“What?” That’s what you’re thinking right now, and you’re probably not alone. After all, when you think of Rob Lowe, sure, you’d be happy to take his advice on getting your teeth their whitest – he’s obviously got that figured out. If you want to know what colors to wear to make your blue eyes really pop, clearly he’s your man. And if, God forbid, you ever get caught in some kind of sex tape debacle, he certainly knows a thing or two about that. But parenting?
Hear me out. It all started when I read an article in The Washington Post around the time Rob Lowe appeared as JFK in the TV movie Killing Kennedy last November. The article was partly entitled “Rob Lowe Grows Up” and touched on his roller coaster ride through early superstardom, wild excess, career slump, rehab and redemption. All of which have made him what he is today – a more mature, thoughtful actor with a deeper understanding of himself and the business.
Things you might not know about Rob Lowe: He’s been married for 20 years. He has two college-aged sons. He’s a hugger. He’s also now in a position to be a leader among actors on a set and give advice to younger co-stars. Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays Jackie Kennedy in the movie, said that she asked him “a million business questions” during the time they worked together. But it was her description of how he offered assistance during an especially frustrating time that really got my attention…
“During a rough day of filming, Lowe watched her beat herself up. “He said to me, ‘Hey, I want you to know that I will only ever have your best interests at heart. Can I weigh in on what I’m watching you go through?’”
This struck me as a remarkably compassionate way to lend a hand. Sometimes, we’d rather not hear other people’s opinions about our problems, but this kind of offer would be hard to refuse. As a mom, I spend an awful lot of time giving advice to my kids, and believe me, there are days when it seems to go in one ear and out the other. Then there are days when it never even seems to get to that first ear. Is it possible that the mentoring relationship between a veteran actor and a younger co-star might not be all that different from that of a parent and a child? If so, I think there’s an important lesson to learn here.
When we see our children go through difficult times at school, on the sports field or in relationships with friends, how do we respond? If my own experience is any example, we are more than ready to jump in with a strong opinion on the cause of the problem and the best way to fix it. We’re parents – that’s what we’re here for, right? Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t always have the best results. Our views and recommendations – however well-intentioned – end up sounding like a megaphone full of judgment, and nobody wants to listen to that.
Rob Lowe has probably been through tons of therapy over the years, so it’s not surprising that his language closely follows the principles of Nonviolent Communication. NVC was developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960’s, but I learned about it just a few years ago when I read How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Put simply, practitioners of NVC seek to open lines of communication by removing opinions, moralistic judgments and demands from the conversation. The idea is often used in therapy, but it has also been successfully applied in schools, workplaces and many other settings – including movie sets, apparently.
Notice that when you read Rob Lowe’s comment to Ginnifer Goodwin, you hear: “I care about you. I noticed you’re having some trouble. I might not have all the answers, but is it okay if we talk about it?” You don’t hear: “You’re doing it wrong. I know the right way to do it. I’m going to tell you what I think even if you don’t want to hear it.” These are two distinctly different messages, and you can imagine the different responses they would elicit. The first one opens the door to genuine, two-way communication and allows the listener to take an active role in analyzing the situation. The second one just makes the listener want to raise shields and commence evasive maneuvers.
The whole concept makes so much sense, but it can be hard to keep in mind when your child makes a questionable choice and you want to let loose with “What were you THINKING?” or my personal favorite “You just can’t DO that!” That’s why a little reminder is always useful, even if it comes from a totally unexpected source. Thankfully, parenting – like some Hollywood careers – is a long journey with plenty of opportunities to learn and grow. We’re bound to make a few mistakes along the way, but if we’re lucky, we’ll have the chance to redeem ourselves and help our children do the same.