Ep 56: Make Meaningful Connections

Episode Summary

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 takeaways.

Who the episode is for: Dads Moms Parents Teens

Who it's about: Parents Teens

Topics covered: Argument Communication Connection Intimacy Talking Truth Vulnerability

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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 weekI 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.

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Get In the Habit of Connecting When You’re At Your Best:

Joanna told me about her dad, Bob, who wrote her and her brother a note with a doodle every morning before school. An artist by trade, and a morning person, this worked perfect for Bob. But it’s not the perfect “practice” for every parent. The key to the practice was twofold: for Bob, mornings were his favorite time of day, when he felt his best. Second, he was a skilled artist, great with his hands. To discover the best practices to try for your teen(s), think over what a typical week is for you. Write down three times during the week that you feel best. Maybe it’s that moment the coffee kicks in, or when you sink into a comfy chair after dinner, or your lunchtime walk. Next, write down the communication modes you most prefer. Is it text? Is it video? Email? Just speaking? Maybe writing? Circle the one that makes the most sense during your three best times and schedule it into your calendar. The idea is to capture and send a message to your teen during your best time. It’s okay if it is delivered later (like a note or a voice memo). Try one mode and if it doesn’t feel right to you, or you find yourself skipping out on it, try a different method. Some possible communication modes to experiment with: text, email, voice memo, voicemail, video, Snapchat, private Instagram story, picture + caption. (These don’t have to be long, but try to keep it positive!).

2.  Create a ‘Family Acronym’ to Pass On Your Values:

(Members Only)

3.  Embrace Regular Vulnerability with Your Teen:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So I love the book, Folded Wisdom: Notes from Dad on Life, Love, and Growing Up. I’ve got to say it’s the most beautiful book that I’ve seen. It’s got these color photographs of all of these folded notes that your dad sent you. And you say in the book that he sent you notes every day, starting when you were, I think, seven years old or something like that. And there are still over 3,500 of them. It’s hard to describe just how gorgeous this book is on a podcast where you can’t see what we’re talking about, but it’s like eye candy. It’s a pleasure to read. So super curious, what inspired you to then go back years later through all of these notes and turn them into a book?

Joanna: Well, that’s, first of all, very kind of you. It took us a long time to decide what to do with this, but it was hard to decide how to do the book because you’re going back and looking at piles and piles of paper.

Joanna: But in general, how the idea of the book started was that I worked in politics. I had a career in Washington, DC, and I was living there in 2016. And after a certain date in November 2016, I decided I needed a little breather. And more importantly, after sitting down and having a glass of wine with my mother, I decided I really wanted a note from my dad.

Joanna: And the reason for that is because as you said, my dad, an artist by training, wrote my brother Theo and me a note every morning before school, starting when I was seven and Theo was four, up until we each graduated from high school. And I think, looking back on the experience of receiving the notes, it was really just my version of ordinary. And so it was almost-

Andy: Mundane.

Joanna: It was super mundane, which is like crazy now in hindsight, now that I look back on over 3000 pieces of paper that he wrote us, because the act itself is so far from the ordinary.

Andy: Right. And he’s just such an artist. You look through these things and you’re like, “Wow, this looks like a comic book,” or, “These look like they should be framed a lot of times.”

Joanna: Yeah. Yeah. So, basically I felt like I wanted a note from my dad because I felt like the world was kind of coming in on me and I needed a place to turn to, to hear that everything was going to be okay. There was that, coupled with the idea that I felt like I wanted to do something for myself that was creative and heartwarming and just generally good.

Joanna: So to backtrack a little, the real genesis of this becoming something that I was even aware of… So I said this was like a mundane experience for me. Every morning I woke up, every school morning, there was a triangle sitting on the kitchen counter. I picked it up. I put it in my back pocket. I went off to school. I read the note. I came home. Next day, did the same thing. There wasn’t a fishbowl or anything that we were putting the notes in at the end of the day. It’s truly a feat that my mother was able to save these things. It’s still pretty much like the unsolved mystery of the whole book is that she was able to do this without any of us realizing.

Joanna: But the first time we all kind of realized there was something really there was in 2010, I got a call from my dad and I was studying abroad. I was in college and I picked up the call from my dad and my dad was like, “I have this really random question that I just want to run by you. Would you be comfortable sharing any of your notes?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And he was like, “Your notes. The notes that I wrote you growing up.” And I was like, “I mean, sure. Like A, with who? B, why? C, what do you mean?”

