How can I help my young friend?
June 19, 2006 9:35 AM   Subscribe

How does an adult start a meaningful dialogue with a pre-teen boy?

I'm a little worried about a pre-teen boy in my extended family. He is somewhat troubled. He has low self-esteem, and never wants to apply himself to anything whatsoever. Video games and TV are all he cares about. He has no friends at school... except for the boys who make him humiliate himself and laugh at him.

He's a second child with an older sister who is always the center of attention. The boy's father has told me that he really can't understand his son. I identify fairly strongly with the boy myself. Since he seems to look up to me, I thought it might be helpful to try having an earnest talk with him. I just don't know how to go about it without sounding all preachy. I know I hated preachy adults when I was his age.

Can anyone suggest approaches I could use? My current plan is to simply talk about life and school for a while, ask him about how he's doing with things, and then slowly try to sneak in some preachiness. I'm thinking of saying something like, "I hope I don't sound like I'm lecturing you. I hate being lectured, and I'm sure you do too. These are just some things I wish I had known when I was your age..."

Some things I'd like to impress upon him:
Video games are not everything
You really should try to learn stuff in school
Your parents aren't perfect, but are trying their best
You're approaching some very difficult years, but it gets way better after this
School is going to be a popularity contest pretty soon, and here are some ideas on how to handle that
God is dead and we are all alone

Ok, not that last one. Anyway... Please, let me know if you have any suggestions for relating to a young man in a non-preachy way.
posted by pornucopia to Human Relations (62 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
My advice is not to preach at all, even a little. Instead, lead by example. Don't tell him videogames are not everything. Take him to something awesome out of doors (baseball game, science center, fair/festival, whatever).

The best way you can impress upon anyone (child or adult) that things are good is by showing them and living that life.
posted by dobbs at 9:39 AM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering if it might behoove you to take the kid out to do something (thereby demonstrating Point #1). Get him away from his sister and to a place where he's not competing for attention, and the fun activity might bring him out of himself. That's a pretty good way to relax a kid. The school and parents topics may then come up of their own accord.
posted by GrammarMoses at 9:42 AM on June 19, 2006

My advice is play video games with him. Do what he likes to do. Be his friend, learn to understand who he is and respect his potential, and he will to.

Rather than try to communicate your points, well listed though they were, focus on providing him with opportunities to learn these lessons himself. Find out what he's willing to read... see if you can expand that. Find out what kind of social situations he's willing to try out, and expand those.

He's a kid. Kids basically want company and opportunity. Nobody wants a lecture. Well, almost nobody.
posted by ewkpates at 9:43 AM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Don't treat him or talk to him like he was a kid. Trust me, that's the best thing you can do.

And dobbs is absolutely correct in saying 'lead by example'. Just be sure to engage him as an equal.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:45 AM on June 19, 2006

My advice is play video games with him. Do what he likes to do. Be his friend, learn to understand who he is and respect his potential, and he will to.

That's what I was going to suggest.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:46 AM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: This is something that a single conversation is not going to make better. Kids in these settings need a large amount of time that many adults are unable or unwilling to give. If there is a way you can be involved in his life on a regular basis doing activties that promote some other skill than video games this would be an excellent way to drop little bits of advice without an all out overload. Each thing you mention above is a whole conversation and the situation has to be managed to the point where he is willing to talk about it. Otherwise it's just more adult babbling. And that is a key point as well, for it to be effective it needs to be a dialog not a monolog.
I worked for a summer doing experiential education with kids like this, during the experience they had intense periods of bitchyness, but also some great insight, the follow up reports where very good.
Get him out of his familuar surroundings, if you have any inclination towards it I'd suggest camping, fishing or something along those lines. Heck, even an extended, multi-day, car trip (no video games allowed) where the only way to while away the hours is to talk.
posted by edgeways at 9:50 AM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: Level with him. We didn't like preachy adults because they always seemed like they were trying to put themselves above us by telling us what was right and wrong, when clearly those are concepts which aren't exactly set in stone. The few adults who took the time to sit down with me and connect actions to repercussions, good and bad, remain my heroes to this day, and are largely responsible for goading me into making something of myself. The problem is it takes a commitment. This doesn't happen after one talk. You need to spend some time with him and follow up with him, as a mentor would.

