It’s approaching 9pm on a Thursday evening. My eight-year-old son? Asleep. My eleven-year-old daughter just finished brushing her teeth and stops to tell me good night before she heads to her bedroom. My plans? Pour a glass of wine and sit on the front porch after a long day at the office followed by homework battles with my younger one. It’s the first almost cool evening as the summer starts to draw to a close. But instead of enjoying some rare quiet time, I make a last-second shift in my plans. I stop my girl as she walks away from me. And I say, “I was about to head outside and enjoy the fresh air for a bit. Why don’t you join me?”
Conversations with my preteen daughter are not easy to come by these days. When I come home from work, she is not usually forthcoming about her day at school—even when I try to offer a range of questions. “What’s one thing you learned in science today?” or “What was the best thing someone was eating at your lunch table?” can be met with a shrug or one-word answer. She spends dinner arguing with her little brother about how he chews or the incorrectness of whatever statement he just made. I have to search for those moments when we can have time to talk—just the two of us—and she actually wants to have a conversation. Admittedly, this can be a tricky formula.
So, when an inviting porch on a gorgeous night means letting her stay up late to chat? I embrace that opportunity. My instincts proved correct (which certainly is not always the case). We talked for a half hour about classes and friends and some other mother-daughter stuff. I cherished every minute.
Nights like our recent one on the porch remind me that good and heartfelt talks are possible. They make me more intentional about setting the stage for more such moments moving forward. These are a few important tips I am trying to keep in mind as I navigate conversation with my preteen daughter.
I accept that, for this phase in our relationship, the timing of our conversations may be more on her terms. This doesn’t mean that I always drop everything when she wants to talk – I don’t want her to think that the home revolves around her. But, I try to be flexible. If she wants to talk for five minutes as I’m cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, or after her brother’s bus comes in the morning but before she has to head out to the door to walk to her stop, I try to be in tune with those cues. When she initiates a talk with me, it means she has something weighing on her that she needs to share as soon as possible.
Don’t have an agenda.
Even with ulterior motive, I cannot let my daughter know that I am mining for information. I try to let her guide the conversation. That way, she gets a chance to express what is occupying space in her thoughts. One evening, a recap of math class led to questions about the existence of God and her fears about death. If I ASK her if she likes any boys (or vice versa), it’s not likely I will get a direct answer. But I have found that this type of information can come out casually as a tangent during a talk about softball practice. Once this happens, she is much more amenable to responding to follow up questions I have to a topic because she has broached it. The changes that a middle school kid experiences physically and emotionally are staggering. (Do you remember all that? Ugh!) It works best for her to start the unpacking for me.
When my daughter is frustrated or hurt, it is tempting for me to jump in with my proposed solution to the problem. Which just makes her more frustrated. Sometimes, she just needs a chance to vent. I would be wise to remember in these moments that I am forty-two years old and still call my mom several times a week—because I need to talk. And I’m pretty sure that my words account for about eighty percent of those conversations. My daughter sometimes needs me to offer the same sounding board for her. It doesn’t have to be about having the answer. It can be just sitting and listening and acknowledging. She’s going through a period of her life that can be chaotic. It moves at a dizzying pace. She needs a chance just to talk about that. We all want to have our voices heard, don’t we?
Before I know it, my daughter will be dating and facing other social pressures that may be difficult to navigate. And I get that as she grows, her friends will supplant me in many instances when it comes to discussing her problems. But—she needs to know that I am ready to listen. To anything and at any time. I establish that trust by making sure I am modeling the relationship I want with her when she is a teenager—before we ever get there.
What advice do you have for carving out that time for conversation with your kids?
How do you find your tactics changing as they get older?