I’ve spent the last 15 years working with kids and their families while running two of the fastest growing summer camps in the country. For the past ten years, boys – my own three and those from hundreds of other families – have been a big part of my life.
We get them young (six years old) and get them old (sixteen years old). We see them grow over the summers and even get to work with several as they return as staff members.
And, after 10 years and hundreds of boys, I’m finally getting comfortable in talking with teenagers.
Yep, it’s true. The first several years, I had no clue what to say or do around our 13 to 16 year olds. The little guys were easy – they just wanted to play and laugh and wrestle and tell stories.
The older guys… they looked at me like I was the enemy every time I walked in the room. I see that same look from my oldest son from time to time. And, while I want to teach and prepare this group, I keep hearing Ephesians 6:4 in my head:
"Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord."
The more I tried, though, the easier it got. The more I met the young men where they were – physically and emotionally – the better the conversations went. The more I treated them like young men who wanted to learn and have some responsibility, the better things got.
Plus, it turns out they needed to get used to me just as I needed to get used to them. It takes a little time and an understanding that these young guys are starting think in different ways. We gray-hairs should be teaching but need to do so in manner they’ll accept.
But that means you need to get them to talk which is not always easy. However, over time, I’ve found out a few things that work really well. I hope the following four ideas will be helpful to you.
Play a Game Together… and Laugh
This is not a time to instruct - you aren't working on his shot or stroke or whatever. In fact, its better if the young man can teach you how to play. When you are playing, keep it light and laugh at your own mistakes and ask him questions about how to play.
Anything will work – horse, chess, cards, corn hole, one of his favorite video games, etc. (Personally, I would stay away from the gory stuff. Nintendo’s Smash Brothers Brawl and Mario Cart seem work great for us.)
Games are great icebreakers for guys. Something that levels the playing field where you can show some vulnerability and creates situations in which you an laugh at yourself is really important.
Once things are rolling along, slip in a question. “Hey, I overheard you talking about that girl again yesterday. How’s that going?”
Plan a Trip Around What He Likes
I got this idea from Bob Goff in Love Does. He’s a wild-man for God and a wonderful human. The idea is to let the young man pick something he’s excited about and wants to learn more. You two work together to figure out how to go to learn more together while staying within a budget you set.
I did this with my boys and it afforded a number of opportunities to have good conversations.
Prepare a Special Meal Together
The oldest boys at camp tell me their favorite evening activity (the thing we do after dinner) is “Tailgate with Cole.” Here’s how it works:
Around 8pm, we head down to the lake and I teach the boys how to cook a steak (and veggies!) on the grill. We go over my special rub, how to prepare everything, how to light the fire – everything. And - this important - I make them do it all with me.
When the food has been prepared and devoured, we all sit down around the campfire. It’s dark at this point with only the light from the stars and fire to guide our way. I talk (a very little bit) about great men in history – Churchill, MLK, Lincoln, Cincinnatus, etc.
After a short talk, I ask them a question: “What does it mean to be a good man?” Then, I listen. I ask follow up questions to understand and dig deeper. I always finish with a ‘Thank you for sharing.’
You’ve got to set the scene a bit. And, it’s got to feel different and special for him. Finally, it should be guys only and kept light… until it’s time to be serious. (This is actually a really cool thing to do with a few other dads and their sons as well.)
The experience involves teaching skills and providing an opportunity for real responsibility. When your teen guys feel like they are being treated as an adult and prepared to be men, they open up… a bit.
Do a Study Together
Having run the Pathways Class for the past three years, I've worked with several fathers and their 8th grade sons. Over that time there have been two consistent points of feedback.
First, the conversations that continue after class have been the best these 13-15 years olds and their dads have had in years.
Secondly, having a man other than his father ask important questions is eye opening. Additionally, listening to other men answer in the same way your dad does is even more jarring. ‘Holy cow,’ the teen thinks. ‘It’s not just my dad saying this about porn, money, responsibility, etc. It must actually be important!’
Here’s the thing – we men communicate more effectively when we are doing something side by side. And young men open up when they are having fun AND feeling prepared to become an adult.
It’s going to feel awkward and that’s ok. Do it anyway. Before you know, he’ll be out of the house. Use this time with him intentionally and enjoy the process. You get to help mold him into the man he’s going to become, one way or another.
While I’ve had a lot of experience in this realm, I certainly don’t have all the answers. What have you found to help get your teenager talking with you?