“I want to talk to you about heroin. Our state is in the middle of a terrible epidemic.”
“Did you see that story about the kid killed in that horrible crash on the highway? You know they were drinking before they got in the car, right?”
“I want to talk to you about consent, and what it really means.”
“Your body has changed a lot in the past year. I suspect you’ve got a lot more changes in front of you this year. Let’s have a quick chat.”
“The only disease they mentioned in your health class was AIDS? We need to have a talk.”
“Another unarmed, young black man was killed by a police officer. Why? Well, let me explain what’s been going on.”
“So here’s the thing about the recent burglaries on our street. The way they’ve occurred—it was probably people looking for cash or things they could easily sell to get cash to buy drugs. Because this is what happens when people get addicted to drugs.”
“All of those people are fleeing terrible violence in the Middle East—mostly Syria—and Europe doesn’t know what to do with them. No one does, including us. Many of them have died. There is a history…”
“Do you have any questions about _____?”
If you have a teenager living in your house who loves to discuss topics ranging from difficult to embarrassing with you, then you aren’t cringing right now. Also, please call me and tell me what that’s like. Because I haven’t got a clue.
My own teenager, fourteen-year-old “Jack,” is of the eye-rolling, oh-God-not-another-Talk-please variety. When he hears anything in my words or inflection begin to veer in the direction of a Talk, I can see his upper body subconsciously settle into place. He’s learned he will receive Talks whether he wants them or not, so he tries to prepare himself and hopes the imminent one will be quick and that he won’t have to answer too many questions.
I deliver my brief lecture, punctuated with “uh-huh” and “no” from Jack whenever required. If I ask him for more, it’s like I’ve asked him to solve the problem of time travel. (Actually, he’d probably prefer I ask him that.) Occasionally I can lighten the atmosphere with a joke—presidential politics comes to mind—but that’s not always the case. When I’m satisfied I’ve been understood, I ask if he has questions, he says no, and one of us leaves the room.
Obviously, this is not the way I’d like for these things to go. But I can’t ignore these topics. Jack is not a little kid anymore. He’ll be in high school next year. He’ll be behind the wheel of a car in a year-and-a-half. Then he’ll be off to college. Life is coming; he is already old enough to know and encounter some of the tough stuff. I want to make sure he is equipped to handle the realities of life.
So why, you ask, am I lecturing Jack instead of engaging in informal conversations? Why not give him books, answer his questions, find creative ways to introduce information? This is, after all, how I impart information to ten-year-old “Emmie.”—via opportunities offered at the spur of the moment. One minute I’m in the car talking about groceries, the next I’m discussing birth control, and I never saw that transition coming because it just wasn’t there. I blink and we’re on to college admissions policies, then, sharp turn, it’s the adorableness of owls. As long as I stay ready for anything at any moment, I’m good.
But Jack almost never asks questions about the more difficult aspects of life, or anything that might trouble him. He keeps his deep thoughts to himself. Jokes and sports opinions are yours for the taking, but plans and personal feelings? Good luck accessing those. As for what’s going on with his life… A few weeks ago, I had another one of those conversations with the school principal when he called me to report that Jack had achieved something admirable. The principal began by saying, “So I’m sure Jack told you that…” I burst out laughing. I had no idea.
So, like it or not, I end up delivering necessary information to Jack in the form of mini-lectures. I don’t want him getting all of his information about drugs or respecting women or violence or any of a thousand things from the proverbial locker room. So I have talks with him, some so short I don’t need to sit down, others longer, almost all one way. His body language tells me how tedious he finds them—how he’s listening just to be dutiful. And in truth, I find listening only to my own voice a little discouraging, too. I talk and I talk, and I can only hope that the messages sink in.
This is, in a sense, what parenting is all about, isn’t it? You do the best you can and you hope it works. I insist on imparting information to my kids, and even when I don’t get much back, I hope that information as well as some of my values find their targets and manage to stick there. My kids may not choose to live by all of those values, but I hope they have heard enough at least to recognize their importance and to give them serious consideration. And I hope that all of my talking, my insistence on discussing topics they wish I wouldn’t, lets my kids know that as they get older, they can come to me with anything if a tough problem arises. I may not be able to solve it for them—chances are I won’t—but maybe I can help them work through it, like a good (older and wiser?) friend does.
If you have suggestions for more creative ways to chat with a recalcitrant teenage boy, I’ll take them. In the meantime, The Lecture Years will continue. Jack may not like it, but at least I know he’ll be listening.