How I Learned to Speak the Same Language As My Teenage Son

by Renee Martin
Originally Published: 

My son and I used to speak the same language.

When he was little, we cried together when Steve left for college on Blues Clues and sang the theme of Bear in the Big Blue House together. Inevitably, when we went out for a walk, we had to stop at any sign of construction so that he could wave hello to the Mighty Machines. There were times when I actively wished that I could smoke a joint to get through what felt like the millionth episode of The Wiggles—but when I think back on it today, it’s impossible not to smile.

I don’t know how it happened, but my little boy is now taller than I am, with a voice that is deepening every day. I look at him with a touch of wonder and sadness because we don’t speak the same language anymore. These days, I struggle not to yawn as he blathers on about online gaming: He catalogs Team Fortress II, his collection of Unusuals, and the items in his Steam backpack in excruciating detail. I consider myself to be a geek, but computer games are really not my thing.

I have tried to get him into Star Trek, Doctor Who and anything else sci-fi. I thought we could have great debates about who played The Doctor the best (note: The correct answer to that question is David Tennant). Resigned to the fact that Daleks screaming “exterminate” were not his thing, I shifted focus to dystopian drama and turned on The Walking Dead. I even prepped myself for the series by reading all of the comics. Kids are supposed to be into comics, right? You would think that awesome zombie kills each week would be a great draw for a teenage boy; however, for him, watching YouTube tutorials on how to play Skyrim proved far more interesting. Clearly, we do not speak the same geek language.

When my son sang “Three Green and Speckled Frogs” as a preschooler, I recognized how beautiful his voice is. Now that he’s reached the irritating stage of eye-rolling as an angst-ridden teenager, I thought music might be the path. If he wanted angst, well, I could do angst! I did, after all, come of age during the grunge era—the very definition of angst-ridden music. I pulled out Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, certain that “Creep” would capture his attention. When it comes to teenage torment, I think “Creep” has little competition:

But I’m a creep

I’m a weirdo

What the hell am I doing here?

I don’t belong here.

I should have realized that cranking “Creep,” resurrecting my flannel shirt, and loudly singing along with Thom Yorke would not earn the reaction I had hoped for from my son. We bonded, all right—he asked me, while holding his sides and laughing as tears ran down his face, to never do that in public again. As I look back on that exchange from his point of view, watching his 40-year-old feminist mother singing about unrequited attraction (and—let’s be honest—stalking) likely seemed absurd at best.

I consoled myself with the awareness that while we didn’t speak the same language, at least we have a good relationship. More than one conversation slipped into TMI as he regularly updated me on his changing body, confirming that at least in the department of sex education, I had kept the lines of communication successfully open. How many parents struggle with this very topic? Call me greedy, but I wanted to teach him how to put a condom on a banana and how oral sex still constitutes sex.

I consulted friends whose children had reached adulthood in one piece. This is an important achievement, because at some point, raising a teenager makes one contemplate either running away from home or mushing your child like a heap of Play-Doh. Repeatedly, I was told that this is the age when kids just need their space, but they come back in their 20s when they realize that you might have more than two cents’ worth of life experience worth hearing.

I had resigned myself to another six years of using a different vocabulary than my son, when I found exactly what I had so desperately been looking for: a common language. You see, other than being perpetually tired, lazy and overly emotional, a teenage boy’s prime function seems to be to wear a path back and forth to the kitchen. Much like sharks, they are constantly on the hunt for food to fuel their massive growth spurts. It was on one of his forays to eat us out of house and home that we found each other again.

While I was preparing his favorite meal of macaroni and cheese, my son leaned in to pilfer some of the cheese I happened to be grating and steal a kiss. Suddenly, he asked me what I put in the mac ‘n cheese. Given that he is only four years away from going to college, this seemed the perfect opportunity to point out that learning to cook would probably be a good idea. He wisely agreed that living on ramen without mom’s cooking would not be much fun.

He doesn’t join me in the kitchen every night now, but more often than not, he plays the role of sous chef for me. We talk about his day or reminisce about funny family events while we cook. In between explaining the roles that different spices play and why it’s a good idea not to confuse baking soda and baking powder, we have come back together.

Along the way, I learned that I didn’t have to come up with a strange gimmick to keep our relationship strong and fun; I simply had to do what I’ve always done: be his mom.

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