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Talking to Your Teen
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 wont talk to us.
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 hisperhaps more thrillingpeer 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 childs own peer group in trying to affect values and form behaviors.
All day long your kid is checking in with other peoplemostly kidsabout decisions hes contemplating, things hes thinking of doing, ideas hes playing with. Your goal is to be one of the people who gets consulted. Its your job to make significant time in your childrens 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 wont 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 thats the first thing youll have to surrender if you want to have an influence. Here are some concrete suggestions to get those interactions going:
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 dont know what those places are, partly because we get older and more tired, and partly because we dont take the time. Take the time.
When your teenager doesnt seem to want to talk to you, remember this: Your kid is being a kid, and youre required to be an adult. Its often uncomfortable. Still, its 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.