Talking to teens in parables and gossip

January 17, 1999|By Susan Reimer

AFTER ONE particularly brutal weekend of Little League baseball, with games played back-to-back under the hot sun and with pitchers walking everybody but the parents, my husband fell into bed, exhausted.

Not from heat and not from boredom. From talking.

He'd literally talked his son through the fact that he had been the last player picked to an All-Star team and had found himself playing two unfamiliar positions: the bench and the outfield. My husband told Joe stories about his own athletic disappointments, as well as those of everyone he could think of, from Michael Jordan to Yogi Berra.

"I feel like Jesus," he said. "Everything I said had to be a parable."

Conversation with teen-agers is tricky business. Their attention span is limited, and their hearing is selective. "Choosing your words care- fully" has many levels of meaning for the parents of teen-agers.

It is particularly difficult during peak emotional times -- theirs or yours -- and that is almost all the time. During any given hour of the day, one of you is likely to be tired, hungry, or furious about being assigned to the outfield.

My husband's idea that parables were a neutral way to communicate was inspired, and, like his funny lines and column ideas, I made it my own.

I am sure my children still view me as the background noise of their lives -- sort of like the television that is always on but usually ignored.

But sometimes I am more interesting because I am telling a story. These stories are less like Jesus' parables than they are like gossip with a lesson. They are about somebody else or somebody else's kids, and they present an opportunity for calm discussion because they are not about anybody in the room.

"Well, your cousins have scored a trifecta," I said one day, speaking of three nephews who have left the nest after high school. "Rudi got a tattoo. John got his tongue pierced, and Bill got caught drinking on campus."

"That doesn't leave much for me and Stephen," Joe said of himself and his high school-aged cousin.

"There's always grand theft auto," I suggested, and he laughed.

But then he asked, "Why do kids do stuff like that?" And we had a brief, but reasonable, discussion of the intoxicating effects of personal freedom and the bad decisions often made.

"Talked to a friend of mine the other day," I said, apropos of nothing. "She told me about three sophomores who got drunk and showed up at a school dance."

I outlined the various responses to this incident -- from the school, the parents, the sports team coaches -- and Joe and I laughed about the tongue-lashing in advance my friend had delivered to her innocent and completely baffled son, which began, "If you ever ..."

There followed a brief, but calm, discussion about drinking and its consequences and about the fact that adults and institutions don't always view teen drinking with the same degree of disapproval.

Through a skillful manipulation of language, I was able to slip my point of view into the conversation. And that's what it was, a conversation. It didn't last long, but nobody stormed out of the room yelling.

I hope that I was not so subtle that Joe does not now know what I think of tattoos, tongue piercing and drinking. And I hope my parables, my gossip, have given Joe the opportunity to rehearse his responses to temptation.

Not exactly the Sermon on the Mount, but I'll take it.

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