I am not much of a conversationalist…not really adept in the art of small talk and casual verbal exchanges. I am much better at one-way communication (I deliver; you receive; questions afterward; thanks for playing), and I thoroughly enjoy a passionate debate. But…these are often not the best communication styles when dealing with children. Especially teenagers. It is easier when they are younger. The conversations can be about anything and can (and often do) spring up from out of nowhere during the most unexpected moments. Their interests are innocuous, so there is no reluctance to say whatever is on their minds at the time, and there is no perceived threat when asked about their day or when pressed for details. You can be silly and ridiculous and it’s appreciated, it’s funny. When they break into the teen-years though, there becomes a sudden need for privacy. They want to introduce boundaries to conversational topics. Simple questions can be viewed as interrogations. The nonsensical things that were once hilarious are now lame. The rules seem to change; and the communication approach has to change along with them. I knew I would have to adjust my style or risk widening the communication gap I could see developing between me and Logan.
October 20th, 2009: Logan turned 14. The plan was for me to meet the family for dinner after work at Logan’s choice of restaurant (as is tradition on birthdays), this time Joe’s Real BBQ, and then he and I were going to go run a few birthday related errands. He had just come back from Lake Havasu with his grandparents and some family friends; we had just returned from South Carolina with the younger kids. I was unsure of what to expect. I wanted to really catch up and have a discussion with him that wasn’t on anything superficial. It just seemed like a while since we had connected. A couple years ago, we made a point of going out for lunch once a month or so, just he and I. Those were good “check-in” opportunities. I didn’t worry about “how” to talk to him back then; I just talked to him. And he talked back.
I think I had been building this 14 year milestone up in my mind for a while…as if some cloud would appear and darken his mood and transform him into some brooding teenage malcontent that I would be unable to reach. Thirteen had come and just about gone without any “teenager” episodes, but as October approached I was dreading the changing of the year… waiting for the shoe to fall. It may have affected my conversations with him. I was probably more direct and pointed in my interactions in anticipation of resistance. And, in anticipating resistance, I received it. This always made the first few moments of any conversation I initiated very awkward. I didn’t want to go through that with him again, and especially not on the night of his birthday dinner. So, I thought carefully about how I would fill those critical first moments.
Dinner that evening went as dinners out usually do… a little bit of excitement and chaos surrounding good company, and a wide variety of splintered conversations. After dinner we all enjoyed a spirited game of tag in the grassy courtyard, and then it was time to tackle our list. Logan and I helped Kendra get the younger boys situated and then we were off to be on our own. I was looking forward to it. I had a plan. I made note of the typical conversational topics that I would lead off with that would ultimately result in either an argument or absolute catastrophe and made certain that I did not lead off with any of those. I realized that I had basically been running status checks with him – “How was school?” “Do your homework?” “How are your grades in X class?” “What did you get on your test?” “Did you take care of X like I asked you to?” – all rules and compliance questions… nothing at all to indicate I was the least bit interested about him. Plus, if the responses weren’t what I was expecting, the conversation would deteriorate. Quickly. (It gets better. Honest.)
The transition from knowing where your kids are all the time and knowing what they are doing and who they are with to having them gone for significantly longer than you have them around happens SO swiftly. There is no warning or trial adaptation period. It just happens to you, and not always when you think it might. The reality of Logan being in Eighth Grade was affecting me. I thought I had been dealing with it fine, but I realize my reaction was to try to focus on what I saw as blind spots or areas I thought he might not see as needing more attention. This was clearly not the best reaction, but it was how I reacted. So, after finally realizing that I exercise more diplomacy in dealing with my employees than my own son, I knew I had to abandon my approach and introduce some flexibility in my communication. It wasn’t that I would avoid those status topics. I just made it a point that I would not lead off with them.
We sat down in the car, and I was ready. I had a list of things in my mind that I had decided I wanted to know by the end of our conversation. Delete. I knew if I tried to structure the conversation, I would end up resorting to my usual questions (see the first sentence of this post). It was silent for a few seconds as we buckled up and I started the car. I wanted to start things off on the right foot but I was drawing blanks. It was excruciating. I looked over at the curious teenaged creature in my passenger seat and suddenly remembered being there. I just talked to him like I would have wanted someone to talk to me back then. I just wanted the approval of my parents, a safe environment to learn and grow, time with my friends, advice when I sought it, and some slack when I made mistakes. I wasn’t complicated. There were no “tricks” to communicating with me, and there weren’t any for Logan either. He’s just a kid. A taller, lankier kid with longer hair and a cracking voice, but a kid nonetheless. And just being 14 didn’t change that. I just needed to approach him
He was holding a CD that he received for his birthday. “Hey, is that the White Album?” “Yeah, Grandma got it for my birthday. You want to listen to it?” “Oh yeah, throw it in.” We drove around and completed our errands to the tunes of the Beatles. We covered everything in conversation from music, to friends, to girls, to sports, to politics (I’ve got some work to do). We even covered the dreaded “status check” items. But, since they came up during the course of the conversation and were not introduced with any hostility or argument, there was no angst. We didn’t fill every second in the car with conversation. There was no need. We spoke when something occurred to one of us and carried the topic through until it was completed or trumped by one tangent or another. It was comfortable. It was informative. It was enjoyable.
I hate that the obvious points are the ones that seem so difficult for me to identify and grasp sometimes. This situation had been building for months, and I was too foolish to see how easily it could have been remedied. Either that, or I was just too lazy to do something to address it. Whatever the case, it seems too common a condition. I observe parents interacting with their children at every opportunity. It is all too easy to see when it is observed in someone else. I only wish I could learn to see my own reflection in those interactions much sooner. But, at least it has been resolved.
I did have to adjust my communication style… just not because of some teenage condition. I allowed that excuse to perpetuate my reaction to him growing up and me choosing to focus on the status items instead of taking the time to have a real conversation. The reality is he wanted to have the talk. He was willing to share information on everything I asked him about, he just needed the opportunity to share it. He is growing up, and it is a fantastic thing. I don’t have to transform into some gregarious raconteur in order to have a discussion with Logan just because he is 14 and heading to high school next year. I do have to give him room to learn and grow, set a good example, tell him what he needs to hear, let him know he is safe to make mistakes, talk to him like I’d expect him to talk to me, and let him know he is always loved. This isn’t a new style; it is just the reintroduction of the old one.
He popped in the second disc on the way home. I didn’t see the CD case so I had no idea what was about to come on. I had to chuckle when I heard the music begin.
They say it’s your birthday, it’s my birthday too yeah
The teenager I spent the evening running errands with bore a strange resemblance to this four-year old I used to know; this was just a taller, lankier version of the same wonderful kid I’ve been blessed to know and love for the past ten years… with a slightly deeper voice.
I’m glad it’s your birthday, happy birthday to you!