Parenting by extortion came to me naturally one morning during the regular breakfast hustle.
My 16-year-old daughter was rushing to get out the door for school, wrapping her peanut butter sandwich in cellophane, when she stopped suddenly. Her face went white. “Shoot. I forgot this was my day to bring snacks to European History.”
Never mind the potential for a time-traveling pun. In an academic culture where brown-nosing is blood sport, this was a serious oversight. In the split second I had to respond, I sensed I had a few choices. I could be Magnanimous Mom and sweetly offer to save her you-know-what by handing over our household granola bar supply for the week. Or I could be Teach Responsibility Mom, and explain stoically that this is how you learn to write things down in your calendar.
I decided to be Opportunistic Mom.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” I said, as she slowly raised her eyebrows. “I will pick up some ginger snaps at the supermarket and drop them off at the school before work. But I want something in return: This evening, I want to hear three full sentences from you about your life. Each has to have a subject, a verb, and at least 2 adjectives.”
As she pondered the deal, I sensed I had aimed too low. “Also, one piece of harmless gossip about someone in your school.”
She knew she had no leverage; first period started in 18 minutes. She also knew why, out of all the cruel promises I could extract from her, intimate conversation was the most valuable to me.
I am a talker, an extrovert, and an annoyingly curious mom. This worked out great when my kids (boy-girl twins) were toddlers and young children, full of questions and observations and that unending chatter of ‘why does this happen?’ and ‘who is that?’ and ‘sit next to me, Mommy.’
As they entered the tween phase, I had braced for that emotional shutdown I’d heard of – and it didn’t happen! We’d have philosophical conversations about the news, and I’d hear about the mean middle school teachers and the kid who got embarrassed in gym class and the friend who might be mad at them. Naively, I thought I was home free.
Of course I wasn’t. High school hit, the teen years in earnest, and they got quiet. Not rude, mind you. And not even very grouchy, most of the time (which I know puts me in a lucky category). Just very quiet.
I can tell there is plenty going on in their heads, judging from the fervor of their texting, or the intensity of their expressions, or the way they can chew in complete silence at the dinner table for 20 minutes and seem perfectly, internally entertained.
My interrogation methods are admittedly crude. “Anything funny happen at school? Were any teachers unreasonable today? Who’s dating someone inappropriate?”
The usual responses: “Not really.” “Nope.” “Mom…..!”
Clearly, my years of journalistic interview training are no match for teenagers.
So I often resort to the quantity (vs. quality) approach to parental interaction. I hang out with a book on the couch, near the table and computer where they do their homework, in the hope that when they accidentally, spontaneously say something of note (“I can’t believe I got a B on that paper!” “Oh fun. A party.”) I’ll be around to hear it.
This technique occasionally gets results, but it’s hardly the guarantee that rote blackmail can offer – which is why the snacks-for-personal-details deal seemed like an excellent opportunity.
Did it work?
Sort of. Subdued though she is, my daughter keeps her word, and when we were sitting around the dinner table, she offered two brief but satisfying stories about the day – an assignment that went well, an annoying thing someone said. When I reminded her the deal was three, she pushed back (“Honestly, Mom, my life is not that interesting”) but heck, I count that as legitimate conversation and let it go.
I also got that piece of gossip – upon vow of secrecy – which I intend to keep.
The next morning, I’d like to say the ice was broken and the nattering I so missed from those younger years started up again. But that’s not likely to happen until – I’m told – they leave the house and get lonely for the sponge-like listening that only comes from an over-invested parent.
However, this exercise did teach her brother an important lesson: Never forget to bring snacks to European History.
Brown is a reporter for New England Public Radio. You can find her on Twitter @kbrownreports.
You might also be interested in: