What We Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate

Category: Weekly Columns

I wonder who remembers that famous quote from the 1967 movie, “Cool Hand Luke,” improper use of English and all (it should be “have” rather than “got”)? That quote brings to mind the problems most parents face in communicating with their children, especially as their children enter their teen years when all of a sudden things dramatically change.  Many teens tend to think that their parents have all of a sudden become stupid, since most teens believe they have all of a sudden become experts in everything. But it’s merely just about a failure to communicate.

Being the dad to two teen boys, I’m having the joy of simultaneously dealing with this experience now, although in different ways, as my boys are distinct individuals.  It seems that I’m getting payback for all the angst I caused my parents during my own teens, times two, as I’m raising my own two boys. My late mother’s words come back to me and I smile to myself repeatedly these days as I go through what are most certainly quite typical experiences.

My older teen’s journey is less conflictive with me than with the world at large, as we’ve had the pleasure of dealing with just about every outside problem a teen boy can indulge in.  Rather than reveal too much of his personal life, I’ll leave that to your imagination. In taking a page from The Beatles; it’s been a “Magical Mystery Tour!”

He always is forthcoming about what is going on in his life, will talk to me openly, as well as wears his feelings on his sleeve, so it is easier to “read” him.  Also, his issues and problems, while often hard and frustrating, are at least relatively common and there are places, people, and solutions for them.  And, since he was a colicky baby, he’s never stopped talking to me.

My younger son is more introspective and keeps much more of his emotions to himself.  Consequently, it has and is harder to know what he’s feeling and what is going on. He is the “achiever” with good grades, manners, and behavior as far as doing chores and such.  But, things will simmer beneath the surface and I have not been able to “read” him as well as I have his older brother.

Since he’s entered his teens, his behavior towards me has changed in subtler forms of verbal enmity, challenges, and minor rebellion.  I say “white,” he says “black.”  I say, “Would you please take the garbage out?” to which he says either, “Why?” or “Later,” clearly in a provocative, challenging manner.

Is this unusual for a teen?  Of course not.  Is it respectful towards his dad?  Of course not.  What should I do about it?  I’ve been struggling with this.  My first response is, of course, the mature one of a layman parenting “expert.” I yell at him and threaten all sorts of medieval punishments, none of which I follow through with, so my credibility disappears.

Later, I try to reason with him.  Talk to him “man to man.”  Oh yeah, that’ll work.  I next try the truly brave course, and beg my wife, his step-mom, whom he worships, to step in.  She tries, but nothing changes whatsoever.  I don’t think she tries very hard, frankly, because I think she actually sides with him.

But, as we all know and as I espouse so very eloquently and immodestly, in one of my first columns, it’s quantity time that results in the best parenting opportunities.

Consequently, I arranged to spend the whole day, alone with him, doing things he wanted to do, going to his favorite restaurant for lunch, seeing a movie he wanted to see, getting new art supplies for his cartoon work, and more.  While at lunch, he actually asked me some hard questions about his mom, whom he hasn’t seen or talked with in several years, this being one of those topics he has avoided talking about.  I answered every question honestly and openly.

We start really talking.  We don’t talk about our communication issues.  But, we talk.  A barrier has been broken.  I can feel it; he can feel it.  I realize that I must practice what I preach and spend more alone time with him.  He’s harder for me because he’s less like me; he’s less forthcoming verbally, so he therefore needs more of my time.  That day was a great reminder of this.

We are going on a ski trip together soon, just the two of us, and we will talk more.  I will let him control the music we listen to–I will suffer for that–but I will get closer to him and that is my goal. I can listen to Elvis anytime, but I can only get closer to my son by spending time with him on his terms.  That is being the best dad I can be and that is my goal and that is how we communicate with our teens.

Postscript: two things have since occurred. First, I finally started parenting my younger son with rules and consequences so that when he talks back or defies me I hit him where it counts. I dock his allowance.  He’s pouted, he’s not talked to me, but it’s working.  Second, we went on that ski trip and we laughed together more than we had in the previous six months.  It was a classic example of quantity time.  We collaborated on a project together and it was just perfect.  I’m proud of both us.


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