The Fine Art of Stealth Communication
“Hey, Chris, what’s up?”
“Not much, Dad. Just thinking.”
“Anything I can help you with?”
“Well, I don’t know. I’m just worried about school and grades and stuff. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get the hang of algebra and political science. And if I don’t get A’s in those two classes, I can kiss that scholarship goodbye.”
“You know, son, I had a hard time in high school myself. There were so many distractions … sports and girls and all my extracurricular activities. But once I put my mind to it, I decided to really concentrate on the subjects that were giving me trouble and things turned out okay. I didn’t get A’s like you probably will, but I did better than I thought I would.
“Thanks, Dad. It’s great to hear how things were when you were my age. Maybe I can start concentrating a little more and pull my grades up just like you did.”
As you may have guessed, the above conversation is a work of fiction. It never took place and probably never will.
Most actual conversations between parents and teenagers go something like this: “Chris, put down that video game controller and get busy on your homework.”
Bad Breath is Better Than No Breath at All
Let’s face it. It’s not easy for parents to talk to teenagers. That’s why most conversations don’t last very long. Sometimes it’s like walking through a mine field. Say the wrong thing and your son or daughter explodes. So caution is in order. But the fact that communication between parents and teenagers lacks both quantity and quality isn’t necessarily a sign that anything is wrong. Nor is it wrong that conversations tend to be one-sided, with the parents doing most of the talking. That’s normal too.
As the old saying goes, bad breath is better than no breath at all. In other words, we can’t stop talking to kids just because our communication with them is less than warm and fuzzy all the time. Sometimes we get so frustrated by the incivility or volatility of our attempts to communicate that we just stop trying. But it’s better to communicate and fail than to not communicate at all. And in reality, we may think we have failed when we haven’t at all. You may exit a conversation feeling frustrated or upset, but your teenager doesn’t feel any of that. He or she has moved on to other things.
So if you are waiting for that day when all conversations with your kids are upbeat and intelligent, don’t hold your breath. They won’t be, but so what? Even nagging is better than dead silence. Most kids eventually grow up appreciating the fact that their parents took the time to nag them about their behavior when they deserved it. At least they cared enough to do it, as unpleasant as it may have been at the time.
Talking To A Brick Wall
“Tanya, if I were you, I’d apply for a job at Art Mart. They’re hiring for the summer and since you like art so much, I think that would be a good place for you work.”
“Mom, leave me alone. We’ve had this conversation before.”
“No, Tanya, you really need to get a job.”
“Mom, I told you that Jennifer’s dad has a friend who is going to get us jobs at Sea World. I don’t need to go looking for a job!”
“But you don’t have one yet.”
“I will. Just leave me alone.”
One week later:
“Mom, guess what!! I’m getting a job at Art Mart! I was talking to my design teacher this morning and she said that Art Mart was hiring her students. She knows the manager and gave me his number. I called and he said to just come by and fill out an application!”
“What did I say to you just last week?”
“I don’t remember.”
This is one aspect of parent-teen communication that can be particularly frustrating. As adults, we believe that we are wiser than our kids, that we have gone through it all before, and that we can offer them some important advice that will enrich their lives.
But teenagers are unlikely to hear us, even when we are right and when our words are obviously in their own best interest. They might listen to someone else, as in Tanya’s case, or they will just ignore us and do the opposite of what we tell them just to feel like they are making their own decisions. If things don’t work out and they suffer the consequences—proving the parent right—they still have a hard time acknowledging the wisdom of their parents. This was to them an exception, proving nothing.
You see, teenagers generally feel that to take the advice of their parents compromises their independence. To take parental advice and to recognize its helpfulness feels to them like defeat. It’s a defeat of all they are trying to do—to prove they can make decisions on their own. For a teenager to make a right decision based on parental advice is often less desirable than making a bad decision on their own.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep trying, however. You don’t want to argue with them or waste your breath trying to convince them to see things your way—but you still need to give advice, set limits and enforce consequences. If you see them getting into trouble, you should warn them about it. Even though your kids don’t want to hear it, and will try to ignore it, they just may heed it nonetheless. Sometimes our good advice slips through despite their rejection of it. You do have a powerful influence on your kids even when there seems evidence to the contrary. When your kids get older and their adulthood becomes more established, they will begin to appreciate your point of view and listen more intentionally. But not before.
