One parent writes: My daughter spends all day with a friend. She no sooner gets home than she is on the phone or online to the same friend! For hours! What can they possibly have left to talk about?
It’s true. For young teens, there is no such thing as enough time to talk with friends. Far from being a waste of time, extremely important business is going on. The constant chatter of who is doing what with (and to) whom, who is “going out” with whom, what everyone is wearing tomorrow, where to go on Saturday night, etc., is a complicated exercise in figuring out what human relationships are all about.
One of my teachers used to say that kids are wonderful observers but lousy interpreters. They are acutely aware of what their friends, peers, teachers, parents, and other adults are doing. But often enough they miss important social cues, put an overly negative or positive spin on what someone has said or done, or get caught up in peer attitudes and opinions. All too often, they write off someone who has hurt them rather than risk the vulnerability involved in talking about what happened. All too often, they divide the world into good guys and bad guys, with little room for the reality that lies in between. All too often, they conform to the peer group because they don’t know how to think about and talk about alternatives without risking their own membership in the group. The result can be disappointments and betrayals, lost friendships, and a kind of painful conformity.
Teach Kids What’s Behind Behavior
One of the most important things adults can do for young teens is to help them develop the sophistication to think about what is behind other people’s behavior. Even very young children can learn to look behind aggression, selfishness, and hurtful remarks to find the insecurity and fears of being left out that are usually their source. Older boys and girls can learn to react to each other’s behavior in ways that are likely to make the situation better instead of worse. Once they are shown how, they are quite capable of reassuring each other, talking about what has gone wrong, and deciding how to make it right.
The key to teaching these skills is listening hard and asking good questions. Adults who want to help should listen very carefully when their kids bring home stories (both positive and negative) about what happened at school, at camp, on the playground, or on the playing field. Rather than jump to conclusions, these parents ask questions that take the thinking and the discussion to deeper levels. They ask their child how he thinks the other child feels. They ask their child how she would react if the same thing happened to her. They ask what could be done to help keep good things happening or to help another child feel better. They ask their child to think of ways that he or she could help others understand more too.
My daughter’s sixth grade teacher is a master at these kinds of conversations. He often joins in on after-dinner instant messaging with the kids in his class. The kids get very excited when Mr. M pops onto the screen. He always enters in as a friendly member of the group. Every now and then, he guides the conversation — just enough and in just the right way — so that the kids better understand something that one of them said or did during the day.
I do try to practice what I teach, though sometimes not much more successfully than others. Last week, another parent phoned me with a very typical concern. “My daughter says your daughter didn’t talk to her all day. Can you find out what is going on?” So I asked her. “But Mommy, she didn’t talk to me all day,” my daughter said sadly. Fortunately, I have an ally in the other Mom. We agreed that both girls needed help in looking behind their friend’s behavior. When we unraveled the whole story with the girls, it turned out that each had felt confused about something that had happened at school. Neither one knew how to talk about the occurrence, so each withdrew, making the other girl feel “dumped.” In reality, neither girl was “dumping.” Both were feeling insecure and afraid. Both learned something important about dealing with a rough spot in a relationship by talking it through with their moms.
Join in the Mix
Kids are in constant contact with one another. Rather than get irritated by it, parents and teachers need to find ways to participate in kids’ efforts to develop very complicated relationship skills. Kids who get this kind of direct instruction and support develop self-confidence and security in dealing with human relationships, however complex, wonderful, exasperating, comforting, exciting, scary, fascinating or challenging they might be.