The biggest problem here is if they take you for granted or get risky around you. Establish clear boundaries (yes and no, not maybe or perhaps), make sure everyone knows what you are up to and that you aren't working against their wishes. I don't think you need to be taking him out every weekend or anything. I had a teacher who traded emails with me and that was all it really took. Waking up wasn't the problem, it was just discovering that waking up was worth it that was the problem. Oh, and do give him some room to make mistakes. Just about all of us need that.
posted by jwells at 9:52 AM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: I'm not sure I have an answer, but one thing that might help whatever approach you choose is to speak to him as though he is an adult. More specifically, speak to him as though he is a full human. We tend to speak to children in a way that minimizes a lot of their reality. We have the perspective of years and know that their issues are small compared to ours and not truly important (who gets the bigger piece of cake, etc). But to them, their issues are as valid as ours are to us, and they fill up their whole reality. I had an uncle that spoke to me like I was a full person when I was a kid and he was the only adult I can ever remember doing that. And I loved him for it. He never wrote off any of my thoughts or opinions. He accepted them as though he were speaking to an adult and would usually ask me questions about what I had said, challenging in a nonthreatening way, as opposed to saying, "here's how you should think".

A lot of what you want to tell him, he just won't be able to absorb. Only life and time will do it, because you can't truly accept lessons someone else has learned. You have to learn them organically yourself. It can't hurt to lay these things out there, but just think of all the parental advice you ever received which fell on deaf ears, only to germinate and sprout decades later. You just weren't ready for it then. Your brain literally had not developed enough to appreciate them.

I think it's good that you're taking this interest and wish you luck in your approach. Maybe take the position that if he gets anything out of it at all, it's a good thing, as opposed to hoping he'll get all of it and being disappointed when he doesn't. If you do it well, it may be a seed that is planted now and reaped later.

Lastly, you'll need to build up some trust first (if it's not there already) for him to open up and talk about some of the thoughts and feelings associated with the topics you want to talk to him about. I wonder if it would help, too, to have this conversation as part of something fun and special with just you two, like a day fishing or hiking or something. No parents around, plenty of time to think and reflect, no video games or TV present. Maybe it would even take a series of these things over time. It can be tough to get past that teflon shield of I-don't-care or I-don't-know in a single sit-down preach session. You're wanting to impart life wisdom, and that's best measured out in small doses which have time to absorb and take effect and build on previously-processed thoughts.

On preview I see that others are suggesting similar stuff. Good luck!
posted by kookoobirdz at 9:54 AM on June 19, 2006 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Video games are not everything

Not to you. Right now, they are to him. They're his escape from the world. Play video games and watch TV and movies with him. Take him to arcades and theaters. Bond with him.

All the other points can be made in the course of bonding. If you don't want to sound preachy, you won't be able to lay it all on the table at once. You won't be able to have a conversation with him where you go through these points one-by-one. You will be able to establish yourself as a trusted adult friend, and slowly work these ideas as a natural progression of conversations as you ask how he's doing, how school is going, you heard he had a fight with his parents--what was that all about?, etc etc.

You basically have to ask yourself what you want to be to this kid. Do you want to tell him what you want him to hear, or do you want to help him learn? Is this conversation about you, or about him? If it's about you and feeling like you're helping a kid, go ahead and give him a point-by-point lecture. If you really want to help this kid grow and learn, it's going to be a long, involved mentoring process of getting to know him and gaining his trust.

