Last Saturday I had the opportunity to spend four uninterrupted hours in the car with my oldest son. There were certain topics I had decided ahead of time that I wanted to discuss with him to take advantage of this gift of time alone.
We had no trouble talking about how he spent his week with my parents or the attractions he enjoyed at Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure with my brother and my niece. It was easy to discuss his opportunities to eat out, the menus and the humorous moments with his Paw Paw and Granny. I got a detailed run down on the movies they watched and new television shows he wanted to add to his repertoire.
But when there was a lull in the conversation, before I had a chance to introduce a more serious subject, the iPad would come out, the headphones would go on and Barron would immerse himself in his music.
I don’t believe for a second that he was being defensive. I don’t think he was avoiding anything. He had no idea I had an agenda. He was doing what he always does, what comes naturally.
I’m a talkative guy. I typically don’t have a problem striking up a conversation, meaningful or trivial, with anyone. Over the years, I’ve even grown in my ability to talk about painful subjects with my own father and mother, a feat many adults never achieve.
Somehow, though, on this day, I couldn’t bring myself to do what I always do, what comes naturally for me.
Our conversation for the remaining three hours of the trip was intermittent. When Barron thought of something to tell me, he would pause his Hans Zimmer or Alan Silvestri or John Williams long enough to express it. When the conversation lagged and before I could bring up my list of talking points, he went back under the headphones.
With about 45 minutes left in our trip, I calculated we had enough time to cover at least one or two topics. Discussions with pre-teens don’t typically last as long as you plan.
I became nervous. I consciously tried not to convey anxiety as I casually transitioned the conversation during one of his headphone breaks. The car can be a safe place to have these kinds of talks because you don’t have to make eye contact, but the risk is that your child feels cornered with no escape.
Naturally he reached for the headphones. I told him he didn’t have to go back to his music just yet. So for about 20 minutes we had a good conversation on a meaningful topic before returning to lighter fare.
That’s it. Twenty minutes out of four hours. Somehow, I couldn’t carry on an in-depth conversation with my 12-year-old son for more than 20 minutes.
The trip ended with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Happy at our progress, I had to fight back the feeling that I failed to achieve my objective.
Why couldn’t I talk to my own son?
I suddenly had a small window into the world of my own father. How many times had Dad tried to discuss important subjects with me, only to have me unwittingly or even wittingly undermine it with trivial conversations about sports or entertainment?
This Father’s Day, I may get all manner of practical, thoughtful and lovingly-presented gifts from my wife and three sons, but all I really want is to have meaningful conversations with each of them. It doesn’t have to be on Father’s Day. In fact, it would be nice to spread them throughout the year.
I will continue to look for ways to have these conversations. They are truly gifts that I treasure, and someday my boys will think back on them and realize the truth that I now grasp: being a father means taking risks and sometimes feeling like a failure. But there is no more rewarding way I could spend my life.
So there, Amazon, put that on your “Ideas for Father’s Day Gifts” direct e-mail marketing campaign.
Can you remember having important conversations with your children or your parents? How did it happen? Were they good memories or do they dredge up repressed emotions? What advice would you give on how to have meaningful dialogue with your kids? Take a minute to leave your thoughts in a comment below, and we’ll all benefit from your wisdom.