First learn to speak teenager, then learn to listen
By Bill Kirby | Columnist
Sunday, January 24, 2010

Teenagers complain there's nothing to do, then stay up all night doing it.

-- Bob Phillips

People my age often start talking about learning something new -- a skill, a hobby, perhaps another language.

Well, if I get that opportunity, I'm signing up to learn how to speak teenager.

Such communication is not to be confused with "talking." The teenager at my house talks all the time. But like those poker players on TV, he doesn't exactly show his cards, reveal his feelings, share his troubles or otherwise enlighten his parents.

We ask him several times a day what's going on and we get a consistent answer -- "Nothing."

"What did you learn at school today?"

"Nothing."

"What do you want to do this weekend?"

"Nothing."

"What's bothering you?"

"Nothing."

But of course we know that's not the case. Because "nothing" means one thing to us and something completely different to him.

Take the school "nothing."

We translate "nothing" as a day in which teachers must have decided to abdicate their duties and return our offspring to us without benefit of instruction.

But when my son says he learned "nothing," I have come to realize he means this: "We didn't learn anything incredibly surprising. Shakespeare can still write, but he's sometimes hard to understand. And when you do, you find out people had the same problems back then that we do now. In math class we learned that variables can be tricky, and if you make a mistake early in the problem, you'll never find the answer. And chemistry would be a lot easier if those ions weren't always popping up, but that's gonna happen, isn't it?"

Then there's the weekend "nothing." To an adult, doing nothing would mean probably sleeping until noon. Getting up. Eating lunch. Taking a nap. Watching TV. Eating supper. Going to bed.

To a teenager, doing nothing means: "I don't really have anything spectacular planned. I've texted several friends, and we're trying to figure out who's grounded this week and who might be able to see a movie. I'll have to check my Facebook page. The weather's bad, so I doubt I will be doing much outdoors. Is there gas in the car? I might go to the mall, but I don't have much money left since Christmas, so we'll probably just walk around."

Of most concern, perhaps, is the "nothing" you get when you ask a teen about his or her brooding look. You know the one, right before they slip off to seek the sanctuary of their room. Door closed.

You asked whether something was wrong and heard, "Nothing."

But you know.

It's probably something like: "I really don't want to talk about it because some people I chose for friends haven't been so friendly. The girl/boy I thought was special wasn't. Or I messed up. I let you down. I want you to be proud of me, and right now, I'm not sure you would be. But ... keep asking because I'll probably tell you. I'm not really sure what to do and you usually are."

It could be something like that.

When it comes to teenagers, nothing can mean everything.

Reach Bill Kirby at (706) 823-3344 or bill.kirby@augustachronicle.com.

From the Sunday, January 24, 2010 edition of the Augusta Chronicle
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