SPENDING TIME with family is what makes teenagers happy, an Associated Press/MTV poll reported last month. A lot of parents are probably wondering exactly which teenagers took this survey. They might also wonder whether teens answered this way because they spend so little time with their families now.
Much has been written about how busy teenagers are these days. They need a résumé fuller and richer than the résumés we had in our 30s just to get into the schools of their choice. They volunteer, they work, they play sports, they take driver's ed and SAT prep courses, they work on the school newspaper, they write blogs, they manage their MySpace pages, they shop, they stay up until 3 a.m., and they sleep. Not much time for family.
So how do we get more time with our kids short of mandating it? As a parent of five kids who were all recently teenagers at the same time, here's what I've learned:
Make the food they love in massive quantities. I know teens are too busy for a family dinner, what with play practice starting before soccer practice ends. But I've found that they'll actually make it to dinner if you make their favorites. My kids love chicken mole, grilled salmon with horseradish dressing, pork chops with feta cheese, and anything involving red meat. Our kids also know they can always bring a friend for dinner, which is another incentive to show – and a good way for you to learn about the people who have a great deal of influence on your kids: their friends.
Embrace driving. One year we had three kids playing on three different travel baseball teams. I spent almost four hours in the car every Saturday. When I read all the schedules in May and mapped out the routes, I dreaded it. But by the time it all ended in August, I missed it.
In marketing, this is called a captive audience. In parenting, it's called quality time. I learned so much about my kids that summer. Little things like what music they liked to big things like their views on abortion and the war in Iraq. I listened to my daughter read her poetry. I listened to my son's girlfriend troubles. And I got to talk, too. I told them stories from my adventures as a teenager, and I told them about things I was writing.
Four hours in a car is a long time. And it's a great opportunity, when you consider that married couples spend an average of four minutes a day in meaningful conversation.
When your kids get sick, do whatever you can to stay home with them. Use vacation days. Reschedule meetings. Not because you have to stay home, but because it's like winning the lottery of quality time. Eight hours when their friends are largely unavailable by cell or instant message. Eight hours when their defenses are down. (Even the coolest teen isn't so cool when she's under the weather.)
And if the illness is largely invented, as is often the case, you can take your kid out to lunch or to a museum or for a walk in the woods. It may not be her first choice, but it beats staying home, trying to keep track of all the symptoms she made up.
John Lennon wrote that "life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." Well, parenting is what happens while you're waiting for something to happen.
Jim Sollisch is a creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising in Cleveland.