A couple years ago in early autumn, I had one of the best, most enlightening conversations I’d ever had with my son Jacob, who was fourteen at the time.
And we didn’t make eye contact once.
I was driving him home from an away tennis match, and it had begun to rain. As I wound my way through construction detours in an unfamiliar town, eyes fixed on the street, with the steady shushing sound of the windshield wiper creating a hypnotizing soundtrack to the drive, I asked him an offhand question: “So, what are kids in your class doing these days, hmm? Drinking?”
Within five minutes I had a more accurate picture of teenage behavior as reflected through Jacob’s eyes than I might have been able to wheedle out of him through months’ worth of earnest face-to-face conversations.
He told me in detail precisely what other kids were doing, and when, and where; and even shared his opinions on the trend of using prescription ADD/ADHD drugs to stay alert for tests, apparently a big thing in his school at the time. I was particularly glad he brought that up, because it led to a great conversation about why it’s not always a great idea to do something just because you can, and that no test, grade, or class is worth endangering your health and integrity for.
We also talked about the differences between a grown-up enjoying an adult beverage and a teen abusing alcohol, how addictive behaviors are thought to have a hereditary component, and how I walk the line between indulging in a something I enjoy and making sure to keep healthy boundaries.
Thinking back, we’ve had a lot of front-seat-eyes-forward conversations, Jacob and I. We’ve talked about everything from drugs and sex to rock ‘n roll while I’ve stared straight ahead and he’s gazed out the passenger window or fiddled with the radio.
But not for the reasons you might image.
Bringing up difficult conversations in the car is a well-known teenage parenting strategy, and I can see why: it takes the pressure off the teen to be able to talk about confusing, scary, or potentially embarrassing topics without having to contend with a parent’s staring eyes or critical facial expressions.
But in our case, the benefit of the front-seat chat is reversed: it’s not for him. It’s for me.
See, Jacob’s not a reserved kid. He doesn’t get embarrassed talking about sensitive topics and he will bring up anything, anywhere, in front of anyone, as a variety of our houseguests have learned when cornered.
I, on the other hand, get flustered by these parent-teen talks. I’m not easily embarrassed, but these big topics feel so fraught with potential consequences. If I indulge Jacob’s more out-there ideas about life, youth, and work (and believe me, he has plenty of them), will it help him feel heard and validated…or will it actually encourage even crazier notions?
If I don’t respond in just the right way to a question about my own past with alcohol or drugs, will it seem dishonest – or worse, inspire him to make bad choices of his own? (After all, Mom and Dad turned out okay…)
And so, too often I have deflected or dodged when faced with questions delivered point-blank over the dinner table. Too often I’ve said, “Let’s talk about that later,” or “Hmm, this isn’t really a great time,” or even “Seriously, I just can’t handle that question right now!” because I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing, or just don’t know how to answer, or because there are a bunch of younger kids, and a sink full of dishes, and a computer full of emails needing my attention and those are frankly easier to deal with than a Big Question about alcohol.
Car rides take away all that pressure and distraction. Eyes on the road, I don’t feel compelled to say anything immediately. Instead, I just listen. Let it sink in. Hear what all those little vocal clues – his cadence, the volume of his voice, whether his voice lilts up at the end of a sentence or he speaks with conviction – are telling me about his feelings and experiences.
And with all the time in the world – or at least, the length of the road trip – ahead of us, there’s no need to come up with the One Right Answer right away. I can ask little, leading questions, or just murmur vague encouragement under my breath while my mind tries to make sense of what he’s asking and come up with the best way to respond. I can share my own experiences – at least, the parts of them that seem necessary and relevant – and listen without judgment as he shares his own.
And sometimes? The quiet and focus and lack of distractions allow me to say what can be, for some reason, so hard to say face-to-face: “I just don’t know. Let me think about that for a minute.”
Kids don’t need us to have all the answers, all the time. While a “script” can be a great way to get out of an uncomfortable situation or respond when you don’t know what else to say, there is more to these big discussions than pat answers readily available to be pulled out of a sleeve at precisely the right moment.
Kids, especially teenagers, are wise enough to know we aren’t perfect and don’t know everything. Sometimes, I think, what they need most is to see our humanity, rather than hearing a perfectly appropriate speech.
Back to school season is upon us, and with it comes plenty of new challenges and pressures for kids of all ages. And for us, their parents.
We don’t always have to say the perfect thing. What matters is that we talk…early and often.
And with two high-schoolers and two tweens, this year I think I see a lot of car rides in our future.
This post was written in partnership with #TalkEarly, an initiative from The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. Check out Responsibility.org for more resources to help you navigate discussions about alcohol and other tricky topics with your kids.