Your parents aren't perfect, but are trying their best

Careful with this one. Be really careful with this one. If you put yourself in the position of his parents' defender you'll be Preachy Adult #1 and he'll shut you right out. Instead, try to figure out why he's mad at his parents, offer suggestions of why they might have done what they did ("Damn, that sucks. You know, my parents used to blah blah blah because blah blah blah. Do you think yours have the same idea?") or something.
posted by Anonymous at 9:54 AM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: I suggest you read "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen," by Adele Faber. I don't have kids of my own, but when I apply the principles Faber illustrates, I can sometimes have actual conversations with my nephews... even when talking about things that are worrying them. In a nutshell, Faber says: Listen. Draw the kid out. Say things that show you heard them and can imagine how they feel. When they trust you not to advise them or talk down to them, they'll tell you stuff.

The only way I've ever been able give advice without turning them off: by describing something that actually happened to me at whatever age they are, and then saying, "I wish I had..." or "If I could do it over..." Advice often sounds like criticism, because if I approved of how they're doing things, I wouldn't be pointing out alternatives.

A kid who spends a lot of time alone is probably feeling as if other people don't understand him. If you can listen without judging or giving advice, you'll being doing something very important for him -- and something he probably can't get from anyone else. And as a result, he won't feel so alone. That's worth much more than advice.
posted by wryly at 9:54 AM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: Yeah, don't lecture unless you want him to go deaf. But do take natural opportunities to discuss things (drug use in the movie you watch together, why a 40yo man is working at McDonald's, etc.). Discuss being the key word - you'll never be the boys mentor unless you allow him to state his opinions and ideas; a conversation just like you'd have with any adult is the way to go.

And being mom to 3 boys I can tell you that they're much more likely to talk AND listen when they're involved in some other activity - drawing, playing basketball, etc. (even fiddling with pencils or marbles).

Also, he'll probably sometimes act like he doesn't hear a word you say, but in reality he's soaking it all in. For your very 1st 'talk' I'd say something like, "I really like you, I think you're a great, smart and talented kid. In fact, you remind me of myself when I was your age. I had a lot of problems then and I don't think anyone understood me, so if you ever need me I'd like to be here for you. Now how about we go shoot some hoops?" He'll mumble but you can see if he'll open up while playing ball.

Good luck! Every child needs an adult on their side.
posted by LadyBonita at 9:54 AM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've got a similiar situation. After a few false starts, I accepted that this is a gradual process, just like making friends with anyone else. Because basically, that's what you're looking to do.

Coming on all strong with The Talk is going to get filed away as "another adult yakking away like an after-school special." But watching the kid realize that you have a bunch of stuff in common with him and it's interesting to hear your opinion...that's neat. Good luck.
posted by desuetude at 9:58 AM on June 19, 2006

The most meaningful discussions I've had with teen/pre-teen students were usually started by the student, not by me. I hate to say it, but "I hope I don't sound like I'm lecturing you. I hate being lectured, and I'm sure you do too." is a lecture, or at least signals a lecture.

Get him to talk to you about things. Ask questions that are all leading and require him to answer. Start with questions about things he likes to talk about, and you're off to a good start.
posted by plinth at 9:59 AM on June 19, 2006

The contrarian view: Leave him alone. What you see as depression may very well be self-discovery. Preachy or no, the attempt to steer him toward more "healthy" teenage behavior will only reinforce the idea that his way of life is aberrant and disfavored.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 10:03 AM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's hard to talk to kids that age. They're in the tunnel, as my mom used to say.

I suggest you do stuff with him. Don't focus on talking. I've noticed men often bond by doing stuff (please excuse the generalization). So, bond with him doing stuff (six flags, r-rated movies, arcades, and maybe some stuff you'd enjoy). I wouldn't admit it, but I really liked fishing at that age and loved when people took me fishing. If you do stuff with him, he'll feel a bond with you and then you can move into talking.

I guess what I am trying to say is treat him like an equal, try to close the adult-child gap, and just do stuff with him. Eventually he'll open up.
posted by milarepa at 10:04 AM on June 19, 2006

Does he read? If you gave him a book that you thought was amazing, would he read it? That sort of thing is an instant bond-maker with the right kid.

