It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are in fact two ideal circumstances in which to talk to your teen:
1. At 11:00 at night, usually a school/work night when you are tired but your teen is wide awake, and
2. Sitting side by side in the car, preferably when you (and not your teen) are driving so you can stare straight ahead and not make eye contact.
Over the past decade or so, I’ve made use of both of these times as much as possible, and it’s paid off. I found out in just this way that my oldest son was intending to enlist in the Marines. In fact, it was both 11:00 at night (coming back from seeing a musical together—yes, my former Marine still loves musicals, my work here is done) and we were sitting side by side in the car.
And when you spend time in cars with your teens, sometimes you end up enjoying music together. Sure enough, I bonded with my two oldest over music as I drove them back and forth to the learning center where they were taking classes. Around 2012, we discovered Imagine Dragons, and it became the first band (“alternative” band at that—bonus!) that we all loved. And I mean loved. We listened to their first album, Night Visions, until we knew the lyrics by heart, and eventually we started talking about them.
And, in true mom fashion, I started overthinking them. Or at least one of them.
Apparently, the debut single “It’s Time” was written by band member Dan Reynolds soon after he had dropped out of college and was going through a hard time. I only know this because I literally just looked it up while writing this article. I had no idea of this at the time, but my mom-radar must have kicked in because I soon began overthinking these seemingly innocuous lyrics:
“It’s time to begin, isn’t it?
I get a little bit bigger but then I’ll admit
I’m just the same as I was
Now don’t you understand
That I’m never changing who I am.”
Now, being a person who likes to talk, who likes to discuss things, who likes to take ideas apart and dissect them and analyze them ad infinitum, and being a mom of teens who were becoming really interesting humans, and being stuck in the car listening to the same songs over and over … well, discussions were had over these lyrics.
(And once again I apologize to my two oldest, my guinea pigs, my super-accommodating teens who humored their overly-analytical mom, and for all I know, still do.)
It’s not that I didn’t like the mildly angsty lyrics. I just had issues with them because of my own personal history, so I ended up talking these lyrics out with my daughter, who was 14 at the time. The teacher/mom-questions rolled right off my tongue:
“So, I’m wondering if getting bigger means you’re still always the same as you were?”
“So, this sounds like somebody who’s digging in his heels and saying, ‘I’m never going to change.’ What do you think about that?”
“So, people do sometimes change. You know that, right?”
I remember my very perceptive and mature daughter challenging me right back on these questions I had. We talked them through together, wrestled with the ideas, and didn’t necessarily agree. But we had really good discussions during those twice-weekly drives, and we learned a lot about each other. (She’s an adult now, and we still have this exact kind of relationship today. I’m so grateful for that.)
Looking back, I can see we had different goals in these conversations:
My goal, as a mom—as a woman with a difficult past who was literally changed by Jesus at age 30—was to convey that people could and often ought to change. I wanted so badly to express to my daughter that despite where you are and what you think you may be early in life, you don’t necessarily stay that same person or in that same place. If left up to me, I’d probably still be who I was. But thankfully, it wasn’t left up to me and I was saved from myself by Someone who loved me.
Her goal, as a young teen—as a girl with her entire life ahead of her who was just starting to figure out her own identity—was to let me know that she was indeed a separate person, her own individual self, and that it was all going to be okay. She was telling me, this is who I’m becoming, Mom, and I get to decide who I am and that’ll be me, from here forward. Which is a normal adolescent point of view, subject to change as with all adolescent points of view.
Now, almost ten years later, I think we were both right. It’s true that God changed me, and yet I’m still “just the same as I was” in terms of my fixed past, my core personality, my likes and dislikes, my gifts and abilities, and my besetting sins. And it’s also true that she, like all teenagers, was in the midst of forming that core self that will accompany her for her entire life, for better or for worse. She was in the exact place in her life where I would expect her to say, “Now don’t you understand / that I’m never changing who I am.” Just like I did at that age.
When I showed this article to my daughter last week, I asked if she remembered these conversations. She said, “Yeah, and I’m still working on what those lyrics mean to me.” Me, too. I’m still working on that. These ideas and questions aren’t just for teenagers, after all.
So about those ideal times to talk with your teen … whether you overthink song lyrics or debate some pop culture interest you have in common, whether you get into deep philosophical conversations or just laugh about some funny thing you saw online, spend that time at 11:00 at night or in the car with them. You won’t regret it. And years later, when you reflect on all the things you subtly “taught” your teen during those times, you’ll realize that they were teaching you as much as you were teaching them.
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Related article on more that teens have taught me: A Teaching Story of Race, Reliability, and Regret