(The following is an article I was asked to write for Relate magazine.)
When my son was thirteen he was invited on a beach vacation with his best friend’s family. His friend’s mom (we will call her Doris) took my son and hers to the mall to shop for beachwear. They were in the market for a pair of flip-flops. Doris walked into Pac Sun, the boys close behind.
“Can you help me?” Doris tapped one of the teenage sales clerks on the shoulder.
“Yeah, what do you need?” he grunted.
“I’m looking for boys’ thongs” she declared.
Doris’ son tried to slip away unnoticed while my son and the clerk did a poor job stifling their laughter. After a few seconds of mortified silence, Doris persisted:
“My gosh, you act as though you’ve never even heard of thongs for little boys.”
Just before they left for the trip, Doris came by and spoke of the difficulties of raising a young man.
“He hardly even speaks to me. It’s like he’s embarrassed to be associated with me.”
I just smiled. What I wanted to say is: “You’re doing it wrong.”
Lord knows, I’m no expert. I’ve had more than my share of cringe worthy attempts at navigating the teenage discourse dynamic. But I have been able to decipher some hard and fast rules when trying to converse with kids. Here are a few:
Rule number one: Don’t use outdated cultural references or phrases. Noone “talks to the hand.” Nothing you want to discuss is “bitchin’” or “gnarly” or “rad.” Fo-shizzle.
Rule number two: Don’t join their conversations unless you’re invited. I was driving my daughter and three of her friends to an eighth grade dance. They were giggling and whispering about some of the boys in their class when I decided to chime in. Bad idea. They don’t want my opinion about whether a certain classmate is a “sweet kid.”
Rule number three: Don’t interrupt or argue. That is not a conversation. It’s a lecture.
Rule number four: No nicknames. Even if your son’s friend is named Tony, don’t refer to him as “T-bone.” Your daughter’s friend is “Elizabeth” not “Lizard.”
Rule number five: Try to have a functional understanding of (and ability to pronounce) things that are important to them. For example, don’t keep referring to twitter as “tweeter” or Instagram as “Instant grams.”
Rule number six: Conversations are not teaching moments. So don’t make them one. Don’t criticize them or tell them how you would have handled a situation differently. If your child says something that bothers you, hold that thought. You will have time to circle back to it later.
Rule number 7: Don’t dismiss their thoughts as “silly” or “stupid.” My daughter once told me about a difficult day at school. She was in a fight with one of her best friends. It was a silly argument and I told her so. Big mistake. She would come to the same conclusion on her own a few days later. I didn’t need to speed it up for her. I just needed to listen.
Rule number 8: Don’t rely on your kids to fulfill your need for conversation. Develop your own interests, your own “cool” independent of your kids. Show them that you have a life outside of whatever they are doing. They will engage you on it. Trust me.
Rule number 9: Do not use any of the following phrases in conversation:
“When I was your age…” or “If I were you…” or “pull my finger.” Just stop.
Rule number 10: Don’t gossip. There is nothing more pathetic than an adult who gossips with kids. And adults who gossip with kids about other kids? They should be marched straight through the gates of hell….in boy’s thongs.