Lame Questions, Lame Answers
Your question, "How was school?" receives either a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders or a dull "Okay." "What did you do with your friends tonight?" prompts a "Nothing" or a "Just hung out." Attempts to engage your teen in conversation about her life often bring little success. Efforts at dialogue result in your performing a stand-up monologue.
Knowing your teen, really knowing what's going on in her life can be a daunting task. Especially when she is withdrawing more from your company and spending all her free time with her friends -- in person, on the phone, or exchanging instant messages on the computer.
Unfortunately, most parents give up trying to stay connected to their teens, trying to know who they really are. As long as we know that they are doing well in school, drug-free, busy with extracurricular activities and not hanging around with convicted felons, we trust that we have enough information about their lives. We settle for that as knowing our teens. We settle for too little. When our teens tell us to stay out of their lives, we take it personally. Feelings hurt, we retreat from them at an intense, confusing time in their lives when they need us to stay very interested in who they are, what they think and where they are going.
Showing a sincere interest in what your teenager thinks and cares about is the best approach to knowing him. This doesn't mean shameful confrontational inquisitions -- "Do you do drugs? Do your friends drink and drive? Are you having sex with Laurie?" Such questions are perceived as attacks and accusations.
It's All in the Details
The following suggestions will help you get to know your teen. Remember, it's all in the details:
Replace your usual, ho hum "How's school?" with specific questions based on knowing the details of his academic life. Find out about the courses he's taking, which ones interest him and which ones bore him. Ask who his favorite and most disliked teachers are and why they hold these distinctions. Keep up with his homework assignments, term papers and tests. Look at his textbooks so that you can talk with him about what he's studying. Ask questions like, "How's your research coming along on your Viet Nam term paper for World History? Do you think your English Lit test this Friday will be multiple choice or essays?"
Rather than again just asking, "How was football practice? How's the play rehearsal coming along?" find out more about these activities. More knowledge of what they're doing will result in questions like, "Are you going to run the football more than pass this Saturday because your offensive line is so much physically stronger than theirs? Are you and Scott sounding better in the duet you sing in the second act?"
Who is your teen's favorite musical group? Listen to their songs and ask her what makes these her favorite groups -- their lyrics, harmonies, rhythms? What TV shows does she enjoy? Ask her if you may watch these programs with her once in a while. Ask what appeals to her about these shows -- realistic portrayals of teens and families, offbeat humor, particular characters? What are her top five videos and why would she recommend them to her friends? What does she think about tattoos and body piercings? Has she heard of any kids who got them and now wish they hadn't? What brand names in clothing are popular and which ones are uncool? Do kids feel pressured to wear only these clothes?
Ask how many cliques there are in his school? More in middle school than in high school? What defines these different cliques? What determines how kids become popular? What does he think of the "popular group?" Get to know his friends. Treat them with warmth and respect. Invite them to dinner and to some family get-togethers. Make your home a welcoming place for your teen's friends. Take his love life seriously. Never tell him he's too young to have romantic feelings for someone. Ask your teens what qualities they find most attractive in their girlfriends/boyfriends.
To know who your teens are and who they are becoming, you must pay attention to what matters to them and show a genuine interest in all aspects of their lives. They need to develop their private, individual lives apart from you -- that's normal and healthy. But, they also need you to remain deeply connected to them, loving them even as they tell you to leave them alone. They need that open and consistent connection, especially when they might not be able to tell you so.