Then again, the wrong book won't help much at all. But books that catalog the unfairness and impossibility of youth, such as "Catcher in the Rye" or especially "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" can really open a kid's eyes and mind, and I guarantee he'll want to talk more about them.

Even better, read (or re-read) these books yourself and see if they help you relate to what the mind of an intelligent person that age

Then again, you don't say his age, and if he is younger than 12 then these may not be appropriate suggestions-- and I'd check with his parents. Both books talk about sex, but through the mind and words of a young person, and not explicitly. But maybe you have your own ideas, or books you read when you were that age that made a difference?
posted by hermitosis at 10:26 AM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

This boy is so lucky to have you.
posted by jamjam at 10:38 AM on June 19, 2006

That's a lot of stuff to try to get him to understand. I hope you weren't planning on tackling that all in one afternoon. It could be a year long project. The best way to get a lot of that through to him is by example. Try to get him involved in some group activities with other kids his age. School isn't the only avenue in which to make friends. Sponsor him in a martial arts school or some other type of sports or activity. There are plenty of things happening in the summer to keep him active even if it is group tutoring.
posted by JJ86 at 10:47 AM on June 19, 2006

I would try listening as much as talking to him, and if you do have to do the talking, ask him why this stuff is so cool to him. At first he'll say "this game is really fun". Maybe after you've been playing for a while, he'll say "I like how in this game, I can do anything I want to". Then he'll probably start explaining to you that "Video games are not everything, he wants to try to learn stuff in school, his parents aren't perfect, but are trying their best", and a bunch of other really good lessons.
posted by anildash at 10:48 AM on June 19, 2006

This is a touchy subject and you've had some great suggestions thus far. I found that looking back through my life the important bits weren't the day to day activities it was having someone who understood me and I was comfortable with to point me in the right direction at those key points in life, those turning points or forks in the road.

Rather than try to build a new fork in the road, be there and be trusted to give advice when he discovers those forks in the road himself and needs guidance for the right way to go at that point.

Eventually you'll be able to help him highlight the important bits in life himself.
posted by iamabot at 10:58 AM on June 19, 2006

I think what you describe is a normal kid of that age. Just because his interests don't jibe with his sister's or yours or his dad's, why do you assume he needs some kind of help (yours or anyone else)?

If I were you, I would concentrate my efforts on just being a friend to him - the kind of friend who doesn't require him to perform (whether the performance involves humiliation like his school friends, or heart-to-heart talks about the meaning of life and the coming teenage years.) Just enjoy his company!

He's a human work in progress, and although your interest in his well-being is commendable, I think you're just going to frustrate him and yourself by trying to "help."
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:45 AM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: I would take Lady Bonita's advice for the very first talk. Asking a bunch of questions usually gets the "fine" answer, but an open ended invitation of support usually produces a meaningful conversation somewhere down the line. Make sure he has your contact info so it doesn't feel like an empty offer.

Point out the things he is good at. Point out when someone treats him well and how he deserves to be treated that way by everyone. He will not be able to see how poorly his so called friends are treating him until he knows what it means to be treated the right way.

Spend time with him in situations that allow conversation but are not high stress for him. Give him a choice of 2 or 3 activities that aren't video games, let him make the decision and then particpate whole heartedly with him in the activity. Be the person that values his opinion. My preteen thrives when she finally has some control over something in her life. It doesn't have to be a huge deal even, just knowing that some decision she made is not overridden by some adult.
posted by domino at 11:50 AM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: Mmkay. I'm 13 (almost 14). If you started a sentence with most of those things, I'd prolly "think" I have you figured out right away cuz I'd tell myself "He understands TIME but not me and my friends and what we live." (That might not be true, but it's what I'd think.)

