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My Secret to Getting My Busy Teens to Spend Quality Time With Me

When my kids were younger, they begged me to take them places: hay rides, arts festivals, farmers’ markets, the park. They were up for any adventure and I was their forever guide. At times, I complained about all of the requests, and sometimes I just said no. But we did our fair share of adventuring and I don’t regret any of it. In fact, now that my kids are both busy teens, I am the one doing the begging. 

I get it. They are not as interested in hanging out with Dad now. It’s healthy for them to spend time with their friends, pull away from their parents, and dip their toe into the pool of independence. But this summer I’m really feeling the first pangs of life without kids. We still have three more years of high school before we are officially empty-nesters, but both kids are doing an admiral job of preparing me for that moment. 

My 16-year-old son Nathan just got his driver’s license. He needed me to help him prepare for the test and we logged many hours driving around town and practiced parallel parking. But after he passed the test and had his license in hand, he didn’t need me anymore. My 15-year-old daughter Maddie requires constant shuttling to practices, friends’ houses, and work. My time with her consists of car conversations to and from her destinations.

I’ve gone out of my way recently to ask each kid if they want to go for a hike, ride bikes, kick the soccer ball around, anything. I am routinely shot down, albeit nicely. Nathan politely says, “No thanks. I’m kinda busy with friends today.” Maddie gives me lots of “maybe laters.” All of this rejection stings, but I’m persistent. 

Finding Time for Family Time

I could tell that I was getting close with Maddie when I suggested we pick strawberries at a local farm. The first time I asked, she shrugged and said, “Maybe.” I asked again a few days later, and she wanted to know more: “This Saturday? What time? How long will it take?” When Saturday came, I reminded her of our possible plan, and she shook her head and said, “I don’t think I’m up for it.” I smiled, pretended not to care, saying, “That’s ok.” 

I didn’t quit.

The next week, I asked about going for a bike ride and some ice cream. When that didn’t go over well, I reminded her that strawberry season was nearing its conclusion. She checked her schedule and said she could squeeze me in for an hour before she went to the pool. I’ll take it, I thought. 

As we drove to the strawberry fields, Maddie reminisced about the pumpkin festivals we used to visit every fall. She talked about it like it was decades ago: “Dad, I remember getting my face painted. I chose bat wings and thought I was so cool.” I listened, laughing to myself, and thinking, That was not so long ago, my dear. 

When we headed into the field with an empty cardboard box, Maddie checked the time, and reminded me that we needed to be quick. But then we started finding clusters of beautiful, ripe strawberries, and she fell into the rhythm of the process. When our box was half-full, she had forgotten about the time, and said, “Let’s try to fill the box!” I reminded her that, if she wanted to meet her friend on time, we needed to leave soon. Her thumbs went to work on her phone, and without looking at me, said, “It’s ok… I’ll let her know I’m going to be a bit late.”

We filled the box with strawberries, made our guesses about the weight of our collection, and headed back inside to pay. On the way home, Maddie said, “I hardly ever want to do things like this anymore, but once I’m here, I have fun. I actually forgot that I like picking strawberries. Thanks for taking me.” 

I know I need to give my teens their space, and forcing them to participate in family activities will only make them pull away more quickly. But, I can always ask. I will likely be turned down nine times out of 10—and that’s ok. I’ll take that one yes whenever I can get it.

David Rockower

David Rockower is a teacher and freelance writer. He has published articles in The Washington Post, Education Week, and is a regular columnist in State College Magazine. With a sports-obsessed 16-year-old son, a spirited 15-year-old daughter, and a goldendoodle who looks like a muppet, he has a lot to write about. Twitter: @dgrock

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