea and ran with it, writing both Theo and Joanna a note with an illustration every single morning to take to school. And he kept it up for 14 years, ultimately writing 4775 letters. If anyone knows about staying committed to connecting with kids, it’s the Guest family.

While this practice is proof of a father’s deep commitment to his children, these daily messages also demonstrate the true path to connecting with kids: a willingness to be vulnerable. Unlike his daily communication, which often felt routine and rushed, the notes hit on deep topics, life lessons, and – when he couldn’t find time to connect – small doses of openness made all the difference. In the podcast, we talk about how sharing vulnerability helps you maintain a deep relationship with your kids by way of three tangible virtues:
  1. Truthful Communication
  2. Personal Touches
  3. Intimate Lessons
The bond that Joanna and her father display in this book is unique but that doesn't mean it can't help us implement these impactful parenting elements in our own lives. Here's how it works:

Let’s Talk About Truthful Communication

Speaking truthfully is when you simply authentically express what emotions you’re feeling in your heart. When you focus these thoughts on what’s between you your teen, you're displaying a personal and intimate reflection of the relationship and how you feel about them. The good news is, honest communication doesn’t even have to be particularly profound or complex to be effective. With his notes, Joanna’s father achieved this simply by writing “I love you” on a folded piece of paper when the family didn’t have time to convene on weekday mornings.

Communicating truthfully demonstrates a willingness to show vulnerability because it is an act of sharing yourself, flaws and all. When you speak your truth, the point is not to always provide a polished answer for your teen. You don’t want connecting with kids to be a fake process. A common parenting myth is that you always have to have an answer for everything; you must constantly be prepared for everything that comes your way, 24/7. But speaking truthfully from your own standpoint with your teen can help pull back the curtain and let them know you’re only human.

If your child approaches you with a particularly challenging problem, responding with “I don’t know” is a valid opportunity for you to connect with your teen. When you speak truthfully about your inability to find a solution, instead of providing an exact answer, you’re displaying that you’re both vulnerable to whatever this problem is. Connecting with kids also means relating to them, and when you speak honestly about common issues, you’re conveying solidarity.

Whether it’s dealing with a breakup, a tricky math problem, or deciding on college options, speaking honestly will clue your teen in to your presence. Once this happens, you can solve whatever problem they’re facing together.

Truth and Priorities

Speaking truthfully also helps parents connecting with kids by informing teens about who you are, specifically, what you prioritize in life. For example, if you’re work-life is too demanding, teens can interpret a busy parent as someone who doesn’t have an investment in their life. The limited time you do have to spend with your teen might seem second hand, like solely exists around necessary family tasks (i.e. eating meals or school drop-off), and so they might feel the need to build connections elsewhere.

If you speak honestly and address genuine concerns about how your parenting is perceived, you’re displaying vulnerability to criticism, asking your teen for insight, and prioritizing your interest in who they are. You might say something like, “I we could spend more time together” or “I would like to get to know you better.” Small declarations of truth like these make up the more meaningful selection of notes featured in Joanna’s book. When you’re truthful with your teen, it might help them understand what is going on in your life more clearly and they’re more likely to respond in kind.

Honesty When There’s No Time for Connecting with Kids

In the book, Joanna’s father was able to write a note every single day, and it’s sweet because it demonstrates the longevity of the act. But not everyone has the time or creativity to pull off this kind of practice when connecting with kids. Truthful communication helps you connect with your teen because there isn’t any planning or artificiality in the act; you can develop a genuine bond with brief interactions that are made meaningful because there’s no filter.

One of the most effective means of honest communication that we talk about is when Joanna’s father reached out with a note after they got into a fight when she was younger. He simply wrote down the next morning, “I hope you can find a way not to be angry. I love you.” Even when you don’t have anything to say, you can simply just communicate how you feel about your child.

As a parent, you want to communicate how you feel, and letting your child know you love them and just want what’s best can emphasize that you’re a supporting figure in their life. These small moments of truth are how Joanna’s father brought in simplicity to her complicated life as a teenager, providing uncomplicated access to an emotional positivity. This honesty can foster trust and demonstrate care, deepening how you’re connecting with kids.

To hear about how Personal Touches and Intimate Lessons play into connecting with kids, don’t tune in to listen to the whole episode!

I was blown away at how wise and poignant Joanna’s advice was for parents of teenagers today. Among other things, she told me:
  • How to teach lessons without being so “teach-y” (a major turn-off for teens)
  • What the A.C.E. system of Attitude, Concentration, and Effort can do for your teen’s self-confidence
  • Why a “practice” can foster stronger communication
  • How exploring your child’s interests opens up possibilities
If you are looking for how to start connecting with kids in meaningful ways while imparting valuable life lessons, you will not want to miss this episode.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Folded Wisdom
Folded Wisdom
A story of life, love, and growing up told through the 3,500+ illustrated daily notes a dad wrote to his two kids. In bookstores everywhere!
Ep 56: Make Meaningful Connections
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