“It was weird. Dad and I drove over to Aunt Betty’s to help her move and on the way home in the car, we just started talking. About all kinds of stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever talked with Dad like that in my whole life. I mean, I actually saw him as a regular person. It was kind of neat, but it was also kind of weird.”
The art of stealth communication is first of all the art of learning to be patient. Sometimes you will have surprisingly positive conversations with your kids. But they are hard to predict and they can’t be forced. They happen when they happen. Planning to have good conversations is fine, but you also have to accept that they don’t usually work out the way you planned.
For six years, I took my son Nathan out to breakfast once a week so that we could have marvelous conversations over our bacon and eggs. But I quickly learned that it takes two to tango. More often than not, we had short snippets of talk—not quite conversation, not usually very deep or interesting—but usually civil. Sometimes we just didn’t have much to say at all.
But just because good conversation doesn’t take place every single time doesn’t mean you stop trying. I learned to be grateful for those few-and-far-between chances my kids gave me to share my heart with them, or to listen intently to what was on theirs.
Stealth communication is trusting that even though communication with your teenager is more often than not difficult, it does in fact happen. You can increase the odds of it happening by spending more time with your kids, talking in pleasant rather than preachy tones, accentuating the positive, avoiding cutting remarks, using humor, and so on. There are still no guarantees, but rest assured that you’re not wasting your breath.
Your Voice, Their Language
The art of stealth communication is also the art of learning to communicate in the language your teenager understands best. That doesn’t mean you have to use the latest teen slang or become a stand-up comic. In fact you may not have to speak at all.
Some parents communicate best with their kids by writing letters or notes to them. Most kids hear better with their eyes than with their ears. Reading a letter you have written, they will hear your voice and maybe your heart at the same time. Some parents like to sneak notes into their teen’s school lunch, or hide them in their sock drawer or under their pillow. You can mail them or deliver them in person. If you prefer, use e-mail, although I still have a preference for good old paper and ink. If writing is difficult for you, make a video or audio clip and send it to them.
Perhaps you enjoy writing poems or songs. I know several parents who communicate best with their kids by composing poetry which they give to their kids. I’m no Paul McCartney, but I wrote a song for my son Corey when he graduated from high school. Yes, he was embarrassed to death when I sung it in front of his classmates at his Baccalaureate but I know deep down he appreciated it and will probably remember it for a long time. You can also communicate with drawings, photographs, cartoons, jokes and stories. And they don’t have to be original with you. If you hear a song on the radio that expresses how you feel, or a story that touches your heart, or a joke that makes you laugh, just share it with your kids. It’s not surprising that kids often treasure these kinds of communications and keep them for years.
Every kid has his or her own unique way of responding to what they hear, see and experience. Some are visual learners, others are auditory. Some are feelers, others are thinkers. As parents, we need to understand and appreciate the language our kids speak best and then find a voice to match it. Too often, we tend to communicate primarily in our own language—what is most comfortable for us—rather than theirs. Use a variety of communication styles with your kids. Trial and error, experimentation and persistence will lead you to some truly “inspired moments” when you will connect and get through loud and clear.
Wayne Rice is a life-long youth worker, Christ-follower and bluegrass music nut who spends most of his time these days writing, speaking, consulting, playing his banjo and trying to be a good husband, father and grandpa. Wayne co-founded an organization called Youth Specialties, as well as a parenting organization called Understanding Your Teenager, which is now part of HomeWord.com. Wayne has written over 30 books, including the parenting book, Generation to Generation. You can follow Wayne on his blog at WayneRice.com.