Archived Story

Teenagers talk, we just have to learn to listen

Published 12:43pm Monday, March 12, 2012

“I can’t figure out what’s wrong with teenagers these days,” this middle-aged father complained. “I can go all day long and get nothing out of them but a grunt. They never talk to me anymore. Crazy thing is when they were little, I couldn’t get them to shut up.” On the contrary, he succeeded wildly — it just took about ten years. Teenagers normally talk with their parents — those parents who listened to them when they were little.

I hear this complaint often — as often other parents sympathetically resound to it. That’s just the way teenagers are “these days,” clueless parents agree. For my part, I remember teenagers being this way ever since I was one. Some of my high school classmates told me they never talk with their parents, and they said it was because there “is nothing to talk about.” I had difficulty understanding until I recalled my parents always listened to me, even when I was too young to have anything significant to say. What I had to say was significant to me, and this was the significance they recognized and to which they responded.

I feel sorry for parents who complain about their teenagers. But I am also disgusted with their stupidity and feel more sorry for the kids. While parents like their teenagers to tell them about their lives, the kids need parents who will listen. Then they will talk. And you let them say anything they are willing to say to you.

When I reported this man’s remark to my daughter, she replied sarcastically, “I wonder why?” She has as intimate and open relationship with her teenage children, as we had with ours and as my brother and I had with our parents. It is not so much a family tradition as it is each generation has learned by experience and put it into practice.

I do see parents listening wonderfully to their young children jabber away. These kids will grow into emotionally secure and socially confident teenagers. I recently watched a young mother pushing a cart loaded with groceries she had busily collected in the store. I doubt if her preschool boy had anything earth-shaking to say, but she was listening. The mother was not pretending, she really was listening. It was active listening. She asked him to repeat what she missed and commented excitedly about what she caught. As they left my earshot, he was still talking and she was still listening.

I have no difficulty envisioning this boy as a teenager. I suspect his father also listens to him now, because a woman wise enough to listen to her preschooler is wise enough to marry a man who does. I should expect they listen to each other.

I am all for parents instructively correcting their children’s grammar. We did, and we do with our grandchildren. But we let them get their remarks out however they can. Instruction comes later. There is nothing that can kill a child’s enthusiasm to talk like running grammatical corrections.

Listening to teenagers requires hearing them through and letting them tell their stories their way. Refuse to show shock. We do well to restrain moral judgments until we know what we are judging. Moreover, youth do well to use their parents as sounding boards. If we just hold our tongues long enough, they will often judge themselves by what they hear themselves saying to their parents.

Do not be quick to preach. Ask questions that help the teens think through their thinking. The question the kid answers for himself is owned, whereas the answer laid on by a parent is too easily missed or even dismissed. I heard a recent college graduate tell a Sunday school class of high school students: “I am at that stage in life where you finally realize your parents were right all along.” The same man told his college advisor: “You have to understand my dad. He asks a lot of questions, and he makes me answer them. When I make up my mind, I suddenly realize this is exactly what he would have said.”

When they talk, listen. When you listen, they always will.

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