Joanna: So at the time I was a junior in college, my brother was still a senior in high school. So he was still getting the notes. So fast forward, my brother said sure too. And the reason my dad was asking was because he had a friend who was in the art magazine world. So all this was going on, I am having my grand old time in Sydney, Australia, and I get home, and not only is the story featured in this magazine, but it’s the cover story. And the cover is similar to the book, to Folded Wisdom. It’s like piles and piles of these triangle notes.

Joanna: And I open up the book and there are notes from 1995 in it. And I’m blown away. I mean, I had no idea that there was such reach, let alone what they said, but I was just like, “How did these things even survive?” I mean, if you think about it, my brother was in preschool. I was in the second grade. What kid goes to school with a piece of paper in their lunch box and returns home with it? You don’t return home with literally anything.

Joanna: It’s special to me, it’s heartwarming to me. And it’s kind of mind-blowing to me because it makes me realize that even as a kid, whether or not I fully understood what he was saying, there was some part of me that knew that it was special. And my brother too, because of the fact that we saved them. There was something about the act itself that we felt like we were going to open it up. Sometimes we were going to fill out the puzzle that he wrote for us. Or, there’s one that is the classic note, classic young note, which is a puzzle to my brother. And it’s like a word scramble. So it’s like a-

Andy: Secret code.

Joanna: Yeah, it’s a secret code note. And you can see on it that, first of all, the papers browned, because it’s from ’95 and it’s got some lunch on it, but also you can see that Theo actually solved the code and it says, “Go, Theo, go.” And it’s just like, “Oh my God, rip your heart out. So cute, like that he did it.”

Andy: With his little handwriting.

Joanna: With his little like-

Andy: In the boxes.

Joanna: Yeah. It’s so cute. And then there’s one to me where he does like a funny typeface. And he’s like, “Can you make up a typeface of your own?” And I kind of like squiggle-drew a Joanna. And so, for every one of those notes, again, as a kind reminder, there are 3,500 of these things we still have, there are notes where he’d be like, “What’s four plus four?” And there’s just an empty box. So, there were ones that we did. And there were ones that we were like, “Dad, it’s lunchtime, I’m not doing math.”

Joanna: But there were a lot that we clearly did read, and yet it’s kind of amazing. And so to get back to your original question of how it began, I think that I was looking for something that had a feeling of being heartwarming and good, and a reminder that people in this world can slow down and can relay who they are to one another in a really beautiful way, and in a really kind of authentic way.

Andy: One thing I try to teach people is how to have more positive touches with your kids. Even if it’s sending them Snapchats, sending them private stories on Instagram, whatever. I don’t know. Or my brother does these little voice memos, just sending text messages, but he just talks, and sends them to me. And I just love it. It’s so fun. And it’s like, I get his personality.

Andy: I think that everybody has a different kind of communication that you are best at or that you really thrive at. And for one thing, this book is just so inspiring to parents that, even if you’re not going to necessarily go write letters every day, to find something, to find some way that you can, every day, just be having a little positive touch and just sending love, and sending something positive towards your kids. And the compound effect of doing that every single day is that you hit 3,500 of them and you look back and it’s like, “Wow, that adds up.”

Andy: And like you say, you look back as a kid and you’re like, “Wow, I just knew there was something special about it.” And it made you feel special and that finding a way to do that, I think, is so cool. And I like what you kind of talk about in the first chapter, which is that a lot of what he was doing, and especially when you guys were younger, is experimenting. He was just trying different stuff out to see what you responded to. And I think that’s so cool. And I wonder, what do you think that he then ended up realizing were the things that you did respond to?

Joanna: I mean, I think that a lot of this, the idea for him was that he was realizing that we were growing up. We were growing up fast. He would wake up every morning. We would all get ready for school. He would go to work. He was running a business with my mom. They owned their own little business. They would come home at the end of the day. We would have dinner and we would go to bed. And then we would wake up the next day and we would do it all over again. And he just felt like time was flying and we were changing, but not only were Theo and I growing up, but he was growing up too.

