Open and Shut

Offering your kids “open communications” doesn’t have to mean opening a war of words on Mom and Dad. Child-rearing advice from Dr. Ray Guarendi.

I encourage my children (ages 10, 12 and 15) to express themselves, but sometimes they get pretty hostile. I want open communication, but I don’t want back talk. Is one possible without the other?

If not, tact and diplomacy are headed the way of chivalry.

Encouraging some freedom of expression promotes two-way respect. A youngster feels he received a fair hearing, and a parent feels fairer for it. Allowing unrestrained freedom of expression promotes two-way disrespect. Burne may heat up the exchange, but soon we’re mating hot word for hot word.

Even if we fully intend to, we can’t quietly withstand open assault for long. Our desire for free communication will be overcome by our instinct for self-respect. Communication without rules doesn’t foster feelings; it hurts them.

Put another way, open communication does not mean license to speak one’s mind in whatever tone at whatever volume with whatever words. Full freedom of opinion is benevolent parenthood. Full freedom of expression is not.

As your children move further into adolescence and become more deeply opinionated, particularly about your conduct, you might want to establish some freedom-of-speech guidelines in order to promote the common good and to semiensure domestic tranquility.

Guideline No. 1. Anyone can say his piece as long as it’s said peacefully.

Guideline No. 2. The speaker has the right to remain uninterrupted as long as she remains respectful.

Guideline No. 3. As soon as communication turns ugly, the right to be heard is temporarily forfeited.

A major clarification is in order here. What constitutes disrespect is a parent’s judgment. Kids have a far more tolerant definition of disrespect than we do. They don’t consider themselves nasty until they’re tipping tables and tossing bricks — and then it depends on whether or not they hit anything.

Probably the simplest way to deal with unfeeling expression is to call a halt to it. In Congress, this is called invoking cloture. (I think it comes from the Old English phrase “Cloture mouth.”) A brief, firmly enforced separation — in a room, chair, whatever — apart from you should restore calm. If it doesn’t, you might have to levy some more active censure, such as a 200-word essay on respect, a report from the encyclopedia, a money fine, an extra chore or an hour earlier bedtime.

After your patient explanation of the guidelines, after your admirable refusal to respond in kind — or unkind — to disrespect, don’t be too surprised if your children still think you’re stifling their First Amendment rights. Just because a rule is fair and ultimately makes for more freedom doesn’t mean kids will like it. It takes time to understand the benefit of such unnatural things like restraint and tact.

There is a bright side to all of this. At least the kids can take advantage of your new set of guidelines to tell you what they think of your new set of guidelines — if they do it respectfully, of course.

The doctor is always in