With school over, summer is a good time to take stock of what your kids are learning. Commentator Margaret Rubega has a teen and a preteen on her hands. Hence, she says it’s become more challenging to get any info out of them. But what she’s learned is how to – or, rather, how not to – talk to a teenager.
Rubega teaches at the University of Connecticut, and is also Connecticut’s state ornithologist.
The first rule is: Do not ask questions for which ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are plausible answers. Your teenager prefers monosyllables. Thus, strive to phrase questions such that a response requires actual talking. Rather than ‘Did you have a good day?’ ask ‘What happened in your day today?’ If you bravely hold silence after the word ‘nothing,’ very frequently ‘nothing’ will be followed by a description of how ‘very nothing”’the happenings of the day were: how boring, how soul numbing, how desperately they wished they did not have to take chemistry. This still counts as winning the conversation.
Rule number 2: To the greatest extent possible, focus your questions on the specific. Instead of asking, ‘How are your friends doing?’ ask, ‘Have any of your friends been arrested lately?’ After a game or a field trip, don’t ask, ‘Did you have fun?’ ask, ‘Did anyone throw up?’ or ‘Who cried on the bus?’ Your teen will demand to know why you expect criminal behavior or weak stomachs among their friends, and likely will defend their honor at some length. Suddenly, you have a conversation on your hands.
Note: These specific questions will only work once.
Rule number 3: Pick the aspect of your teenager’s interests that you most abhor. The video game she won’t stop playing, the dubstep band on his iPod’s permanent loop, the girlfriend or boyfriend that keeps you awake at night. Do not say, ‘Tell me why you like that mindless game, that noise you call music, that sleazy jock.’
Ask, in the most neutral tone possible, ‘Tell me more about that.’ You will find your teenager has a hard time keeping a lid on his responses. They love this stuff. They just didn’t have any idea you’d be interested.
Which brings me to the last, most important rule: Shut the hell up, and listen.
The first time you employ one of the tactics above, and then respond to actual sentences unspooling from your teenager’s mouth with interruptions, advice, corrections or opinions will be the last time you hear anything of importance before ‘I’m getting married’ or ‘I’m pregnant.’
Teenagers don’t talk to adults because they are sure that adults don’t listen and that adults are incapable of understanding, even if they do listen. Don’t confirm these very rational beliefs.
You’ve had the previous decade-plus to dominate the airwaves with your agenda for their moral development. If you close your mouth, someone you didn’t know was in there will emerge, and he will have the very same gleam in his eye as your five-year-old did.