Talking With Your Teen

Recently, my sixth-grader has been thinking up all sorts of ways to keep the social currents of his school week running seamlessly into the weekend. His suggestions: Can you drop me at the mall? At the movies? Drop me anywhere?

The key word here is "drop." I'm supposed to disappear, of course. Imagine my son's shock when instead I pitch my "burgers-and-fries" solution: Bring the gang home for dinner. It's a plan I hope will help buck a tendency - that starts ever younger - for the social lives of parents and kids to veer apart as children grow up.

Last week's fatal shooting of schoolmates by two young boys in Arkansas, extreme though it was, made more than a few parents of middle-schoolers wonder if they know enough about their kids' activities. The middle-school years, after all, are when parents start to buzz about changes - how a once-shy boy has a girlfriend and wears his cap backward. How the mall no longer means a treat with Mom but beckons as a cool hangout. How questions once eagerly answered linger in the air.

In her story on identifying and reaching out to troubled teens (Page B3), Gail Chaddock points out that many of the strategies for staying in touch are common sense, and ones most parents can use. High on the list is taking the time to talk and be interested in kids' lives. That's not a small point: Teachers talk of parents who enthusiastically involved themselves in primary school, only to assume such attention isn't needed or welcome in the middle grades.

We're often quick to assume that the ability to remember to finish homework or do higher-level work means kids can - and want to - be left to their own devices more. Yet watch how quickly the Walkman headphones go over the ears when you offer yet another explanation as to why you must work late or can't make the honor-roll assembly.

Hence burgers and fries. Matthew was aghast at first. No thanks. The next day he came home with a lengthy list of invitees. His sister followed suit.

We started small - six kids - but the group will probably grow. The vote is for continuing it every Friday night. My kids learned that a group of friends - not just individuals - could be under the same roof with adults and flow easily in and out of contact with them, despite their newly minted sophistication.

To me, it builds ties to my kids' schooling as much as teacher conferences. It's good to have the window on group dynamics. I'll be able to put a face on more of the names I hear. It'll take work. But it beats trips to the mall.

* Write to: Learning Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA, 02115 or e-mail

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