Mmkay. Here's the deal. We like adults who DO stuff with us and open up the world to us. We don't really like it when they criticize the world we live in. We live in it cuz people aren't offering us anything better. We can't drive to baseball games or hike alone in mountains or ride the bus alone to get to the beach. We can't get jobs and "network". If adults don't help us, then we build our own life with what we have, which is video games, skateboarding, hanging out after school, getting on AIM and stuff like that. And the rules in those places are pretty real to us...including popularity. So (I mean this in a nice way) either come to us in our world or take us to places in yours where we are allowed and won't get yelled at. Don't just talk to us. Cuz after you've said all you're going to say you'll get in your car and drive back to your house and we'll still be stuck at home with our video games and AIM.

Also, (no disrespect again, i promise) I personally would be offended if an adult told me that God is dead and we are alone. How are you planning on proving a negative? Even I know that it's impossible to prove a negative, so saying something like that would only leave me feeling worse. I think you should leave those kinds of opinions to yourself and let him decide about things like that for himself. He might be dead in your life, but you can't really tell the future for the kid's life. I really think you should leave that alone.

Mmkay. About school: Learning stuff in school is important but when was the last time you were actually IN a middle school? My parents finally pulled me out of public school and let me go to a private school cuz our schools are so huge and institutionalized. At my other school you got good grades if you didn't talk, didn't think, could fill out worksheets well, didn't make eye contact with anyone, had a #2 pencil so you could fill in bubbles, didn't bother a teacher, didn't mark in a book, didn't draw attention to yourself, didn't defend yourself against the kids who are always in trouble, didn't mind waiting 25 minutes in line for lunch and could wolf it down in 3 so that you weren't tardy, only walked on certain tiles in the hallway,didn't use certain stairways to get to class, didn't ask to use the restroom after lunch, didn't try to go into the library before or after school. It was a joke. The 8th grade science teacher at our school called the smartest kid in every classs period "Wienie Boy" so that they wouldnt' challenge him intellectually. Some of the PE coaches threw things, screamed and humiliated kids in the locker room. Yeah. Great. Give us schools where it's cool to learn and we will. Give us a situation where all we do is try to stay alive and see what happens. My new school rox and it is none of the things I just mentioned. Classes are small and teachers will correct you if you DON'T challenge their ideas. So before you talk school with a kid, you should find out what's REALLY going on there cuz it's prolly not what you remembered it was.

Advice is good if it is coming from a reliable source (which you might be) but you have to see that we have to LIVE it. We usually know our parents are ok (unless they are the kind that aren't...and I've seen some of those.) You don't really have to prove it. But if you did, you could make them seem more human. When you adults tell us stories about when you were our age or if you tell us how you messed up or how you totally rocked a situation when you were our age, we get it. If you tell us how we should do it in our lives, we don't. We honestly don't believe that you understand what you are talking about. That's not to be disrespectful, but it's true.

Pre-teen as in 11 or 12? School is already a popularity contest. It has been since about 3rd or 4th grade. Some of us don't care. Some of us do. Some of us just want to survive it. Nothing you can say or do will change our status. I think Popularity goes back to weather or not you have your own deal going on. I have a life and stuff I really care about and so even though really none of the kids I hang around with could care less and some prolly think it's totally lame, I like my life and that makes me feel pretty good about stuff. I LIKE my life cuz adults opened up the world to me a long time ago and now I get to do cool stuff. I'm not stuck at home unless I want to be at home.

If you want to help him get over all that stuff about popularity, help him to do cool stuff that makes him feel good about himself. Enough of that kind of thing and usually popularity won't matter too much cuz no one can take your life experience away even if you're a dork.

That's just my opinion. My opinion might not apply very well to EVERY kid, but it would work for most of the kids I hang around with. I hope this didn't sound disrespectful or arrogant. I just don't want you to make a big mistake. I can tell you care. He prolly can too. You just have to live it instead of talk it.

Oh and I just thought of this, my bro is a freshman at a communication arts magnet high school. His principal said that something like 39% of the new jobs that will be opening up when he graduates college will be linked in one way or another to the video game industry. I don't game too much, but I can see that happening just cuz of how much my friends play. Also, my dad's a doctor and he said that video games help some surgeons with their arthroscope (I dont' know how to spell it..srry) skills. Like on knees and shoulders. So you can't really just disregard them as part of our culture. sometimes they do become life.

