(Note: This was published November 2013; some changes have been made to the original text.)
The smell of the turkey, the sound of TV football, the torture of small talk amongst family members. Say what? Yes, for many of us, as much as we love our family and as much as we want more time to spend with them, the small talk of family events can put us to sleep or get under our skin or grate on our nerves or send us running to the hills proclaiming that we will live alone in a cave forever. It can be a challenge to connect meaningfully with those you see a couple of times a year, and sometimes even more so with those that you live with. Now you are facing spending a purposeful day or weekend of proclaimed FAMILY TIME.
Little ones play and share together more easily than adults do many times. Teenagers and young adults run the gamut of helpful and cheerful to sulky and texty. Adults range from pretentious and all-knowing to silent and judgmental. We seem to be pretty good at talking with those who are at similar stages of life as we are, but shift the ages apart by fifteen or more years, and silence or resentment or confusion may take over. Making intergenerational conversation can be rough. Let me suggest a few things that might make connecting with each other easier.
Adults, avoid asking your teenage or young adult interlocutor about school, college plans, or majors right off the bat. That’s all they are ever asked. Start instead with what they have been reading, watching, or listening to. Tell them about a cool TED talk you recently watched or a new hobby you are embarking on. Ask them about their favorite bands or video games or political movements.
If you must talk school, ask them to tell you the funniest thing that happened in calculus class or about their most recent poetry analysis for world lit. Start a real conversation. Remember, young people are people too. They are not just automatons caught in the machine we call education. In creative writing class a few years ago a student wrote a poem about applying to college in which she lamented that the only question she was ever asked was “Where are you going to college?” The response she wanted to give was, “Fuck you, where are you going to college?” The repetition of the same themes is dull for everyone, and for the younger person, the answers to such questions can be filled with fear and angst. Pretend the young people are real, then your time talking with them will be more satisfying for all involved.
Younger people: engage your adult friends and family in conversation about something more than the weather. Do not text or check your phone while talking to them. Look them in the eye. Don’t roll your eyes. Smile a little bit. If they must ask questions about getting into college or majors, answer and redirect to more interesting or comforting topics. Ask them what they are reading, their latest promotion at work, or the community groups they are involved in. If you absolutely can’t stand one more “What are you going to major in?” – make up some unexpected answers ahead of time, give the answer, and walk away. Use different answers with different people. Don’t worry, no one will call you out on it, and you’ll give them something to talk about until Christmas.
What are you going to major in? Nuclear Biology
What are you going to major in? Literature of Little People
What are you going to major in? Sculpture with a Concentration in Nudes
What are you going to major in? Genetics of Prehistoric Reptiles
Where do you want to go to college? Hawaii-Pacific
Where do you want to go to college? College of Southern Idaho
Where do you want to go to college? Talmudic College of Florida
Where do you want to go to college? FU*
What are you doing to do with that major? Think “Dexter.”
What are you doing to do with that major? Move to Vladivostok for graduate studies
What are you doing to do with that major? Laboratory experiments on mole rats
What are you doing to do with that major? Move back home
Adults, please, please, please do not condescend when a young person tells you what they want to do. Don’t tell them it is a mistake. And, whether you think what they are doing is a mistake or not, ask questions. The more questions you ask about a young person’s goals or plans or ideas, the more you will understand their generation and that precious individual. Avoid phrases like, “There’s no money in that…” or “We never really agreed with what your dad did, and well…” “Are you sure? You used to be so good at math…” Listen actively to what those younger have to say. Make suggestions if you must, but these are young people who need questions asked and a sounding board that doesn’t try to negate away their ideas.
Why is it so very easy to listen to what eight year-olds want to be when they grow up? We can listen to their most far-fetched ideas, “I want to be a jewelry maker who is a vet and own a business that gives out milkshakes to children.” Fantastic! Even the kids who have no idea, “Well, I want to collect garbage” get a positive response: “Then, be the best garbage person you can be!” But, if a twenty year-old has decided a four year degree is not for her and she’s going to do a twelve month program in physical therapy assisting, part-time while bartending, we scorn her for not finishing college. What is that all about? Think of the negativity of the nightly news, the economy, the world disasters – these are people who are trying to create and launch a life and a career amidst all of this. Be positive.
There are so many wonderful human beings in the world; see them around your table this year.
(*Note: FU is the abbreviation for Furman University. All of these are real colleges and very fine institutions in their own rights.)