Ep 27: Awkward Talks with Teens

Episode Summary

David McGlynn, author of “One Day You’ll Thank Me” along with two other books, gets candid about tough talks. By stepping up and doing the awkward talks with his own kids, McGlynn developed some important insights about how to approach the toughest parenting conversations.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

How do you keep a straight face when your 12-year-old son calls his younger brother a “humongous dick weed?” Of course it’s not okay, but it can be a little hard not to laugh. 

Starting difficult conversation with teens in moments like this can prevent small problems from turning into bigger ones. If you fail to do so, you might find yourself called into the principal’s office from work because your son got in trouble for swearing at his classmates.

This is what happened with David McGlynn and his boys. David is an associate professor of English at Lawrence University, and an award-winning author of three books: The End of the Straight and Narrow, A Door in the Ocean, and One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons From an Unexpected Fatherhood. He has written for Men’s Health, Real Simple, Parents, The New York Times, Swimmer, Best American Sports Writing, and numerous other literary journals. He has amazing stories to share, especially when it comes to starting difficult conversation with teens.

Honest Relationships

David’s third book, One Day You’ll Thank Me, shares many humorous anecdotes from his life raising two boys. What all of these stories boil down to, though, is one relatable struggle of a father trying to connect with his sons. When starting difficult conversation with teens, he found that it was important to have a strong connection first. Creating a strong connection with teenagers, though, is easier said than done.

Teenagers will do almost anything to avoid trouble with parents. They are especially well-versed in lying to get out of trouble. Research on teenage truthfulness shows that most teens lie to their parents. David was no exception, and he relates his experiences as a boy to his own sons.

As a teenager David was always willing to lie to get out of trouble with his mom. The one person he never lied to, though, was his dad. I really wanted to know the secret to this relationship that allowed such openness with his father.

David had an unusual relationship with his father. He only saw his dad four weeks out of the year growing up. Most conversations they had were via payphone. Cramped in a small phonebooth, talking through a wire, David says he felt like he was in a confessional booth. Starting difficult conversation with teens was easy with his dad because there was a sense of anonymity due to their physical distance. This alone is not what produced David’s honesty, however.

What David’s dad did that made him feel like he could be honest and open was NOT JUDGE. David says that his father always was, and still is, calm. Starting difficult conversation with teens was easier for David because his dad would never yell at, shame, or criticize him. With kindness and patience, his dad taught him over the phone how to be more truthful.

David’s dad taught him that parents should be calm, non-judgmental, and ready to listen before starting difficult conversation with teens.

Most parents, though, aren’t starting difficult conversation with teens via payphone. So, what is some more practical advice for parents?

Why Don’t Teens Wanna Talk? It Could be Tech.

As a teacher, David learned that starting difficult conversation with teens was easier when parents empathized with the awkwardness. In his classroom, David has found that face-to-face conversations among his students had become more rare. Discussions were happening more and more over text messages, and he believes an element of connectedness is lost in this change. He observes that teens are using texting as a way of avoiding awkwardness in relationships.

Teens are awkward people, highly emotional, and sensitive. As they are still developing their social skills, starting difficult conversation with teens face-to-face can be a source of anxiety for them. Because of this, a lot of teens seem to be reverting to texting as a way to avoid awkwardness in conversations. Inadvertently, they can be missing out on opportunities to learn important social skills such as intimacy, trust, and reading others’ social cues. This can affect how willing teens are to embrace awkward, albeit serious, conversations at home.

David points out that no matter how much tech we put between us and other people, we are still human beings! We need strong, in-person relationships. He says that there is something powerful about looking someone in the eye and saying,

“I know this is not an easy topic, but it’s something we need to talk about.”

I love this because it ties in so well with our research at Talking to Teens! 

Embrace the Awkward

Something we teach parents at Talking to Teens is to embrace the awkward and frame the awkward as a sign of love. Parents must acknowledge that although certain topics are awkward for both parties, starting difficult conversation with teens about these topics are necessary. 

When it was time for David to talk to his boys about sex, he felt awkward and scared. He had found “searches” on the family iPad, and knew that his 8-year-old son was beginning to get adventurous in his online searches. He knew the talk was necessary, but was so afraid of messing up and making his boys feel uncomfortable about the topic.

“If I screw this up, they’ll never listen to me again…”

To find a way to make “the talk” less awkward, he asked his students about their “talks” with their parents.

