Carolyn Hax: How to find common ground with a teen

Columnist April 28, 2011

Dear Carolyn:

I have a high school-age stepdaughter with whom I have almost nothing in common. She lives with her mother and we see her about once a week for dinner. Her interests are pop culture (TV, YouTube, movies, what the stars are doing) and fashion/beauty/shopping. She has no hobbies, history of employment, sports or any other activity outside school. I try to ask about her classes, but she inevitably says they did nothing in them, they are boring, and the conversation stops.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

When I push it and try asking something specific, like what time period are you studying in history, and she answers, I say something like, “What do you think about that?” and I just get, “I have no idea.” She acts stupid, even though I’m sure she isn’t.

I hesitate to indulge in the pop-culture conversation, partly because I am mostly unfamiliar with it, and I find it distasteful. One thing that will usually get her going is to talk about a neighbor or acquaintance (gossip works for most anyone, doesn’t it?), but I don’t really want to encourage that, either, and I often don’t know the people anyway. Her father finds it just as hard as I do. Suggestions?

Stepmom

Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post

What are the chances this intelligent kid doesn’t recognize that you find her interests beneath you? Contempt is the cigarette smoke of opinions — sure, try to mask it, but it’s in your breath, your hair, your clothes.

If you believe the quality of pop-cultural output has degraded steadily over the years, that just says you have eyes and ears.

But if you believe no pop-cultural output has value, or that no interesting or intelligent discussion can arise from it, then that says you have a firmly closed mind. There’s plenty to be explored and understood.

Your stepdaughter, for one. Don’t you want to know what intrigues and motivates her? Deciding that her tastes represent nothing but laziness of mind or spirit, without consuming any of what consumes her, is a laziness of its own — intellectual, for one, and also emotional. And, it’s smug.

Now, her stupid act is at least partly designed to keep you from talking to her — classic phase — and so trying to engage her on celeb news might elicit the same monosyllables. It would also verge on pandering, which you need to avoid, since that will repel her as surely as smugness will (the two share much of the same DNA).

I’m also not suggesting you pretend to like Real Trainwrecks of Anywhere. A forced march through media hell won’t dispose you kindly to anything.

Instead, I’m advising a love-fueled tour of her cultural landscape, deliberately seeking ideas, beauty or wit. (One place to start: the online discussion hosted on Wednesdays by my colleague “Web Hostess” Monica Hesse. It’s a guided tour, by a smart person, of what’s flying around the Internet: wapo.st/webhostess.) And just ask your stepdaughter what she likes about X show, Y celeb. Again — with genuine interest in knowing her, not in confirming your low opinion.

You probably won’t even have to scare her by mentioning great viral videos. Merely challenging your biases might soften your demeanor toward her, enough for her to loosen her guard — and quash your parent-caricature history-class queries before they reach your lips.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com.

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