I hope things work out good for you and especially for him. You sound kewl.
posted by FeistyFerret at 11:55 AM on June 19, 2006 [208 favorites]

scratch my advice and just have him make friends with feistyferret.

i hope my kids hang out with kids that communicate that well and have that kind of attitude.
posted by domino at 12:00 PM on June 19, 2006

Fantastic answer, FeistyFerret!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:13 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh also, some of your points are kinda...lecture-y. I took the liberty of posing these questions to desuetude-20-years-ago (12 years old). Don't take the following as being critical of your intentions, but keep in mind that it's your words, not your intentions, that he will hear.

Video games are not everything
* I never said that video games are "everything." (Classic grownup-to-kid hyperbole.)

You really should try to learn stuff in school
* Then perhaps they should teach me something, instead of doling out end-of-chapter exercises and worksheets.

Your parents aren't perfect, but are trying their best
* Trying their best at what? To tell me what I think vs what I should think? This doesn't seem to take a lot of effort. (Because unless you've been in a position of authority/influence/responsibility, this is pretty abstract.)

You're approaching some very difficult years, but it gets way better after this
* Translation: Life may begin to suck even more. But in a hundred years, I might get to do...something...that I will apparently enjoy, according to you? Ooh, like getting to work from 9-5 and hating my boss, like my parents? Awesome. Holding my breath in anticipation.

School is going to be a popularity contest pretty soon, and here are some ideas on how to handle that
* School is already a popularity contest.
posted by desuetude at 12:17 PM on June 19, 2006

Uh, shown up by the actual middle-schooler. Should'a previewed. How'd I do, FiestyFerret?
posted by desuetude at 12:17 PM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: I can only speak from my own experience here, so, bear that in mind when considering this.

I was similar in some respects to the boy you describe when I was younger, and being preached at just made me want to close myself off. I think the key is to make sure he feels comfortable with you and eventually feels understood.

I had a lot of people try to "intervene" to various extents with me and I really came to resent it, because they would always talk to me in a way that showed me they weren't interested into listening to how I felt or trying to empathize with me. Those who did try to empathize with me are the people I'm still close to to this day. Listening to him may help his self-esteem... there's nothing quite like feeling your thoughts are valuable. In the end, isn't that the most basic component of self-esteem?

Spend time with him doing the things he likes, and if he starts to open up to you, make sure he knows that his opinion and his feelings matter to you. And make sure you try to empathize with him. Oftentimes I'd start to open up to someone and then feel like they were trying to manipulate me. Don't put yourself in a position where he might feel that you have an agenda, as that may just make him feel bitter and steel himself against you--I know it did for me. I'd feel doubly humiliated because I had allowed myself to trust someone only to feel they really weren't interested in what I had to say after all.

And remember that some answers in life just can't be taught, so if there are things he doesn't get, they may fall into that category of things he needs to realize for himself.
posted by Kosh at 12:28 PM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: Oh, I meant to mention this: Lady Bonita says she's a mom of boys. There must be some underground Mom book out there about ways to be tricky with your kids. I think my mom read it too cuz Lady Bonita said something that my mom did:

One time me and Josh (my bro) got my mom to cave in and tell us her "parent tricks" that she uses (she has a lot.) Like, she said that when we were little she used to put me in the high chair at McDonalds and tie my shoes together so I couldn't try to climb out and go to the playroom thingy before I was done eating. *annoying* Stuff like that.

