For several months now, I’ve been noticing a new word in my children’s lexicon. Stop. I can ask the simplest of questions and the only response I get is Stop. If I ask one question too many, like “How was Physics?” the word that I hear is Stop. It means I have crossed some invisible line of communication, some term of agreement we had that I can only ask two, maybe three, questions when the kids get in the car or we are sitting at dinner, or maybe at breakfast the morning after they have been out with friends. “So what did you eat?” “Stop.” I even try to follow their lead. My son will explain to me something about a car that he knows a lot about, but if I ask that extra question to show my interest, he looks at me sideways, and “Stop.” It’s become a joke, because I can predict when it’s going to happen and we all laugh when I say, “Can I just ask one more question?” Then they usually just walk away. It’s funny because I know I used this word a lot when they were little, for things like picking their nose, or playing with their food. “Stop,” I said. Maybe it was too much.
I get it. I know that there are many things pulling for attention in the mind of a teenager. They have an incredible, almost magnetic draw towards being independent and they don’t feel the need to fill their mother in on the goings on of their lives. They want to forge their own way and make a claim on their own territory of life. I see. I know. In the teenage life there is a veil of privacy through which their moms cannot dare to trespass. I won’t ask personal questions. I won’t ask who said what. I won’t ask about how you are feeling or who is this person or that person. I’ll quiet keep a tally of names that I can reference when you bring them up again, but I won’t delve into their home lives or their relationships with everyone else. My daughter can’t believe the questions I ask my college-age son and the fact that he answers me at all. I know. I’ll stop.
But seriously, “So what did you eat at the restaurant last night?” Is that so bad? Is that too personal? I’m confused because usually you want to tell me. You go to a friend’s house and come home and tell me that their mom made the best French toast you’ve ever had! Really? I think I make good French toast. So I just want to know what you ate. Period. But you end the discussion with a sudden, gavel-dropping “Stop.”
The sad thing is one of the things I miss most at the holidays are the conversations I overheard in my grandmother’s dining room. The entire family would gather after Christmas Midnight mass and then again on Christmas night. All the aunts and cousins and sometimes friends. The conversation never seemed to end. We paid no attention to the clock, even though it was well past 2 in the morning! Gathered around the table, everyone would share in the joy of catching up and sharing stories as we ate a full buffet breakfast. I have no idea what the stories were about now, but as I grew up I recall sitting there around the large square table and listening. Listening to the lilt of the conversation, the laughter that spread quickly to everyone, or the quiet lull after something sad had been revealed. Then the changeover to the happy news or the amusing story. The memories galore which taught me the lore of our family. From the other room I would hear my uncles clinking glasses of scotch on the rocks, toasting a Merry Christmas and then telling their own stories, the laughter filling the halls and the house. I savored these moments. I treasured the time that I could sit and listen and learn. And I was learning. So much. When I was old enough I could venture to join the conversation, trying on the complexities of the art. Do I tell a shortened version of the story or a long one? Do I leave out many of the details or do they add to the story? I do remember using the line, “You had to be there,” after most of these attempts but it was a safe environment in which to learn. My grandmother is gone now and my mother’s table sometimes serve this function, but not in the same way. The mothers in our family right now are too busy chasing toddlers and we don’t have as much time to sit and chat. The great aunts are far away and busy with grandchildren too. And of course, there has been the invasion of the phone.
The cell phone. The funny thing is that the phone doesn’t work like it used to when I was little. Even if my mother was on the phone, I was still privy to one end of the conversation. I heard how her tone changed or how she reacted to some news. I heard how she questioned and extended the conversations, all the while cooking dinner or overseeing homework. Today no one is privy to anything. Everything is radio silence. All conversations are conducted via a screen and fingers. No one can hear anything. I wonder what we don’t hear when we are staring at our screens. And we bring these devices to the dinner table. When I was little we took the phone “off the hook” so we eat without interruption.
Which takes me back to my teenagers. If I dare to call one of my children when it’s not an absolute emergency, they freak out. “Don’t call!” my other son says. “He won’t answer!” And then I begin to leave a message. “NO! Stop. We don’t ever listen to messages!” What do they listen to? Not much apparently. Headphones? Videos? Maybe anything but their mother.
Were we the same as teenagers? I don’t think so. We used to replace our 15 foot phone cord every few months because we had twisted and untwisted it so much trying to take the phone down the basement to have some privacy for our phone conversations. Yes, that’s true. Today it is different. I even see it in the youngest of children. Language is not the same. There has long been evidence of a 30-million-word gap in children who are not privy to conversations in the home, whose parents speak to them with simple questions and answers but don’t take the time to explain or elaborate or pose new ideas to them. Now I believe the gap is widening in this generation of cell-phone kids. They do not hear the language, they are not expected to speak, they are not engaging in the give and take of communication. We have lost the art of conversation. We have lost the beauty of how to listen and interact with each other. The art of conversation. With or without teenagers. We give and receive one-word answers. Stop. I am going to start with my own kids.
My daughter’s high school recently banned cell phones. I can’t ask too many questions about it, but recently she asked me for a pack of Uno cards. Apparently without cell phones kids have reverted to playing games with each other at lunchtime. Imagine it. A cafeteria full of teenagers playing cards. Don’t ask too many questions though. But if she’s asking for these cards, I am definitely listening. And finding them. What if we all did this? Banned the cellphones? Set limits? And I don’t mean one hour or two hours or whatever, but maybe from 5-7 there are no cell phones. A Spanish siesta of phones. Two hours of screen free time? I think it could work. I’ll let you know. After all, it is an art to raise a teenager, and it is an art to converse. I’m trying to do both well, but it’s a juggling game. Do I ask him to turn off the video games or take the trash out? Do I ask him about his test or about his friends? Maybe I can just listen and see what he wants to talk about. Just nod my head. There’s an art to that too.