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No More Sermons! Why Can’t My Mom Can’t Give Me a Yes or No Answer?

PARENT:

When I first learned that I could customize the names of my contacts in my smartphone, I liked the novelty. My daughters apparently did, too.

Because I never password-protected my phone, they quickly discovered that they could set up their own contact profiles in my phone. I thought that was actually pretty cute.

I never thought about the fact that they might have given me a nickname in their phones. And then I discovered that my contact name in my youngest daughter’s phone is The Priest.

Yes or No Answer

What? We aren’t religious. And I don’t wear long, flowing robes. What gives?

“Because every time I ask you a simple yes or no question, you can’t answer yes or no,” my daughter explains. “You give me an entire sermon every time, Mom.”

Really?

Okay, I own it. Maybe it’s because I know that, as teenagers, my kids are just beginning to understand that there are nuances in life. That things aren’t black and white—that shades of gray are often where the most interesting and the most frightening things lie.

Things Aren’t Black and White

Like when she asks me whether I’d let her get a tattoo. She knows I have one that I hate, so I can’t just say “yes” or “no.” I think it’s more important to open up a conversation about why she would want one. And what she imagines it might look like. And whether she’s thought about what happens if she hates it in a few years. So I try to offer lots of scenarios in an attempt to hook her into a dialogue where she’s learning how to make choices for herself one day.

But I have to remember that she’s watching me as much as she’s hearing me. She  will learn by doing, not by sitting still and listening to a sermon. She needs to experience life on her own, and it’s my job to offer her just enough to encourage her, but not so much that I stifle her.

Kari is a writer and a social-emotional educator at theselfproject.com. She likes nothing more than a houseful of hungry teenagers pretending to do homework together. Fortunately, she also loves to cook.


TEEN:

For as long as I can remember, deciding whether to ask my mom a question begins with wondering how absolutely necessary it is to hear the answer—and how much time I have—because she’s incapable of just giving a yes or no answer.

My mom doesn’t see life as black and white. She doesn’t see anything as black and white, which means that every time she answers a question, we cover a lot of ground.

For example, if I ask whether she will let me get my nose pierced, she starts off by saying, “Well, my initial reaction is…” and then launches into an explanation of her first reaction. That leads to more reactions and more explanations, all narrated point by point. Then, if I’m lucky, she will finally give me her real answer—before wrapping it up with some additional thoughts she has and why they don’t figure into her final answer.

Just Give Me a Real Answer

I need to pay attention the whole time just to get to the answer that is buried in there somewhere. It’s exhausting.

It took me a while to figure out that it was absolutely necessary to preface every time-sensitive question with, “Just give me yes or no.” Because of her tendency to generously explain, I awarded her the contact name “The Priest” in my phone (which causes a lot of confusion and strange looks whenever anyone else sees it).

I know she means well, but she does this with everything. I better not be in a rush if I ask a question that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.

Lauren is finishing her sophomore year in high school. She prefers to spend her time playing guitar, writing songs, and watching The Office. She lives with her older sister, mom, two dogs, and a geriatric cat in the Pacific Northwest.


PRO:

Courtney Harris

I want to begin by naming and celebrating the ways you are both learning: Lauren, I love that you’ve developed a strategy for expressing your need for simple answers. Kari, you are owning the ways that you want to support your daughter while recognizing her need to discover in her own way. I hope you can both give yourself credit for the ways you are growing!

Communication Goals

When communicating with teens gets frustrating, though, parents and teens can benefit from creating systems that address both of their needs, such as:

  • Agree on a weekly chat time—perhaps during a shared activity or over tea or coffee.
  • Develop a code word to request a break if conversation gets too long or heavy.
  • Try to use clear communication about needs, for example: “I’d like to share something, and I don’t want advice. I just need to vent.”
  • Before giving advice or suggestions, ask for permission with a phrase like, “Are you open to an idea?”
  • Pause before responding to one another, giving each other a chance to speak mindfully.

Be patient with yourself and one another as you each keep growing toward deeper connection.

And also, Kari and Lauren, keep exploring that sense of humor you clearly share!

As a certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator, Courtney Harris guides parents and supports tweens, teens, and young adults in finding their voice, growing in confidence, and thriving. Find her at courtneyharriscoaching.com.