Well anywayz, she had two tricks she used to get us to talk and it's how she got a really good sense about our lives and how we were handling teachers and kids and junk at school. She doesn't usually have to use them anymore cuz as you can see, you can't really shut me up now, but One trick she did ALL that time starting from when we were REALLY young is she would pick us up after school and say "Tell me a funny story from today." I JUST found out like a week ago that this is how she was putting together which kids were which and the type of people i was dealing with all day. Of course I told her everything cuz I thought it was "funny." She used that daily info from the car ride to hone in on "Problem" situations she could detect from my stories. THEN (trick #2) (GAH I remember her doing this and I had no idea she was tricking me) she'd hand me a slinky or some toy that you could manipulate in your hands, and start doing the dishes or something. Then out of the blue while I was sitting there minding my own business playing with the cool toy at the counter, she'd ask me questions about particular stuff at school. She says that when you put moveable stuff in the hands of boys, the toy works like truth serum (sorry spelling) cuz it somehow short circuits our mental defenses and lets us talk. Mmkay that's just scary how grownups know stuff like that. haha. So yeah, Lady Bonita is right about that. Guys talk under the right circumstances.
posted by FeistyFerret at 12:53 PM on June 19, 2006 [44 favorites]

Desuetude, you totally nailed it. Totally.
Kosher too. His comment was awesome too.
posted by FeistyFerret at 1:06 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

I mean Kosh. Sorry dude.
posted by FeistyFerret at 1:07 PM on June 19, 2006

Speaking of scary, FiestyFerret, I can't make up my mind if it's scarier to think a real kid is writing these astonishing paragraphs, or that a great novelist has somehow been taken over by one of his characters and is answering this question from within a persona.

The former, actually. But whichever, the advice is as brilliant as the prose, and that's saying quite a lot, pornucopia.
posted by jamjam at 1:21 PM on June 19, 2006

Ha ha that's funny. Could you please tell my English teacher cuz she's not so convinced (and she would NOT call what I've written "paragraphs" cuz i write too "casually". She gave me a B for final grade. *grrr* I don't get the whole "grammar/diagraming sentences" thing at all, like what's the point.

Anywayz we can be smart if you adults give us a chance to do stuff with you. Read my owl essay on my website and you'll see what I'm talking about.

I hang around on these boards cuz there are a lot of really smart people who post answers that I would never think of. I can learn stuff that makes me think of OTHER stuff i'm already thinking about (science stuff usually). I know thats random but it's true. And since it's like 100 degrees outside, it's better than going to the pool. srry to scare you. :-)
posted by FeistyFerret at 1:45 PM on June 19, 2006

21 year old recent college graduate, former shy/antisocial youth, probably could've used this kind of influence in my life at about the kid in question's age, although I worked out alright without it.

FeistyFerret, you give me hope for the future. I mean that in a completely serious way.

My one bit of advice is the most important choice my father made in raising me: answer questions with questions whenever possible. There are some times this isn't possible, but rather than giving answers, offer other questions that will help stimulate research and experimentation to find the right question. That isn't strictly applicable here, because you're trying to inspire him to start asking questions, but once he does, make sure you're inspiring him to do his own research in all things, rather than giving him answers, however well-intentioned your answers may be. He'll be more interested in, and have more faith in, the validity of things he learns himself than things he's told, even if he's asking you to tell him. Use your discretion re: when to violate this rule for safety/etc, but try to provide guidance rather than answers.

For my own part, I made it through a similar situation by using several tight-knit internet communities as a support group. I met a lot of interesting, very awesome people in my age range who helped me survive high school, and the various stuff I was involved in (mostly art and web design/programming groups) inspired me to get interested in activities beyond the computer. The downside: high school was a complete wash for me, socially. It really took most of college for me to re-enter "the real world," and I'm paying for that in terms of dating, at least. But I'm now doing alright, and, on the bright side, I have friends' houses to crash at in a lot of very cool areas.
posted by Alterscape at 2:39 PM on June 19, 2006

Wow, that 'talk while they're fiddling with something' idea is great. Bet it works on girls, too. You've gotten plenty of good advice, pornucopia; I'll add that I've found sometimes you just have to push past that initial "too cool to hear you" pose. Don't let it bother you and just keep trying to interact. Take him somewhere and point out cool things with honest enthusiasm; he may roll his eyes the first couple of times, but natural curiosity and pleasure in having someone take an interest almost always wins out.
posted by mediareport at 2:55 PM on June 19, 2006

No one that I know of really thinks video games are everything. What video games are is something that's good at filling a void of free time. If you tell him "video games aren't everything" you'll come across as someone who's the worst sort of preachy.

