Back to basic: Simple ways to get to know our parents better

Are you confident in knowing your parents well – from their habits to their needs and wants? Are you sure that your knowledge of them is still up-to-date?

Growing up, it seems like there were more opportunities for our parents to know our habits and preferences rather than the other way round. We have been more vocal in expressing ourselves too. As a kid, most of us would naturally ask for things we want and sometimes, throw tantrums if we don’t get them. I remember I disliked herbal soup so much that I would cry and refuse to eat dinner. I got scolding by my mom, of course. But the next time she cooks herbal soup, she will make sure she cooks my favourite dish as well. Our parents observed our behaviours and learned to be better parents. They made sure to consider our favourite colour when picking our school bag; they tried to watch cartoons with us so that they know who we are talking about; they picked out onions from our dish so that we can eat happily.

When we become teenagers, our parents would be even more attentive in observing us so that they can tune in the right frequency as us. And they never stop doing that even as we became adults. They tried to learn our jargons and slangs so that they can join in our conversations more easily; they learned the meaning of emojis so that they don’t embarrass us; they wanted to find out who are our classmates and colleagues so that they can link our stories and gossips.

But this often does not turn into a reverse cycle where we grow up doing the same thing for our ageing parents. Most of us will only repeat the process for the next generation when we become parents.

Have you ever made an effort to observe your parents?

The needs to observe our parents in order to “serve” them better probably do not surface until we realised our parents need special attention from us due to their deteriorating health. But, we shouldn’t wait until that moment to start learning to do these. Even when our parents are well and healthy, it could mean so much to them if we pay as much attention to their needs as they did for us when we were younger.

What are their favourites – food, fruits, colours, places to visit, activity to pass time…? Have those changed over time? Are there conditions or constraints that we should be aware of that inhibit them from enjoying their favourites?

What about their preferences of styles? Type of clothing materials they prefer? Shoe type – sandals, flip-flops, open-toe…? The furniture at home? The little things they use in their daily life, such as a toothbrush?

Have we ever wondered, why do they always wear the same old shirt instead the new ones we bought for them? Why do they always like to eat salty or sweet food even though we have advised them multiple times of the risk?

Why are they so stubborn?

Sometimes, we got so frustrated that we chose to give up in trying to change them for good. But we failed to recognise that they chose to wear the same clothes because it’s more comfortable; they added more salt or sugar because their tastebuds are not as sensitive as before.

Observe to Understand

If it took our parents years to understand us, we must make efforts and time to understand them too. One practice that I learned is to simply observe their daily lives. Then, ask relevant questions.

A few years ago, I visited my parents and spent 10 days with them. My two main observations had helped me to engage them better.

  1. They are curious about new innovations, photos on the phone, news and happenings around us. This can be a good conversation topic to keep them updated and engaged.
  2. They have fixed routines and activities every day, e.g. time to watch the news, to water plants, to top up medicine box, etc. Catching them at those timings can help us share some quality time together.

I leveraged those observations as our conversation starters. To do so, I use two basic communication technics to engage them – Ask & Listen and Show & Tell.

Ask & Listen

Essentially, everyone wants their voices to be heard. With age, our voice gets more credibility and becomes louder. What we say becomes more significant within our circles. However, it will hit a plateau and go down. But the desire to be heard do not go down as significantly until we choose to accept it. This could potentially lead a senior to isolation as they no longer feel their voice is of significance to be heard by anyone anymore.

our voice significance and desire to be heard varies by age
An illustrative chart to show our desire to be heard as we age and how significant our voice is to others.

We definitely do not want our parents to feel that way someday. So, it is important to give them the stage to voice out their thoughts and needs safely. We can start by asking them questions related to our observations of their daily activities and habits. For example, knowing that my dad likes to follow the news on China, I can educate myself briefly on some current affairs or knowing some key names and ask him for opinions. More importantly, we have to give them full attention when listening. Do practice active listening and don’t insist if they are not in the mood to speak.

Show & Tell

If we are clueless about the topics our parents would be interested to talk about, we can be the ones doing the talking. We can do some guesswork and show them interesting pictures or videos (e.g. funny cat videos, cool gadget, old photos) and tell them stories about it. It is a trial and error, and we may not get their interest right from the first time. If they do not seem interested, move on. If they do seem interested, let them explore further and let them share their stories as well. For my dad and me, it was the Google Map that worked. When I was young, he always liked to show me the physical map book. He was fascinated by Google Map where he can scroll and zoom to anywhere. The next time we speak of a new place, he would ask to see it on Google Map! For my mom and me, it’s the photos of people on my phone. I would tell her their names and some stories (or even gossips) and that can take very far.

Go Now Go Further

As we grow up and enter into new phases of life, we leave our parents’ nest and set up our own. Distances can make it harder to bond. It will take a greater effort to race against their age to know them better and give them the best they deserve, just like how they cherished the moment with us as we grow up.

Make efforts to call them at a regular timing, try to exceed call duration each time, list out new topics to engage them, gossip with them, change their phone ringtone to your voice… I’m sure there are many other ways to enhance our relationships with our parents! Share your best practices with us!

Originally posted on Project Somebody Blog on June 2, 2019 by the same author.