Unanimously, his students responded by saying how awkward it was! Apparently, no parent had found a way to make the talk not awkward. David thought his students were being useless and unhelpful, until he realized:

“No matter what I do, the conversation is going to be awkward! Great!”

So David had the conversation with his boys, and it was very awkward, and it was great.

David says that the awkwardness was actually a gift! He explains it was good to brave the awkwardness and step up and do the talk––That’s what parents do. He relates it to the way that we don’t love disciplining our kids, but we know that our kids need to face consequences every once in a while.

Kids need to know that awkward conversations are normal, and it’s okay to just put them out there. The hope, David says, is that our children might come back later and share other awkward things that are going on so parents can help. Plus, he wants his boys to be confident that he and his wife will always be open to starting difficult conversation with teens no matter how awkward.

So Many Applications

Of course there are lots of nuances to starting difficult conversation with teens depending on what kind of conversation you want to have. That’s why we covered so many of these complications in one episode, such as:

  • Desiring “Grit” in Kids, While Also Managing It
  • Differences Between Raising Boys and Girls
  • Pros and Cons of Sports
  • Balancing Principles and Compromise
  • Teaching Teens They Can Do More Than They Think
  • More Nuances of the “Sex Talk”

David has some incredible (and incredibly funny) stories. It’s definitely an interview I won’t forget, and neither will you. Give it a listen today!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen needs encouragement

“You are stronger than you often give yourself credit.”

-David McGlynn

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Face Down the Awkwardness:

We all have some topics that we really should talk to people about but we know it’s going to be awkward to bring it up so we’ve been avoiding it. David told me that for him, sex and pornography were these kinds of issues. He knew he needed to talk to his boys about it but he was avoiding it. Finally he talked to his college students and realized that everyone said it was awkward talking about sex with their parents. So he decided his job was just to push forward anyway despite the awkwardness and he was glad he did. What are some awkward topics you’ve been avoiding with your teen? Jot down as many as you can think of below. Circle the three most important topics and talk to your teen about them sometime this week. Set a reminder on your calendar of the “due date” so you won’t forget.

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Okay, so the book is called One Day You’ll Thank Me.

David: That’s right.

Andy: And it’s hard to tell when all the stories are happening because you jump around and we go into your childhood and kind of, this really interesting relationship with your father who moved out to California and you then saw him four weeks out of the year. And so you kind of weave together things from that kind of storyline of your childhood to then, this kind of transition phase as a father, when you’re kind of moving your family and getting situated at your new job-

David: Yeah.

Andy: … as an English professor there and quirky little anecdotes of being a father. And so I wonder why this book and what inspired you to write it?

David: I mean, I guess I can say a couple of things. I’ll maybe first talk about what inspired me to do it. There is a bit of a story about why I decided to do it. One Day You’ll Thank Me is my third book. First book was a book of stories that came out in 2008. Second one was a memoir that took a long time to complete and had to go through a number of revisions. That came out in 2012, and that’s called A Door in the Ocean. A Door in the Ocean is a very different kind of book. It’s in many ways, a very dark book, because it’s about the triple homicide of my closest friend and his father and brother, when I was a kid in Texas, when I was about 15 years old, when I was a sophomore in high school.

David: I won’t say a whole lot about that book except to say that following that horrible event, I moved to California and I get very drawn toward my dad and my stepmom’s sort of new found evangelical Christianity, largely because I had gone through something so profound and I was really searching for some sort of way to find answers.

Andy: Yeah.

David: My stepmother had been a children’s pastor and a missionary for a long time. My dad, this was all kind of new. So anyway, that’s a pretty heavy book to write. It took a long time, and I had to sort of really work my way around a number of different versions before I figured out what I was doing with that book and how it was going to work.

Andy: Sure.

David: When I finished it, I was thinking I need to do something that’s lighter. I needed a break.

Andy: Yeah. Right.

David: So by the time A Door in the Ocean finishes, my kids are about seven years old, eight years old, like they’re starting to kind of grow, and I found myself kind of thinking back about when they were little, which is where A Door in the Ocean ends, is when the kids are babies. I’m driving in my car one day and it’s close to Christmas time, and I’m listening to all of these Christmas stories that they play on NPR right around Christmas time. David Sedaris has one and Ron Carlson has one.

Andy: Sure. Yeah.

