Long before Guy and I had kids of our own, let alone teenagers, we ran a youth group filled with young people we loved. One of the things we quickly learned: girls like to talk face-to-face while boys talk more openly when engaged in activity. Of course that’s a generality, but we’ve seen it play out so many times in so many conversations.
And now we have our own two boys and so many things – important things – to talk about with them.
The car has been one of my favorite places to talk with my kids. They know I’m watching the road, not their faces. They can predict how long the conversation will last based on location and destination. I have learned not to ask questions too easily dismissed with one-word answers.
Not “How was your day?”
“Fine” or “Boring” or “Tiring.”
Instead, “Tell me something interesting you learned today” or “What made you laugh today?”
I have also learned to shut up and listen. Carpools are great for that, so long as the kids don’t have their noses buried in cell phones. For one year of Teen’s middle school years I drove a van-full of boys home after youth group. No kidding, it might have been my favorite 20 minutes of each week. High energy, completely amped boys talked and laughed and sang and even occasionally got serious about something they’d heard at church or something happening at school. Once in a while they asked me a question or let me chime in, but mostly I listened. And laughed along with them.
Of course the close quarters don’t always incline themselves to conversation. One night as I drove Teen to sports practice I told him I was proud of him.
He snapped, “Why?”
“Because I like the young man you are becoming.”
So I continued. “You are kind, you work hard, you care for people and animals and the earth…”
Still no response, so I kept talking. He kept not talking.
My mind spun out of control. Why wasn’t he answering me? Had I said something wrong? Do I not offer him compliments regularly enough? Am I so critical that he doesn’t trust my kind words? In our fifteen-minute drive he didn’t say anything. Not even “Goodbye” as he grabbed his duffel bag and dashed to the field.
Guy picked him up after practice and Teen arrived home again in a much better mood, energized from a good workout and time with friends. I asked him about the silent treatment he’d given me.
“What? Oh, Mom, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. I was just thinking about girls.”
Thinking about girls? Not intentionally ignoring me or snubbing me, but hormonally preoccupied? Sheesh!
A few weeks later, this time he drove to practice while I sat in the passenger seat. He had ‘his’ music playing loud, bass thumping (still surprised I’m riding in the bass-bouncing car). The song was new to me and the lyrics were crass. As the chorus repeated the same vulgar words, I turned down the volume and asked, “Does it not bother you to listen to that with your mom sitting here?”
I repeated my question.
Still confused, “What? Oh, that? Mom, honestly.. I’m sorry, I know this is going to sound bad, but I kind of forgot you were here. I’m not even listening to the music, I’m just thinking about practice tonight.”
I had to laugh! Twice in a month I learned that you can’t read too much into someone’s silence. Especially a teenage boy’s!
One of the few true-for-always things I’ve learned about good parenting: be available when the kids are ready to talk. Which takes presence and time. Lots of both.
During spring break, Tween and I took a long road trip together. To while away the time, I suggested a game: he should say a word, then I’d say another word beginning with the last letter of his word, and so on. Alphabet, telephone, eel, laughter, reach, hungry…
We played for an hour, and surprisingly, we laughed big belly laughs – you have no idea how many words end in ‘e’ and how few words begin with ‘e’ until you’ve played this game! We played it again with cousins when we reached our destination. We played again on the way home, but the game lost its appeal as we repeated all the same words we’d used before.
One morning before school we were talking about how being grateful can affect your attitude. “I know, Mom! Let’s play the word game again, except this time we only say things we’re thankful for.” God, Dad, danger (“adds spice to life!”), redemption, new flowers, senses, safety, you (watery eyes on two faces)… The game we began on a car ride changed the conversation in the house, and we both lived that day with a little more gratitude.
A few years ago I had a conversation with a mom whose child was about to take their driver’s test. She lamented the loss of car time to talk with her child, something I hadn’t yet considered. I gained a new perspective on just how fleeting the daily reality, the chores of parenting, can be.
Today Teen got his driver’s license. He doesn’t have a car so I anticipate a lot of negotiation in our near future. We may continue to drive him to and from school and keep him in carpools for a while; California teens can’t drive anyone under 21 for the first year they have their license.
He lost only one point on his test and the instructor wrote “Good driver” on the bottom. I’m not surprised. I thought being a passenger to my child as driver might freak me out, but his confidence inspires trust. He is a good driver.
I’m proud of him, happy for him. And truthfully, I’m a little bit sad for me at losing our together time in the car. Next-up parenting challenge: I’m going to have to find new shared activities, new ways to be present with him over time, to continue the conversation.