Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Talking to Your Teen

by Steve Johnson

Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned.”

I talk with a lot of parents whose teenagers are in the first phase Twain describes, and they often say things like:

“Our child won’t talk to us.”
“If I try to have a conversation with her, she’s likely to be Instant Messaging her friends at the same time.”
“When I insist he be home for a family dinner, he says I’m ruining his life.”

My answer: You are ruining his life, as well you should, if by ruining his life you mean you would like him to be influenced more by the responsible adults he knows than by his—perhaps more thrilling—peer group.

Make no mistake: We are locked in a battle for influence. Parents and other significant adults whom you have enlisted in the effort to help raise your children are in direct competition with the child’s own peer group in trying to affect values and form behaviors.

All day long your kid is checking in with other people—mostly kids—about decisions he’s contemplating, things he’s thinking of doing, ideas he’s playing with. Your goal is to be one of the people who gets consulted. It’s your job to make significant time in your children’s lives available to spend with family so that one generation can, in fact, influence the next.

How much time should that be? You certainly want daily opportunities for significant conversations with your child, which won’t happen unless you initiate them. They are more likely to occur at times when kids want to talk (often on a later time-clock than you might like) and on topics that kids want to talk about. Adults are used to controlling the content of conversations, and that’s the first thing you’ll have to surrender if you want to have an influence. Here are some concrete suggestions to get those interactions going:

  • First of all, provide space for your kid to talk and respond. Learn to tolerate more silence, as kids sometimes need longer to formulate their ideas.

  • Second, ask your kids questions about their world, their music, the media they like, the technology they access. Whatever your child finds interesting and knows more about than you do is a great topic of conversation. Sometimes I like to make clearly incorrect statements about things they know more about. I’m hoping they’ll feel the need to correct me, and usually they do. You can also try talking about things that are intrinsically boring to an adolescent in hopes that your teen will talk about something that interests him or her—if only in desperation.

  • Third, if your kid won’t talk about his or her life, talk about your life. Try asking teenagers for advice about the world you see. You might be amazed at the freshness of their perspectives.


  • Finally, the old standbys: Tell family stories, or go do something together. Lots of significant conversations take place when you’re watching the baseball game, pulling weeds together, driving, or comparison shopping.

Besides those daily conversations, which are at the heart of parental influence, you need weekly, extended times when the whole family gets together. Family night works well for a lot of people, especially when it gets everyone doing something active, not just watching a movie or TV.

Do you go places as a family that your teen would enjoy? When kids are little we go all kinds of places that excite them, so of course they talk to us. As they get older, we stop doing that. Why? Partly because we don’t know what those places are, partly because we get older and more tired, and partly because we don’t take the time. Take the time.

When your teenager doesn’t seem to want to talk to you, remember this: Your kid is being a kid, and you’re required to be an adult. It’s often uncomfortable. Still, it’s essential that you insist on a place in his or her daily life, however embarrassing, irrelevant, boring, or un-cool you may seem.

Steve Johnson is the director of character education for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. A shorter version of this piece originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on April 21, 2004.


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