Joanna: There’s like this little funny anecdote, which is that I was also labeling the notes as either A notes, B notes or C notes. My mom came up with this idea and my dad was horrified by it. The idea of him having ever written a C note. He was like, “What do you mean there’s C notes?” He couldn’t believe this idea that we were like, “Well, you know, it’s just not as good of a note. Dude, you wrote 3,500 of them. It’s not-“

Andy: You win some, you lose some, dad, come on.

Joanna: You win some, you lose some. Yeah, exactly. Not every one’s going to be a winner. And so, in trying to reveal who he was to us, he was explaining to us how to become who we wanted to be and allowing us to explore that by seeing how willing he was to talk about his own mistakes and talk about times that he felt like he did something really well, versus times he felt like he really botched something.

Joanna: He was really, really vulnerable as he wrote to us. You mentioned your brother doing these voice memos. And I think about all the different ways and different parents I’ve spoken to that do different things for their kids. I’ve heard of a number of people who start an email inbox for their kids and they write their kid’s emails and stuff, or they’re putting stuff away. I was just with a friend who’s getting ready to have a daughter, and he’s been keeping a journal of times that he thought about her during his wife’s pregnancy.

Joanna: But the point is, is that people do such different things. And there’s nothing worse than when I’m talking to someone, and they’re like, “Oh my God, I’m the worst parent. I didn’t write to my kids.” And I’m like, “Whoa, hold on a second. This is not the point of this.” The point is that there’s something truly rewarding in grappling with who you are and being able to do that and share it with literally anyone. And it doesn’t have to be multiple people. It doesn’t have to be your kids necessarily, but it has to be this idea that you are growing and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and then choosing to work through that with someone.

Andy: I wanted to congratulate Tessa Strachman. She is the first winner of a new contest that we’re doing on Instagram. Tessa is going to get access to our extended members-only podcast episodes, which she’s going to be able to access in her favorite podcast app, including iTunes, Podbean, Overcast, wherever she loves to listen to podcasts, she’s going to be able to access our premium podcast there. She’s also going to get access to the word-for-word parenting scripts and the parenting exercises that are reserved for our members and are paired with every single podcast episode.

Andy: If you want to get in on this awesome contest, head on over to our Instagram account @talkingtoteenspodcast and start leaving us comments. We love to hear from you, and we’ll be super excited to see what people say this week. Tune into the podcast next week to find out if you won.

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Joanna: I really feel like there was this perfect storm for him that made him able to write these notes. It’s such a crazy routine that anybody you talk to about it, is like, “But how? My mornings are pure insanity.” And for him, it was, he woke up before all of us. He’s just always been a morning person. And I mean, I’m sitting here with a full cup of coffee. If you told me that I had to be asleep in 30 minutes, I would be thrilled. I could go back to bed in 30 minutes, no problem whatsoever. I am an excellent sleeper. I love sleeping in. My dad is so the opposite. He is such a morning person. He is so firing on all cylinders in the morning, and he wanted to be that best version of himself around us, but he didn’t always have that chance because we weren’t always up with him.

Joanna: And so there was this part of him, it’s hard to find the time of when you’re your best self. So maybe when you’re your best self, you grab your phone and you make a voice memo for your kid, because you’re like, “I’m feeling like-“

Andy: [inaudible 00:16:12] it up a little bit.

Joanna: Yeah, you’re like, “I feel like I’ve got this idea right now,” or because you’re thinking of them. And you’re like, “I just want to write this down because it’s at any moment of the day.” And for him, he’s a routined guy. He likes the structure that gives him, and it made sense for him because he felt so good in that morning.

Andy: So, one thing that’s really cool is that there’s a lot of lessons in these notes, but they feel really digestible. We’re focused on teenagers here and a lot of times it’s really hard to teach lessons to teenagers because they just don’t want to hear it. But he has a really good way of kind of teaching little lessons or getting you thinking about gratitude or something like that, but in a really, non-confrontational kind of a way.

Andy: And I think it is what you were talking about earlier, when you were just talking about his willingness to be vulnerable. And there’s this one great note that I love where he says, “The funny thing is that if you do it right, you never stop living your formative years. You never stop learning about yourself, your interests, skills and goals, about your dreams, your friends, old and new, your love, your ability to give and receive love. You really never stop.”

