As the mother of a newly minted thirteen-year-old, I’m admittedly no expert on parenting through the teen years. But having taught and worked with seventh through twelfth graders—and especially because I possess a bafflingly vivid memory of my psychologically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally tumultuous years being one—I’ve picked up a few handy tidbits of adult behavior I’d like to offer up for your consideration.
These five relationship tweaks can work astonishingly well for bridging the gaping abyss between the adolescent/teen and us elderly folk who have no understanding of anything about today’s world, much less the complicated life of a tween or high schooler.
1. Make Your First Interaction a Positive One
This is a good strategy for all relationships, actually. When greeting another human being first thing in the morning, after returning home from school/work, or following any kind of separation, let’s make the first words out of our mouths positive ones.
“Good morning. How did you sleep?” is good; “Why didn’t you put the trash out at the curb like I told you to last night?” is not so good.
“Glad you’re home. How was your day?” is warm and welcoming; “I’ll bet you left your math textbook at school again, didn’t you?” not so much.
“Getting some R&R?” is a non-judgmental comment that recognizes the value of down time; “Have you done anything today other than lie on the couch playing videogames?” will throw a kid into defensive mode faster than chucking a mad raccoon at his head.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time and space for us to deal with discipline, work ethic, responsibility, and the like. But if criticism, irritation, and negativity accompany us every time we walk in the room, our kids—and anyone else with whom we interact—will develop the unconscious and pervasive habit of inwardly throwing their dukes up whenever we’re around.
And it’s pretty tough to cultivate a healthy relationship through a pair of closed fists.
2. If Questions Must Be Asked, Ask Open-Ended Ones
Older kids are notoriously non-communicative. Whereas five years ago we’d have gladly paid half our yearly income to get them to shut up for an hour, now an invisible switch has flipped inside their mouths. Suddenly “Fine”, “Yes”, and “No” comprise the complete and universal teenager responses to any questions for which those answers will syntactically serve, such as:
How was your day?
Did anything exciting happen?
Is there anything you want to talk about?
We may feel that if we don’t ask these questions we will never again hear the voices of our offspring, but this is actually a counterintuitive miscalculation. I’ll talk more about the remarkable value of adult silence in the next section. But for now let’s look at how to word the questions we do want to ask.
Closed questions, like those above, typically get a binary (yes/no) or single-word response. Open-ended questions (think who, what, when, where, why, and how) can’t be answered so dismissively.
The second and arguably more appreciable benefit to open-ended questions is that they also tend to communicate deeper understanding and greater interest on the part of the asker:
What did your teacher say about your history project?
How are you handling that problem with Brian?
Tell me what you’re enjoying and what you’re not enjoying about tenth grade so far.
Hard as it may be to believe, our kids actually do want to talk to us. And when we give them reasons to think that we’re interested in them and in their world, they’ll open up.
Which brings us to the surprising benefits of shutting up.
3. Listen 80/Speak 20
We really need to get more comfortable with silence. Why? Because if we’re talking, we’re taking up the space in which our kids could be talking. Time is a finite thing, after all. What I use leaves less for you.
A good benchmark to strive toward is to listen 80% of the time and talk 20%. This is, admittedly, really hard. We’ve been in teach-instruct-train mode with our children for so long, haven’t we? But you know what? By this stage of the game our kids pretty well know what we think. About pretty much everything. They’ve been listening, observing, absorbing our guidance and knowledge and wisdom for over a dozen years. They know where we stand on most issues.
Right now, they’re trying to figure out if they agree with us or not. Hence the battles.
So when a kid says, “I heard that a guy in my class has been smoking weed,” this is exactly the wrong time for the parent to launch into a lecture about the dangers and horrors of drug use. That kid already knows that his parent either wants him to stay a hundred miles away from the druggies, or that the parent hopes the classmate can hook him up with some ganja.
The parent, and/or the parent’s viewpoint, is not the subject of the conversation. The child is.
A better adult response? “What do you think about that?”
Then we shut up and listen, interjecting only the occasional clarifying (or maybe even leading) question or comment. We only expound on our viewpoints if we’re specifically asked.
Yeah, it’s way hard. But the conversations this strategy generates are way worth it.
4. Praise What They Do, Not Who They Are
This one has actual scientific evidence to back it up. People—and kids are people—perform better when they’re praised for traits over which they have control, than if they’re praised for qualities that they feel are unchangeable.
For example, kids who hear, “You succeeded because you worked really hard,” tend to try even harder when challenges arise. They believe that success is a function of perseverance. On the other hand, kids who are told, “You succeeded because you’re so smart,” exhibit the opposite behavior. They give up more easily when confronted with an obstacle, because they fear that failure will prove they aren’t as smart as others think they are.
When a kid pats himself on the back for how brilliant he is, we can say, “Yeah, you’re a pretty smart cookie. But what impressed me was how much time and effort you put into that science fair project.” Conversely, if he claims he’s dumb, we can counter with, “I don’t think that at all and I hope you don’t think that about yourself. But regardless, you showed by that song you wrote what great work you can do when you put your mind to something.”
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”
5. In Moments of Crisis Don’t Tell Them What To Do, But Ask Them What They Need
Lastly, we have to quit being our kids’ problem solvers. This one’s really hard too, both because we’ve been putting out all the fires for so long, and because we’ve gotten pretty good at it. When the poo hits the fan, I can stop the carnage and clean it up a lot faster and more efficiently than my kids.
Or at least, I think so.
But in order to become functional adults our kiddos must learn to deal with their own crises, and when better than now, while they still have an adult nearby to back them up?
When the child realizes, as the bus is coming down the street, that he never packed his lunch, let’s resist the effort to A) throw some grub in a bag for him on the way out the door, B) stuff a fiver in his pocket to buy a lunch, or C) lament his failures as we chase him across the yard. Instead, just say, “How can I help?”
When she calls from school to say she forgot her homework: “How are you going to resolve this?”
When they tear the seam of a new garment they were fighting over, just minutes before we need to walk out the door: “Whether you two are dressed or not, we’re pulling out of the driveway in ten. Figure it out.”
Giving them ownership in the solution to a problem shows them we respect and have confidence in them. (And it also makes parents’ lives loads easier, once the kids get used to managing their own crises. Sweet!)
It’s a Brave New World
I’ll admit, I really like the teen years. Babydom and toddlerhood had their charms, but teens are just awesome. They’re clever, energetic, interesting, and balanced on that fragile rim between childhood and maturity.
But it’s a whole new game, with new rules and no rule book, when we suddenly find ourselves looking up at our own progeny and wondering, “What the heck just happened here?”
It’s all good, fellow parents. We’re raising adults, and the finish line is in sight.