You might not realize that a T-Rex and Jesus have anything in common; according to my daughter, they do. More on that in a minute.
Some of my most meaningful moments as a father are captured transporting my 5-year-old daughter to and from school, gymnastics, dentist or doctor appointments, Starbucks and Trader Joe's. (If you think of anywhere else I go, I'd love to know.) These rides are a mixture of carpool karaoke, dance parties, rapid-fire question and answer sessions, and unfiltered monologues delivered by my daughter. On one such trip, traversing home from school, the conversation shifted to dinosaurs, sort of.
"Daddy, I know who the first living thing on Earth was." I was feeling quite curious; would she go with Adam? More progressive and go with Eve?
"A T-Rex." That was not the answer I was anticipating.
"Well, who was the second person?" Let's just see where this goes.
"Jesus." Said with a slow geee-suuuus; as in you should know that. Duhhhh. Dad points for taking her to church.
So there it was, according to my 5-year-old, a T-Rex and Jesus were together on Earth; simple enough. I won't belabor the details of the conversation, but here's the takeaway: it led to an open and rather complex conversation about faith, religion, why we go to church, while simultaneously giving me unscripted access and perspective into her education, her learning and the filter through which she processes the world. In one conversation it became clear she was acutely aware of faith, and her favorite dinosaur, as it turns out, is actually a pterodactyl. Those facts are equally significant as they are also insignificant. But each find is another layer fortifying the foundation of future communication between parent and child.
On another such ride she complained that a girl said her smile was ugly; hence a moment addressing self-image, the perception of beauty and concept of forgiveness. Another was monopolized by her infatuation with a boy and her plans to marry him at Disneyland and for all of us to live together forever. Sounded miserable any way she spun it. But we tiptoed into the concepts of love and marriage, just enough to be meaningful and not enough to be acutely memorable or uncomfortable. Layers. Foundation. Communication.
I know what you're thinking: That poor girl, she makes one comment and her dad lectures her for the rest of the ride. Not so; or not usually so. These are vignettes from larger conversations; parsed intermittently between carpool karaoke, dance parties, and typical benign topics. They are individual bricks slowly paving the path of clear communication. Our conversations are a bit of choose-your-own-adventure; not much is off limits. I am intentional not to overtly guide them. They unfold organically, but I have to let them do so.
One extremely obvious but often overlooked fact about kids is that they hate silence. They want to fill it with noise. So here's a tip for your next car ride: try no music, no parent questions and no mobile device... the product will be somewhere from a few words to a full-blown conversation; I don't care if they're 5 or 15 years old. When the car is filled with silence, the weight of it sits on their chest and forces out words. Any words. They. Can't. Help. It.
Proceed with caution: Often times the words generated by the desperation of silence are defensive and mean, or funny and dismissive, but every so often they are a glance straight into their soul. The trade off is worth its weight in Bitcoin (is that actually a thing?). I would love to possess the secret to skipping the meanness and dismissive snipes, but I can't. The first two eventually lead to the last: open communication. Process over product. In order to achieve relevant and honest channels of communication with your child, you must practice the process of talking. And no one wants to talk to Debbie-Downer (ya know, with those grades you're not going to get anywhere in life...) and no one wants to hear you brag about your glory days (ya know, when I was in school I played three sports and had a 9.0) so stop it already.
Some of you reading this are positively thinking: Hey guy, my kid would sit in silence with me for eternity. Point well taken; so what are you doing about it? Why won't they talk to you? It's not just because they're a teen; lots of teens talk to their parents. So what else could it be? Did something happen? Divorce? Older sibling left for college? Maybe they were kicked out of their friend group... Those answers should help guide you as to where to look for someone to hear them speak. Because if they won't talk to you, it is vital to find someone they will talk to. Maybe it's their favorite uncle, or a coach, or a teacher, or a neighbor. Perhaps in elevation of crisis it's a therapist. Regardless, identifying that they are in need of a listening-ear, painful as it is to admit that person isn't you, is a critical step in helping them open up. Just because that person isn't you now, does not mean it can't and won't be you in the future.
Excuses are the worst. So the car metaphor didn't work; you have a teen, they drive themselves, they're busy, you never see them; endless reasons exist to explain why the channel of communications have collapsed. Woe-is-me will not do anything here. There are no victims, only volunteers. Create opportunity where there is none. What can you do to let the pressure of silence work in your favor and produce words from your teen? Where can you take them? Only you know that. But I would recommend golf over a movie, or a hike over shopping. Something long enough to generate enough silence, that will in turn produce the first brick in your road of reconnection and communication. Whatever you do, just beware of the T-Rex.