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August 24, 2013

Keep talking to your teens -- even if they're not listening

by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Mark Twain famously wrote: “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 in seven years."

I’m on the receiving end of that kind of teenage condescension these days, so I have a lot of sympathy for Mark Twain’s dad. I’m constantly saying wrong-headed, cringe-inducing, or just plain moronic things. My fashion sense and vocabulary are often the target of humor — and I’ve been instructed to never, ever, dance. It’s hard to believe that the teen who eyes me with contempt used to weep passionately when I left the house — and then joyously wrap her arms around my legs when I returned home.

Words with teens

I’m exaggerating, of course, and of course I know that my kids love me — and even respect me some, too. I also know that they're doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing: separating and figuring the world out for themselves. They can’t help being obnoxious at times; it’s part of their job description. Experts would tell me that I shouldn’t take their behavior personally, and most of the time I don’t.

But I often wonder if anything I say gets through to them — even when they’re not wearing earphones. I suspect they tune out the sensible (admittedly sometimes tiresome) ideas and advice I offer about school, values, and staying safe — but that doesn't stop me from offering it anyway.

“Get out of my life”

Then, just yesterday, my oldest son, who just got his driver’s license, shocked me by saying that when he’s behind the wheel he often thinks about the driving advice I’ve given him. He told me that he suspects I imagine him driving like this: eyes glued to his phone as he texts, changes his playlist, and shifts gears. “But I’m actually really careful, and I remember all the things you’ve told me.”

His comment sent me back to one of my favorite teen parenting books (and certainly the one with the best title): Get Out of My Life — But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?  The author, Anthony E. Wolf, writes:

“One consequence of teenagers’ turning away from their parents is that they no longer really hear us. Instead they hear a little voice in their head that they think is ours but is not. It is their version of us. Actually, it is their new teenage conscience, only they don’t know it yet. This conscience doesn’t talk with their own voice, as it will by the end of adolescence, but with ours… Part of adolescence is the development of one’s own set of values. It is a sorting-out process, deciding what to accept and what to reject. The finished product at the end of adolescence is a set of values that are distinctly the teenager’s own.” 

So even if your kids are tuning you out in real time, they hear your voice inside their heads — even if they don’t want to. 

Handing over the keys

My son’s version of my vision of his driving has some truth to it — it represents my worst fears, anyway. But I actually trust him behind the wheel: he’s a cautious and responsible driver. And it’s heartening to know that some of the many things I’ve said over the years — advice that I visualize wafting up into the nethersphere unheeded, like thin wisps of smoke — actually sticks. In the end, our kids create they own values and ways of being in the world, but our words do make a difference — which can be hard to believe when they're so often met with eye rolls and world-weary shrugs.

As I handed over the car keys yesterday for his first solo drive, I felt a wave of worry, because that’s part of my job description, and a lurch of sadness, because it’s one more example of the countless ways he’s moving away from me and into adulthood. But I felt a huge measure of pride, too, in the adult he’s becoming.

Which reminds me: I need to tell him that, because I finally get it that he’s listening — even when he’s not.



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