“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”
- Peter Drucker
It’s amazing what our students tell us on a day to day basis. In over twenty years of working with teens, I’ve always been surprised to hear just how closely teenagers are listening to what their parents and all the adults in their lives are saying to them. They want to tell us what’s going on and they want us to listen, but sometimes they don’t know how to share the most important things they have to say.
“I wish I could tell my parents...
I don’t know how to talk to you about what’s going on in my life. My friends are way easier to talk to.
I wish you would back off. Don’t you know that the strictest parents have the sneakiest kids?
I seriously don’t know why it’s so important to do well in school. Homework is boring and I’m over it.
I really listen to everything you say even if you don’t think I don’t care. I wish you listened more to me.
I’m tired. I literally have a schedule from 8am-8pm everyday.
I’m not sure if I want to go to college.
I am not just my grades and my scores. I actually don’t even care about that.”
Bridging the Gap
How can we as educators and parents bridge the divide between ourselves and our students? How do we begin to approach the gap between the things our kids say to us and the things they don’t want to express?
Define your Why.
In my experience, I believe it begins by identifying your ‘why’ as a family. Discussions about important family values will set a foundation of trust and communication that will guide your vision when two competing interests potentially come up. For example, you truly believe in a balance of school and rest, but you also believe that being dedicated to your commitments is important. How do you handle it when your student is exhausted but has a huge test the next day? There is no easy answer, but having your ‘why’ will allow you to live with a higher purpose instead of reactivity to the day’s events. Once a few, specific values are clearly defined, continue to praise and focus on these goals in daily interactions and conversations. Affirmation for both the small and big ways in which your teen is already reflecting these values will broaden their understanding of what they mean in practice so they can be further built upon. Together, talk about what it means to be intrinsically versus extrinsically motivated towards these family ideals and goals.
II. Know Your Student and Develop Trust
Know what is important to your student. Stacia Tauscher reminds us so powerfully of this when she said, “We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.” What does your teenager truly care about? Who are they truly as a person? Often they are still asking these questions to themselves, which only makes it more important that we spark this kind of reflection. Intelligence is not the only important quality in a person, and it certainly does not equal success. Maturity, motivation, interest, accountability, temperament, goals, engagement, and confidence are all equally important factors that contribute to success, and allow you to truly honor who your kid is.
We as parents and educators have to be open to listening to their concerns and recognizing early who and what they value. These difficult conversations require strong communication, and the foundation for that lies in developing a foundation of trust. We often have a false sense of feeling that we know our students because we can track them and see most of what they are doing on social media, but they can easily feel disconnected on their end. Teens have to know that they have a “school free” zone when the conversation doesn’t have to center around school and extracurriculars. It’s always better to set boundaries and ask when and where it’s best for you to ask questions.
III. Communicate Your Standards
Beyond establishing values and opening communication, our kids do need structure. We are their allies, but we also are responsible for helping them grow as a person and as a student. Though we all know teenagers usually don’t want to hear about it, expectations are important elements of structure and stability. When explained and clearly communicated in advance, healthy expectations encourage success and learning. In my interactions with students, I’ve come to see that students are far more likely to meet these standards when they’ve connected them to shared family values. Though perhaps we all wish it was different, we learn from our mistakes, and it’s important to let students face the natural consequences to their actions if they don’t meet the standards set by their parents or teachers. If students forget to study for a test, they shouldn’t be allowed to stay home sick. This builds ownership over their own values and priorities. When they begin to take on more responsibility, shift the conversation to asking what a great support system looks like to them.
IV. Celebrate and Enjoy!
Whenever possible, set up opportunities to spend quality time together and enjoy life! We all want to have a good time, and if your relationship centers around productivity and school, their friends will become their trusted ally in this journey, not you. At the end of the day, remember that their voice matters and communicate that to them by stopping to listen when they want to talk. The high school years go by quickly and there are many fun moments to enjoy together if you can stop to appreciate them.
At the end of the day, no parent-teen relationship is perfect. Kids will always want to keep some things to themselves, and part of the growing up process is slowly learning independence and accountability. Our job is to establish the practices that change this list to seven things our students can tell us, not seven things they wish they could.