David: I thought, I’d love to tell one of those kinds of funny Christmas stories. So there I am in the car, and I’m driving around and it’s a cold day. I find myself sort of telling this little story in my ear about how my father every year would give us like the world’s Christmas presents and one after the other, they were bad.

David: I had this line, right. It wasn’t as though he was ignorant of gift giving. It wasn’t that he was ignorant of style or incapable of picking up on hints. It’s as though Christmas presents like defied some kind of inner logic. He never could quite get this right. On one hand, he meant well, and on the other hand, they just were absurd. It became kind of a joke between us that we had these absurd gifts that we could exchange. So I started writing about that. I started making a list of all this crazy stuff that we’d get, and it would be, as you’ve read-

Andy: Cheese platter.

David: A cheese sampler, the spaghetti and the sauce, you know, all this sort of crazy, useless stuff.

Andy: Three foot sausage.

David: Sausage. Yeah, the big Hickory Farms, sort of two foot sausage that my roommates just turned into a prop for all kinds of lewd acts. On one hand, I would go home from Christmas feeling like dejected. On the other hand, and my dad seemed to understand this, is I’d never… I never wanted the stuff in the first place. What I wanted was time. What I wanted was to spend time in the ocean with him and kind of walking around in the hills. My real memories of being a kid were not about the presents. They were about the time.

David: It struck me that my sons didn’t have such a different relationship to their stuff. As much as they wanted the stuff, what they really wanted and what they really seem the most satisfied by was the time. So I was just trying to tell that one story to sort of divert my attention from all this heavy stuff I’d been writing. It made me laugh and it made me feel like I had told something true, and I was able to publish it. A nice magazine, Men’s Health Magazine picked it up, which really surprised me. I’d been published in other places, but to have a big men’s magazine… President Obama had been on the cover of Men’s Health about a year and a half before my article appeared when he was running for president. So this sort of big men’s magazine, I was very impressed that I got into it. It’s read definitely by guys. There’s lots of workout tips.

Andy: Sure. Yeah.

David: So then, I started to get emails from people, from guys who read the magazine saying, “This reminded me of my dad,” and they would have a funny story to tell. I didn’t get hundreds, but I got a fair bit. It struck me that there is at least a little bit of a nerve that for all the ways in which Men’s Health promotes working out and-

Andy: Masculinity. Yeah. Right.

David: … masculinity, a lot of the readers had a kind of soft side, and they wanted to connect with something. So I thought I’m going to try to write another one of these. What other stories could I tell? If you look around kids, you have a million different examples of things that need your attention. Right? What do you do when they learn how to swear?

Andy: Yeah. Right.

David: Do you laugh at it? Do you let it go? Do you laugh at it and try to teach them something?

Andy: Which is a great anecdote in the book where your son calls his brother an ass, and then you and your wife are trying to keep a straight face because it’s like so adorable listening to this little kid say ass, but your wife is trying to stop laughing and do the discipline thing. Because, right? It’s like, it’s cute, and it’s like hard to deal with. What do you do?

David: It’s this cute story and it’s funny, but we’d started to hear them say it more and more. Right? Then in that chapter, Hayden who was only like five at the time, gets in trouble at kindergarten for swearing.

Andy: Yeah.

David: He’s saying these bad words. Okay, now we have to address it. How do I do it? I tried the sort of old school trick of washing his mouth out with soap, but he won’t do it until I demonstrate that this can be done. I end up sort of washing out my own mouth with soap. So I sort of bumbled my way into like cleaning out my own mouth with soap. I can’t believe it. You know? I’ll finish the story, which is, as these pieces added up, I had a critical mass.

Andy: Sure. Yeah.

David: And once you have the pieces, you think I’ve got a story that I’m telling. It dawned on me that I was telling the same story again and again, which is tried to connect with them, trying to understand fatherhood, trying to also understand son hood from my perspective and from theirs and to see how they’re all interconnected. That’s what made me sort of go and put this book together.

David: You know, there’s a scene, and I’ll sort of finish with this. There’s the moment I say in the first chapter that I would often talk to my dad on the payphone outside of the supermarket. When I was young, he and I weren’t able to talk as often as we wanted, so I would call and talk to him at home, but I also would talk to him from kind of around the world. You know, I’d be out by the supermarket and I’d call him collect. I’d be at school, and I’d call him collect. We’d talk for five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, and then I’d have to go or he’d have to go. It sort of dawned on me that as I had all these moments, sort of knit together, that I was kind of having a series of payphone conversations with my sons and also with myself as I try to learn my way through what it means to be a good dad. It also is a way of revisiting what it meant to be the son of a dad who was trying to do the same kind of thing, even though he wasn’t with us all the time.

