Speaking in Teen for Dads

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Eight simple rules for communicating better with your kids

If there’s a teenager in your house, you might have noticed that grown men and 15-year-olds aren’t always in sync. The problem is not just that you’ve got antipodal interests—theirs: instant-messaging friends; yours: roads not taken—but that your minds work differently. Your brain tries to subdue anarchic feelings, while their brains urge the chaos front and center. When you add in the crossing hormonal shifts—theirs surging; yours on the ebb—oddsmakers rank fathers and teens talking right up there with Villanova taking out Georgetown in ’85.

Still, those are the best worth winning, right? After all, any dolt can dig the company of an 8-year-old who mistakes him for a god. But it takes a man in full to court a sullen 16-year-old who appears indifferent, maybe even disdainful. Once again, I’m wiser now than I was back when my teenagers were still living down the hall. Offered in keen hindsight, here are a few thoughts that might help, whether you’re trying to savor a happy child or to steady a wobbling one.

Keep a rescue rope’s distance

Adolescents are on an important mission. In a way, their job is to move out into the jungle on their vision quest—and away from you. So don’t look for too much from them. Don’t be all up in their grille about sharing. One of the few sweet things about being a teenager is feeling pain in private. It’s bad enough when some cheerleader busts your son into a million pieces, but it becomes unbearable if you, Dad, feel like talking about it! Teenagers don’t want you to catch them when they trip. Move back. The kids need a background sense that you’re over there on your side of the river caring about them, but the only way they’ll ever reach out is if you allow them not to.

Lock-on

In moments when a teenager does reach out, it’s pivotal to focus completely. No shuffling through the mail and listening with one ear. Sure, we’ve got a million things on our multitasking minds, but giving this precious child your full attention is, all by itself, a gesture of respect that will open up things between you.

Flatten your voice

Kids are able to read volumes of meaning into every meaningless Dad inflection. When their hypersensitivity meets your way of speaking, it’s a minefield of misunderstanding. Your stylized patois of irony and sarcasm that works so well in a bar with buddies and even delighted your 8-year-old is a mismatch once he’s a teenager. I’m not suggesting that you speak like Mister Rogers—he’ll think you’ve had a stroke—but favor plain over fancy. Be straightforward. Don’t depend on tone. The plainness of a good man is a superb antidote to the confusion of 16. Be thoughtful, not fast; clear, not clever. Think Gary Cooper.

Resist referring to your youth

Over and over, and I made the mistake of thinking my kids would be reassured to know that when I was young, I had some of the same feelings they were having. Wrong. It made their feelings seem like a cliché. In general, try not to view their feelings through the prism of their age. Kids, quite rightly, hate being seen as the 12 billionth person to go through a stage of life. They’d rather savor their feelings as though nobody else has ever gone through the gauntlet of adolescence. Fair enough. A helicopter-height perspective on their feelings is insulting, even though you mean to help. If they ask, tell them that, yeah, you kinda remember feeling like that, but don’t offer comfort with “This too shall pass.”

Don’t be so sure

The trait that most often comes between fathers and teens is Dad certainty. We spend the 30 years between our own adolescence and theirs figuring out what exactly it is we know about the world, and then our few hard-earned shreds of wisdom collide with a young mind more interested in its own process than in our conclusions. When my kids were teens, and they seemed troubled, I assumed that my steadiness could help them. Wrong. In fact, it was an insult to their confusion. In a way, the secret to talking to kids is to respect uncertainty, timidity, fear—all the traits that grown men are trained to disdain.

In a storm, our instinct is to be a pillar of strength. But buoys are far more helpful.

Don’t be Mr. Problem-Solver

We get in trouble with teenagers for the same reason we get in trouble with women. We have this instinct to offer counsel and, apparently even worse, to suggest a way to fix a problem. Imagine that; all they want is sympathy, and we insist on tying off the veins and stitching up the wound. People want to work through problems themselves. Be sympathetic, and, if they ask, be prepared to offer a gentle, maybe, oh, I-don’t-know, give-this-some-thought suggestion. But this is their process; they won’t appreciate you cutting it short.

Get smaller

Believe it or not, to your kids; you’re a daunting figure. Yeah, you.

I swear. They don’t know the truth about you. All they see is this guy with a job and a wife and money. When our kids are small, we tend to tell stories of our successes. That’s all to the good; kids are well served by a model of a man who has made his way competently through the world. But as your kids’ complexion heads south, put some blemishes on your record, too. Start to mix in a few tales about your setbacks. No, not the really dark stuff, but start to ease your way down off the pedestal a bit and give the kids a fuller picture of the old man. It will help your teenagers talk to you if they can see you as a seeker, too, a person who has had stumbles and falls, and if they can sense that nobody’s life is a painless progression forward.

Don’t be nothing

Sure; some self-effacement is the open sesame into a teenage heart. But the only thing worse than an overbearing father is an underbearing one. James Dean was speaking for all teens in Rebel Without a Cause when he cried out to his wimpy father, as though begging, “Give me something!” It’s a mistake to erase yourself in search of intimacy. If you love the kids, you’ll change your style to suit theirs, but not your substance. Kids need you to be an honest broker between their interior life and the larger world in which they’re trying to thrive. You bet it’s a tough balance, but they need you to find it.

It’s no accident that many of the secrets of talking to teens are thou-shalt-not.

In a fundamental way, the task before fathers is to unbuild ourselves, to subdue the masculine habits of gendered manners of speech that, while handy in the hurly-burly, is too ham-handed for the ether of adolescence. The kids can’t step up to our grown-man take on life, so it’s up to us to tear up the stump speech and listen and talk in ways that suit the delicacy of 15.

My kids have been a great gift to me. Not just because they’re kind and funny and give me a stake in the future but also because when they were teenagers and moving away from me, my love for them, my hope to stay in touch with them, pried open my heart. Though I was reasonably successful in relationships, I was also a frozen man, without a feel for the daily drama of being alive. But living so close to their flame, I found my spirit softened, suddenly susceptible to hunches and half-formed feelings, to the uncertainties and sweet ache of life. Until I loved teenagers, I was missing out. I didn’t really catch on until after they were gone. But they were good teachers.

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