Andy: And I think that that’s what makes a lot of the lessons that he’s kind of giving you in these notes so okay, I guess, or so not preachy, is because it genuinely feels in the notes like he’s discovering it and he’s so excited that he just discovered this lesson or that he was thinking about this thing. On my walk this morning, I came up with this thing and I just wanted to put it in this note for you. And so I think that attitude of him being willing to say, “Hey, I don’t have it all figured out yet. I’m kind of just still working on it,” is almost like, in a funny kind of reverse psychology way, makes it actually really effective when he does kind of teach lessons.

Joanna: I think it’s interesting because now that I’ve read through all of them, his plain speaking way of just kind of stumbling on a lesson, is so amazing because it comes out throughout all the years. And so, there are notes from when I was seven that are teaching me these broad, moral truths that I couldn’t possibly have really been digesting. There’s very slim chance that my second grade mind, my third grade mind was like, “You know what? What if I treat others the way… If I did something for someone else and that actually made me feel better than I could ever imagine. What if I tried to do that?” As I’m sitting, having my fruit roll up from the food co-op. I don’t think I was really digesting that.

Joanna: But the point is, is that he said it again and again and again, in so many different ways. It’s not like it was just, treat your friends the way you want to be treated, treat your friends the way you want to be treated. He would just ramble. And I think that if it wasn’t designed around him just letting his thoughts flow, and instead he tried to map out like, “These are the lessons I want to teach this week. Or these are the things-“

Andy: [inaudible 00:19:48] going to learn this and that.

Joanna: Right. Yeah. I think if he had a plan going into them, they would have come out very differently. I’ll ask him and talk to him about where he came up with this idea and he has no idea. My favorite note of all is the last note to Theo. And I can hardly talk about it, because, I mean, I can talk about it, but I can’t talk about it around my brother or my father, because they both start crying, which is like…. I’m like, “Guys, dad, you wrote it.”

Joanna: But looking back on it, I think he gets quite emotional. But what’s so amazing about it is I think that it encapsulates this whole idea of him writing the notes, which is that it was the last note to Theo probably. Because Theo was getting ready to graduate from high school, and the end of high school is kind of weird. Not every day is a real day, and so like, when did he write a note? Anyway. He couldn’t figure out if it was going to his last note and what that meant to him. So he starts writing and he starts wondering if it’s going to be his last note and he misspells a word, and that misspelling of the word, he then crosses out and re-spells and goes, “Sometimes the simplest words are the hardest to spell.”

Joanna: And then from there, gets into this whole thing about how it’s sometimes the simplest things that are the most important things in life, like giving your friend a ride, like stopping to give someone a hug, like taking your AirPods out, your earbuds out, and listening to the sound of the wind in the trees, like throwing a good curve ball, or like simply saying, I love you. And it’s this most incredible lesson about taking time to just appreciate the things around you and appreciate life, that comes from a spelling mistake on this note. It couldn’t have been more loaded, but he just didn’t think about it.

Joanna: I mean, he didn’t have any plans that these notes were going to become a book someday. He didn’t even think that we were going to read them ever again. And so the idea that he was writing this with any purpose of longevity, it’s far from the truth. And so he just sits down to write this last note and a spelling error reveals this perfect kind of lesson on, especially as you’re going off to college or you’re talking to a teenager. It’s these little simple things that are so hard to remember in our day-to-day. They’re so hard to think back on and appreciate. I don’t know, he couldn’t have mapped that out, in a way that would have rung authentic and true. Instead-

Andy: Yeah, no way.

Joanna: … he started writing his thoughts and classically misspelled the word.

Andy: And just kept going-

Joanna: And just kept going.Andy: Didn’t crumple it up and say, “Oh, hey, well, I’d better just start over, because I messed up.” There’s no messing up. It’s just because that’s what I wrote, and that’s what came out. It’s that vulnerability that you’re talking about. It’s like that just not having to get it right, but just knowing that whatever kind of comes out onto this page right now, is right, because that’s what the practice is.

About Joanna Guest

After working in politics for a few years, Joanna Guest moved on to more heartwarming pursuits, particularly producing her latest book Folded Wisdom. Joanna holds a bachelor’s in Family Studies and Human Development and a master’s in Public Policy. She is happy to speak loudly and proudly about her family – and looks forward to one day having her own.

Want More Joanna Guest?

You can find Joanna through her website as well as on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.