Secret family signals
Can you tell the subtext of your children’s requests?
Some years ago, when my daughter was about 10, she had a friend over to play on a Friday afternoon, and when it came time for the visitor to go home, the two of them came to me to ask if instead I could phone her mom and find out if she could stay over for the night.

Innocuous enough, you’d think – but for my daughter’s rather strange behaviour around this request. Although she made all the right verbal noises – she certainly sounded keen – I could see by her body language that something was amiss. She just wasn’t being her usual jump-up-and-down excitable self about this mini pyjama party.

But I gave my permission, the other mother gave hers, and the sleepover went ahead. By the morning my daughter was fretful and grumpy, and she and her friend were having nasty little goes at each other.

After the mother had come to fetch her daughter and they’d left the house, I asked my daughter what the problem was.

‘I didn’t want her to stay over,’ she said, tearfully. ‘She was being horrible to me. She played with my Princess Barbie all the time and wouldn’t share. She said I had to be the ugly stepmother. It wasn’t fair.’

‘But why didn’t you tell me that before I phoned her mom?’ I said.

‘Because then she wouldn’t have liked me,’ my poor daughter replied.

Peer pressure is an insidious force in our kids’ lives, and it’s easy to overlook or dismiss it in seemingly straightforward situations like these. My sister, who has two tweens, came up with a good idea that she and her children put into practice when telling the bald truth in company may cause social discomfort. They have a code phrase – it’s ‘Oh, Mom, I forgot to tell you that Uncle John phoned. He said you should call him back’ – that can be slipped into a conversation in situations when all is not what it seems.

Where teens are concerned, a code signal can also work well: if your teen rubs his nose or pulls his ear, for instance, he’s making you aware that something isn’t right. Usually, this will require you to say ‘no’ to something he’s asking for in company, specifically so that he can save face - for instance, if he’s being invited to a party where he knows there’ll be drugs available, but doesn’t want to say ‘no’ in front of his friends in case he comes across as a goody-two-shoes. But you should have a code phrase in place as well, in case the permission being asked – but not actually being wanted – is over the phone.

Do your family use these sorts of codes? Is it a good idea?

Read more by Tracey Hawthorne

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