Andy: Your relationship with your own dad is kind of how you sort of start the book and is really strong throughout it. You mentioned in there that you never lied to your dad about anything, and there’s a scene where you’ve just been dumped by your first college girlfriend at UC Irvine and you’re on your dad’s floor.

David: Yeah.

Andy: You guys are, I think drinking Schnapps or something. I think that that’s rare. You know, there’s researchers who have looked at teen truthfulness, and it’s like the number of teens who say they lie to their parents about stuff is like 96%. Right? So, I mean, it’s a very small minority. I wonder what you think it was. Was it just because he was like, so scarce that it made you place so much value on it? Or what was it that made you have such an open relationship?

David: I can say a bit about that, which is I was not a sort of George Washington, I cannot tell a lie, kind of kid. Right? I think I was very much a normal, willing to lie if I needed to, sort of child and adolescent. Right? I got in trouble for it at school once or twice in the same way that my own kids have. The difference with my dad was in part his scarcity, as you have mentioned. It also was the medium of our communication. You know? It was the fact that we were talking by phone. There’s an essayist whom I know and really admire named Megan Dom. She has an essay called On the Fringes of the Physical World, in which she talks about dating the guy by phone, and she talks about the kind of erotic distance produced by the phone.

David: I think that even though my phone conversations with my dad weren’t in any ways erotic, there’s a kind of analogy there. Right? There’s a kind of truthfulness that was able to happen almost like I was in a confessional booth because he was not physically there. He was physically separated from me by the telephone. He also took a lot of pains to not judge whatever it was I had to tell him, and I can give you an example. When I was in high school… We all have our first car stories. Right? I had this first really crappy 1980 Honda that I had bought that I think had been like underwater. Right? Like the rug smelled on the floor of the car. It was having a leak in the radiator. I had just been in chemistry class, where we were talking about the way that salt kept water from boiling until a much higher temperature.

Andy: Uh-huh (affirmative). Okay.

David: So I decided that instead of going to the store and buying antifreeze, I would just mix up some salt water and put it in my car radiator. You know, all of 16 years old. My stepdad and my grandfather, they thought I had somehow… someone was out to get me, like someone at school had told me this, and that someone at school was trying to like wreck my car. They couldn’t quite fathom that I had just made this like really immature and erratic assumption. So I felt awful that I had somehow wrecked the car and also that I’d been so reprimanded. I called my dad to tell him, and he was very calm about it. “What does salt do to rubber David?” he said. I said, well, it corrodes. He’s like, well, that’s what will happen. We’ll flush it out. Basically, it was an old crappy car and what’s the worst that happens? It’s broken down. Right?

Andy: I mean, yeah. Right. And that’s a lesson that you’ll then learn and-

David: I never did that again.

Andy: I would imagine not. Yeah. Right.

David: He was and he is calm. I still think to this day I could call him and say almost anything, and he would receive it patiently and calmly. For that reason, he’s someone I still call and talk to. But a lot of it has to do with the medium, with talking on the phone. You know, when you and I were younger, we spent probably a lot more time on the phone talking. Teens now probably text more often and Snapchat and that kind of thing. But there is a kind of openness that can happen with a little bit of that physical removed that’s a lot easier than when you’re face to face.

Andy: Sure. Yeah. It feels like safer or something.

David: Yes.

Andy: Or there’s a little bit of an anonymity that makes it… It doesn’t feel as revealing or you don’t feel as vulnerable sharing things or something like that.

David: Yeah.

Andy: So I had a lot of stuff that I wanted to talk about in this book. So I’d love to jump to a couple of the things. One of them is you have this great chapter in there about using a shower rod to keep your son in his bedroom. I love this chapter because there’s a page in there where you kind of go on this really philosophical little tangent. Basically, the story is just that this kid won’t stay in his room, and you try everything. I mean, you’re propping chairs under the… It’s like, you just need to get him to go to bed, and it’s like… Well, first you try sleeping in bed with him until he falls asleep. You know, if I just lay here with him until he falls asleep, then that’s okay, but this kid will stay up for hours and you’re sitting there in his bed.

