Ruth Nemzoff strolled in the Massachusetts woods while she spoke to me on the cell phone the other day. I sat in front of my computer in Florida surfing the Internet and wondering, until she mentioned what she was doing, why she seemed out of breath.
Thanks to modern technology, before calling Nemzoff, I Googled her, visited her Web site, www.ruthnemzoff.com, and the site of her newly published book, Don't Bite Your Tongue, How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children, which helps parents create or strengthen close relationships with their adult children, while respecting their independence.
So I knew something about her.
Modern American communications technology makes it easy to chit-chat, exchange pleasantries and quickly discover superficial facts.
But that ease of communication has not spilled over into substantive exchanges of information and opinions - particularly with our adult kids.
In those areas, we still seem to be conversing via smoke signals or Morse code.
So we're often at a complete loss as to what to do when little Stevie comes home and says he has fallen in love with a woman he just met on the Internet and has just charged a $50,000 diamond engagement ring on our American Express card.
Ditto with telling baby Annie that it isn't funny or cute when her own little Annie flushes our hearing aid down the toilet and grinds up our glasses in the garbage disposal.
Do we say what's on our mind and risk alienating our kids?
Or do we . . . bite our tongues?
Many of us take the easy way out and choose the latter.
That may prevent an estrangement, but not an ulcer.
Nemzoff, an expert in family dynamics, offers a more enlightened path - one that allows you to offer your opinion without wreaking havoc on your relationship with your children.
A clinical psychologist and researcher whose academic credentials include degrees from Barnard, Columbia and Harvard, Nemzoff is also a resident scholar at Brandeis University and an adjunct assistant professor at Bentley College.
She is appearing Nov. 16 at the Jewish Community Center in Tampa as part of the National Jewish Book Month.
She's also the mother of four adult children and says the book was prompted by real parents who see their kids making decisions they don't always agree with and don't know what to do.
A caveat: Nemzoff's advice is not intended for dysfunctional families, but those with relatively healthy relationships that are dealing with the normal everyday road rashes that all of us accumulate and endure while traveling life's often bumpy highway.
And another caveat: Both parents and children must be enlightened enough to concede that they are not perfect and that all relationships are, at times, difficult.
Plus, communication should be a two-way street. Children ought to be able to say things to parents, as well, like, "Mom, do you have to use the "F" word in front of the kids?"
As for the issues? They run the gamut, are often stage-specific and range from how to deal with an adult child who moves back in with you, to creating an active relationship over long distances, to how to be a grandparent.
Some important tips include being sensitive to timing and to broach subjects in a way that does not immediately raise hackles, Nemzoff says.
"Make sure that not every (such) conversation is about big issues. Enjoy each other, build trust by sharing small experiences first," she says.
Parents should also let their children know how they arrived at their opinion, that theirs is just one view and they should explore other views as well.
Once you've offered your opinion, don't constantly repeat it.
In other words, don't nag.
Of course, being a smarty pants I had to ask Nemzoff if biting one's tongue is ever the right thing to do.
"Sure," she said. "The title of the book does not mean you can say anything any time in any way. Rather, the title is meant to suggest, don't waste your time on suppressing your thoughts and squelching yourself. Instead, spend your energy on figuring out how to say it, when to say it and what to say.
"And sometimes you may choose to be silent, which is very different from being silenced by others."
Freelance writer Judy Hill lives in St. Petersburg. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IN THE KNOW
Common questions from parents that Ruth Nemzoff hears at her workshops:
- How can I express my concerns without sounding controlling, judgmental or punitive?
- How can my children and I remain friends, maybe even confidants or mentors to each other?
- How can I share my truths and sorrows without burdening my child?
- How can I say what I want to say in a way that will be heard as a suggestion, a perspective, and not as a command, an order, a threat or a guilt trip?
- How can I deal with the disappointment when my child fails to follow the life trajectory I expected?
There is no easy answer to any of these questions. Nemzoff urges thoughtful proactivity; her book offers artfully written suggestions on how and when to open your mouth.
If you go
National Jewish Book Month
Events in the area include authors of new books of Jewish interest, panel discussions, conversations, lectures and book signings. The events run from Nov. 13 through Nov. 23. Ruth Nemzoff will appear Nov. 16 at 10 a.m. at the Tampa Jewish Community Center, 13009 Community Campus Drive, Tampa. For more information, visit www.jewishtampa.com; or call (813) 264-9000.