I am the unicorn of the parenting world. As elusive as Big Foot and as mysterious as Loch Ness; truly the stuff of motherhood urban legends.
Brace yourselves, for I am the parent of boys who utter more than a grunt when asked questions. I mean, I don’t want to brag, but I get full sentences with adjectives and everything. And just like Chuck Norris unabashedly shares his Bowflex secrets with the world, I too am going to show you how an investment of time, hard work and yes—a little pain—will lead to stronger conversations with your boys.
Get ready to flex those jaw muscles and here is how:
No screen time in the car: Everyone knows all the good conversations happen in the car and I took advantage of that early on. From the time my boys were little, we had strict rules about screen time in the car. We did not watch movies unless we were going to be in the car for more than an hour. Now that they are older, we have the same rule about earbuds. Phones are a no-no too, unless you are hooking up a playlist with Bluetooth. And that included me. I did not chat with girlfriends or take calls unless they were imperative and even then, I kept it short.
Turn up the tunes: I suffered through Radio Disney, learned to love country tunes and now tolerate rap music in order to bond with my kids. Some of the songs are good conversation starters, in particular the lyrics. For many years, the boys had no idea what they were listening to or what a song really meant once you broke it down. Many a sex, drugs and rock n’ roll talk began in the car when listening to a song. There is also great value for kids when they can mostly talk to the back of your head as you drive. It certainly was a life-saver for me because my facial expressions were often at odds with the words coming out of my mouth.
Take an interest in their interests and hobbies (and fake it if you have to): I have watched approximately 11 billion YouTube videos featuring everything from stupid kid stunts, to stupid professional stunts and sports highlights. These are not interesting to me but they are to my kids so I sucked it up for 30 seconds to connect with them. I also try and find tidbits in the news to use as conversation starters. For one son, I scan sports headlines and for another I seek out current weather phenomenon. This way, if there is a lull, I can reengage them. Often, these topics will lead to something about their school day even if it is only PE or lunch.
Choose when to speak: If you see me close up you will notice the scars on my tongue from biting it through 20 long, exhausting years of parenting. Listening is the key to more talking which seems backwards, right? But sometimes kids just need to talk instead of having a two-way exchange. Or there are other kids in the car who have somehow forgotten that the chauffeur is an actual mom, and they deliver some serious scoop. Just zip it and listen. Make note of things to circle back to if necessary, but in the moment just let the words flow.
Tell them your embarrassing anecdotes: My kids love stories about the olden days when I was growing up with the dinosaurs and all. But not the, “I walked 10 miles to school in the snow” variety. No, they want stories about me falling in the dining hall, getting in trouble at school or crashing my car. Luckily I have plenty of examples and provide just enough sketchy information to prompt questions for more details. Bringing myself down to their level (ie, young and often stupid) peels away the mom layers to expose a new side of me. When all else fails, boys love to hear potty-training stories from their toddler days. This always sparks a lively conversation about the myriad ways their bathroom habits have not improved much in the ensuing years.
Now I know none of these strategies seem particularly deep. But with no brothers to pave the way, the idea from the beginning was to get to know what made these little male creatures tick. I then set out to build a rapport with my boys, one fart joke at a time. There was literally no topic that was off limits no matter how disgusting or boring to me. If we were together, I was present and in the moment and all three boys knew I expected the same in return.
I have found that once my boys are engaged on even the most mundane topics, there is plenty going on in those teen boy brains. This daily connection meant that when the tough topics needed to be vetted, we were comfortable enough to grit it out.
I know they don’t tell me everything as they shouldn’t. I would be disappointed if there weren’t some serious sibling secrets in the vault. But what they share—large and small—builds a bond that I will treasure until the day I leave this earth.
Now, if I could just get them to watch the Hallmark Channel. That feat would qualify as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Maureen Stiles writes at her blog, Magnificence in the Mundane, where she chronicles the beauty within the chaos of raising three boys and a dog with her husband, given that the dog is the only one that really understands her. You can also follow Maureen on Facebook and Twitter.