I was visiting a friend over the weekend whose son Jack is a friend of mine. Over these last 12 and 1/2 years, we have spent time together at the zoo, sitting at the computer, reading books, playing games, and just talking. He has grown from an adorable tow-headed cutie pie into a tall, half/boy half/man, with a mouth full of braces, and the awkwardness in his body that comes from newly acquired long limbs and big feet. He is still a cutie pie! We spent a little time this visit talking about his life, and what kinds of things he was doing and learning, as his mom sat nearby. Later she told me that he never shares that much information at any one time. I wanted to take credit for being such an amazing person that Jack would want to converse so openly with me, but really it was that I wasn't his parent. Plain and simple. But still there were a few lessons to be gained from my conversation with him, besides him teaching me what the binary system is, how and why he named the characters from the play he is writing, how to do a parry that he has learned in his school fencing class, and what is it about "Call of Duty" that makes it such an exciting video game.
First, Jack has wonderful parents who have provided him with a wealth of opportunities from which to experience the richness of the world. This is a family that embraces and engages together in reading (their house is full of books from the 3rd floor all the way down to the basement, covering and piling in any available space), they go to movies, and plays and concerts and puppet shows, play tennis, ride bikes, watch sports, play video games and yes watch The Simpsons. There has been no stone unturned, or value judgements made as to what is "good for you" and what is just plain fun. The message being, there really is value in everything we do as long as it stays in balance. This is not a family that has to tell Jack to go read a book because there are many nights cuddled up on the king sized bed when they are all reading their books. No one has been sent to Siberia to engage in an activity that for some kids can feel lonely and isolating. In this family, it is an activity that reeks of togetherness and love. Video games often the bain of many parents, in this family become just another thing that Dad and Jack do together, not 8 hours spent alone in a room with the door closed. It may be "Call of Duty" but it is balanced with other equally fun and shared activities. The message, video games are fun, but so is reading, and playing games and taking a bike ride.
I think the reason Jack and I enjoy each others company is that I truly enjoy talking to him. He is funny, intelligent, and I know he has interesting things to tell me, and teach me. All kids, especially teens as they become more adept at looking at their life more analytically and with purpose are interesting. I am not his parent, but I am an adult, not the cohort most kids would choose to hang with. The key I think is that I enjoy my conversations with Jack as much as my conversations with fellow adults, and I think that Jack senses that. Most conversations between parents/adults and kids become more about a recitation than a real interest in who this kid is. How is school going? How did you do on your SAT's?, Congrats on getting on the honor roll, and what is your list of colleges? These are the kind of questions that kids expect from adults, and usually cringe at. But when you show a true interest, and an openness to learn and allow them to be your expert, this is when real communication begins.
As parents, of course you have to make sure you keep up with all the details of your teen's life; homework, activities, chores, whereabouts, friends, and the list go on. But it is also important to balance that detail-oriented part of your relationship with your teen, with just sheer interest in who they are, not what they produce. So have your teen be an expert for you. Just in 30 minutes with Jack, I learned to parry, understand (sort of) what base 1 in the binary system is, and become a little more open-minded about Call Of Duty, a game I abhor. Imagine what you could do with a lifetime of 30 minutes. Your teen knows more about life than you can imagine. Forget about the grades, and the chores, and homework for a moment, and ask your teen to teach you about something you would get an F in.