Andy: There’s like shoving stuff under the door, and nothing is working because this kid just will bust through. Then finally, you find the shower rod that-

David: The shower rod.

Andy: It goes across the hallway, and it is one of those telescoping ones that you can change the length and you get it to just the perfect length that you can shove it across the hallway so it props the door shut. But you have this positive spin on it that I love, which was you’re sitting down in the living room listening to your kid banging on the door up there and you have this moment of realizing that, yeah, it might be me right now that he’s rebelling against, but that untamable spirit of rebellion, sooner or later it’s going to be the world that’s trying to keep him down. Doggone it, that kid is going to be out there knocking down doors.

Andy: That spirit that you’re kind of having trouble with right now, you realize, is actually going to serve him so well later on. Everyone’s talking about grit, but then as parents, we try to suppress it almost. It was cool. At the same time as you were doing everything you can to try to keep him in his room, there’s a voice in the back of your head that’s going, “Keep fighting kid.” I love that, and I wonder what inspired it.

David: Yeah. That’s very much a chapter about raising boys, and I mean that in a couple of different ways. Right? One is that when we moved here and we had these kids… We moved to Wisconsin in 2006, and my older son was two and my younger son was born here. I teach at a small college, and most of the other colleagues didn’t have children until a couple years later. So they often were these disproportionate ages. Then often was the case that we had boys when colleagues and friends had girls. So we would sort of go places and have these big, sort of rowdy, rambunctious, and energetic boys. I often felt this divide between what it means to have a boy versus what it means to have a girl. Those gender divisions aren’t set in stone. Right? I don’t want to sort of over subscribe to them, but there was a certain sense. I often felt like… I often feel like even now, that there is this desire to make kids behave. I know I certainly have it in myself. Right? We go places. I don’t want to be embarrassed. I don’t want to have kids that are going to be too wild or too disrespectful.

Andy: Melt down in the middle of the store or restaurant or whatever.

David: Yeah, and they’re fighting or they’re throwing darts at each other. We’ve had kind of all those things happen.

Andy: And of course, because then everyone’s looking at you going, god, get your kids under control. What kind of a parent is this guy? Right? Where actually maybe a lesson that the kid needs is to have the meltdown right now, but everyone’s going to judge you. I mean, it’s hard, right.

David: And to bleed it out, right. Because our boys are big for their ages, they often were seen as older than they really were, and this is the sort of more sociological thing of it, is we’re in this complicated moment now when it comes to thinking about masculinity and boyhood. There’s sort of the adult masculinity about the troubles that men are getting into, but I think we also have a kind of ongoing conversation about what boys are supposed to do and what boys are supposed to be. Those aren’t always easy conversations to have.

David: I’ve often felt like there is this impulse, none of which are linear or unilateral. They’re always sort of conflicting and overlapping that boys and somehow need to be corralled. You know? As a friend of mine said, who is an elementary school teacher, there’s often an impulse to medicate the energy out of them to mitigate their spiritedness, their whatever, because they can sometimes have trouble settling down. My wife is a social worker. I teach at a college. I wouldn’t say we’re the most politically active, but we’re not the least either. We do try to think about how are we teaching our sons to think about their positions in the larger world? Moreover, how do we sort of take what is there in front of us and move it in a direction that it’s going to be useful?

About David McGlynn

The author of three books – One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons From an Unexpected Fatherhood, A Door in the Ocean, and The End of the Straight and Narrow – David has written for Men’s Health, Real Simple, Parents, The New York Times, Swimmer, Best American Sports Writing, and numerous literary journals. Three of his essays have been named Distinguished Essays in the Best American Essays and Best American Non-Required Reading anthologies. He teaches at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and sons.

His book A Door in the Ocean was reviewed on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, won the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Nonfiction Book Award in 2013, and was named an Outstanding Achievement by the Wisconsin Librarians’ Association. The End of the Straight and Narrow won the 2008 Utah Book Award, was a finalist for the 2009 Steven Turner Award for Best First Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters, and was named an “Outstanding Achievement” by the Wisconsin Librarians’ Association.

A lifelong swimmer, he captured a national championship in the 500-yard freestyle at the 2001 United States Masters National Championships. He now competes most regularly in open-water races. On most mornings, he’s the first one in the pool.

Find David on Twitter and Instagram.