6 Big Ideas for Connecting with Kids

    How to Connect with Your Teens

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    I remember a life in the not-so-distant past when my children were my constant companions. Their grubby-palmed grips and lap-time chats bound us together. But like hourglass sands, my companions are steadily slipping away. Some days, our quality time is reduced to a quick dinner, and our chats consist of heated inquiries about wet towels, unmade beds, and homework deadlines (insert eye roll). At sixteen, fifteen, and thirteen, I cherish the independence and maturity my boys have achieved, but I long to maintain some common ground beyond nagging and family ties that will endure throughout their adolescence. Here are six ways we connect in our family.

    1. Down to a Science

    Forget the dreaded school science project in all its petri-dish, data-log, tri-fold glory. Think science. Somehow, in brainstorming science project ideas over the years, our family has enjoyed some worthy conversation. In this venue, nobody is an expert. We are all just throwing ideas out there, making guesses. Hypothesizing, even. Which ball would rebound the highest on our driveway? What is the best angle for a Hot Wheels ramp? What playground surface is the safest? In the name of science, we have connected. There are always a few hiccups in the project’s execution, but the connection is still there.

    Our scientific curiosity endures, piqued regularly by the occurrence of natural phenomena. We’ve stayed up late to view a moon of a different color, estimated the distances of countless rumbling thunderstorms, created makeshift rain gauges, and measured pieces of spring hail (and the damage it wrought). More than one snowball has passed the winter in our garage freezer. We haven’t made any profound discoveries, but science has proven its ability to unite us.

    2. Stranger than Fiction

    I am not exactly a creative conversationalist. My feeble, “How are you doing?” inspires barely discernible grunts, and my predictable “What’s new at school?” elicits mono-syllabic responses. Years ago, this banal back-to-school banter finally broke me. In an attempt to lure real words, even sentences, out of my boys, I enlisted a bit of traditional support. I grabbed a nonfiction book I was reading (Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser), and brought it to dinner. I asked the kids about a question that is raised in the text, and they ran with it. Everyone had an opinion – and a voice!

    I lean heavily on this tactic in the morning when my brain is muddled and the morning paper promises more intellectual clout than I can summon. Dialogue with a dose of text support has proven far more stimulating than my mindless queries. Front-page pictures of state fair pumpkins, for example, prompted each of us to venture guesses about their weights (none came close). And my youngest son offers a daily report on national and world extreme temperatures provided by the newspaper – breakfast discourse at its finest.

    3. In the Real World

    When my family ventures out of our comfortable bubble to serve the community, we draw closer together. On my son’s first day helping at Buddy Ball baseball (the Jacob’s Chance program that pairs volunteers with kids who have special needs in a sports setting), he awkwardly extended himself to a new friend; meanwhile, I squirmed in the stands. Weeks later, he was high-fiving and I was cheering, and we both had the good fortune to witness the determination of special athletes.

    And when our family had the opportunity to prepare lunches for Richmond’s homeless through CARITAS – a simple bologna-and-cheese assembly line – the lunch recipients altered our perspectives enough to get us thinking (and talking). Something about our vulnerability out in the real world forces us to lean in.

    4. High-Tech Connections

    Technology can be a divisive topic in our house, and discussions on the subject usually consist of me insisting that someone, “Turn that off!” I preach the benefits of low-tech living to the eye rolls of three savvy boys. But their unrelenting enthusiasm for all things electronic has led me to use technology to my advantage.

    Each child and I have had a mildly bonding moment courtesy of our devices. For example, my youngest taught me how to make a bar graph on a Google doc. We sat together at my laptop and discussed the benefits of font colors and sub-heads while the changes were saved automatically – voila! My middle son (the family’s tech support) has graciously schooled me on iPhone tools after my recent Apple conversion. His instruction on iPhone photography has helped me capture a few memorable moments – with good lighting! And my oldest has opened up a new dialogue about the family’s need for a Spotify Premium membership. We have had more than one heartfelt chat on the subject, complete with research and price details. I’m willing to entertain the idea, especially if it prompts conversation.

    5. Fit for Discussion

    I love a walk. I leash up our dog and holler for some kids to join me, and I hit the street. For years, this was effortless, and
    I traveled with a tricycle posse. Nowadays, not so much. Other enticements beckon the boys, and I am left chatting up my pup as I saunter through the neighborhood.

    Fortunately, my husband has found a fitness connection with the kids that has prompted lots of talk. Years ago, someone mentioned fitness testing at school, and he encouraged the boys to demonstrate their skills. Fast forward through years of comparing push-up form (mine is lacking), counting curl-ups, and predicting pacer-test outcomes, and now we have a garage gym and a serious connection. Fitness prompts daily discussion. As for me, I still enjoy the company of an occasional son on my walks, although the tricycle has been replaced with a RipStik.

    6. Rites of Passage

    As my kids’ worlds expand, I am thrilled to be along for the ride (both literally and figuratively). Applying for jobs, trying out for school sports, testing at the DMV – the novelty of these grown-up, high-stakes experiences really gets us talking. I treasure the sincerity of my boys’ questions as they put themselves out in the world. From the mundane (How far away from a fire hydrant?) to the significant (How should I describe my leadership experience?), my independent, growing boys seem to recognize there is still more to learn.

    Our whole family joined the discourse while my oldest son prepared for his license. We identified road signs, predicted speed limits, and debated yellow lights. We bit our nails (was that just me?), offered backseat advice, and collectively sighed upon arrival. Nowadays, we discuss routes for far-reaching outings. Thankfully, my son still listens – or at least humors me – as I preach the dangers of darkness, traffic, construction, distractions, and a host of other hazards, real or imagined.

    Our house is not a bastion of candid conversation. There is plenty of parental pestering and a generous helping of youthful grumbling, but there are ties that bind us – and I will always work to make them stronger.