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Monday, July 28, 2014

The secrets of talking to teenagers

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

You hear and read and learn things, helpful tips about raising kids, little bits of advice you squirrel away and hope to remember when your child gets to that mysterious next stage.

And the one after that.

And the one after that.

Toddler. Preschooler. Second-grader. Preteen.

Years ago, a friend mentioned something about talking to teenagers — how to get them to talk, in fact, when they hole up in their rooms and answer your questions with a crescendo of grunts.

I probably wasn’t the most gracious audience because, at the time, I couldn’t get my kids to shut up. They’d gleefully recount every second of their school day. I couldn’t imagine a time when I didn’t know what Sophia said at recess or how the hamburger patties looked at lunch or the questions on the math test down to the ten-thousandths place.

Then my daughter grew quiet, as teenagers do. Part of it is age and part is personality. Since preschool, for instance, she has required after-school decompression time, a half-hour or so to sit quietly in her room without interruption before reappearing, refreshed, to converse like a normal human being.

As a kindergartner, Hannah would color or play with dolls after school. Now she gets home and immediately attacks homework, a trait I admire since I’m a major procrastinator. Either way, she needs her alone time, she’s seldom chatty, and I respect that.

So one recent evening, Hannah asked if we could make Oreo Balls. Friends at school had been craving some, she said, and she wanted to surprise them. Did we have the ingredients?

Amazingly, yes. So we got to work in the kitchen, mixing cookie crumbs with cream cheese. As I rolled the dough into balls, she melted the chocolate. As I dipped the truffles, she sprinkled them with cookie crumbs.

She talked, and I listened. She talked about teachers, friends and school drama. She shared a funny episode from science class. She told me she loves being an office proctor second hour because one of the clerks cracks her up. She offered a dramatic re-enactment of how the clerk told a student to pull his sagging pants up. We laughed.

After several minutes, my husband called from the living room, where he was watching a basketball game:

“I have a question, Hannah,” he said. “Just a couple hours ago, didn’t I ask you what happened at school today?”

“I guess,” she answered, shrugging.

“And didn’t you say, ‘Nothing’?”

We both chuckled. Poor Dad, trying to go all Oprah Winfrey during decompression time when the secret, apparently, is Oreos, cream cheese, chocolate and patience.

Then I suddenly recalled a bit of advice from years ago, the friend who praised the power of side-by-side talks. Some kids who clam up during face-to-face conversations will get chatty when you’re walking the dog, she said. Or in the car. Or washing dishes. Or baking.

Something about teenagers and capitalizing on little moments. I didn’t pay attention then.

I totally see it now.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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