I mean, you have money, transportation, your own place to live, all of that, right? So obviously you have more options than he does.

Sure, he may have more options than he realizes, but honestly, you're not going to get anywhere saying "video games cause all your problems!" because there are enough self-righteous assholes out there saying that and you don't want to be one of them.

If you really want to get across "There's more to life than video games" you'll have to minimally come up with examples, and preferably actually take time to give him access to some of those things. Whatever you feel he might like. Maybe a sporting event. Maybe a ren faire. I don't know the kid.

A couple other minor things:
- School is a popularity contest starting in preschool.
- He'll realize his parents are OK when he's older without any prompting. He probably realizes it now, whether he wants to admit it or not.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:57 PM on June 19, 2006

Video games are not everything
School is going to be a popularity contest pretty soon, and here are some ideas on how to handle that
God is dead and we are all alone

Television is telling him all of that stuff, including the last one, already. And if he's not heard it there, if he's not stupid, he's probably figured it out already, even if he doesn't know it yet.

I'm fairly certain that I was this kind of kid, back in the day. But it's not what you're told to do that can make a difference, it's what you choose to do.

Do you really want this kid to be the kind of guy that's popular in high school? What I'm trying to say is, as long as he's not trying to kill himself, trying to kill anyone else, or ruining his life, let him get on with it.

There are worse things that he could be doing. And he's still really young. If you're that worried, just keep an eye out.

And buy him a guitar.
posted by armoured-ant at 3:29 PM on June 19, 2006

FeistyFerret, that was amazing. And yes, you can write. Like a mofo. Having formerly been a 13 year old boy I can attest to you nailing a lot of what it was about for me, updated for massive cultural change. But there are things you learn looking back at that 13 year old boy from middle age where you go "D'oh, I wish I'd known that when I was younger." In a way it's tragic we don't have more dialogue across those lines, and it is in part for lack of a voice from young people (or perhaps lack of a platform for the voice that is there). But it is odd to imagine a 13 year old boy participating in Metafilter for the same reason. As adolescent as this place gets, we mostly talk as if it's only us old farts around here (meaning 20s and above).

Many of the things I wish I'd known back then relate to the subject that no one is really discussing here, and here's where I think 13 was perhaps the scariest and roughest year until I hit my mid-life crisis (which is the tail end of the process that starts in adolescence, and its mirror image): erotic and romantic love. 13 (give or take) is when it kicks into gear, and in a way that consumes you. And it is also the most powerful source of identity from there until . . . well, it still is for me, more than anything, including my work. (Men who say otherwise are either liars or androids . . . just kidding, you workaholics . . .But in my opinion most if not all of us do it for the love eventually, even if we believe we do it for money or good or power or fame. By "love" you may read any combination of admiration, attraction, adoration, respect, etc.)

There's nothing you can do to change that which he must go through. But you can model, point out, and suggest that when he hits the great wide open and has his freedom that there will be rewards for investing in future sexiness and getting good at something he loves to do besides be cool and thus not as scared and alone in the world yet charged up and ready for something as adolescence makes everyone feel. If he seems awkward, especially, he needs to find a groove where he will excel, and there has to be a reason to be disciplined about it. Maybe it is video games, or skills developed out of that obsession, if it is one. A boy has *got* to have an obsession besides girls (or whatever his taste).

There's not much you can say or do about it, though. You have to figure out whether you want to be a mentor or a friend, and how open he is to anything of the sort. A lot depends on how old you are. I learned a lot more from guys 3-5 years older than me than from any older male figure besides, obviously, my father. No one's family (or father) is perfect, and people turn out OK anyway a lot of the time. What matters is not your relationship with him so much as his father's. So the real question is whether you can do anything to help his relationship with his dad improve, which might well depend on developing rapport with the dad. It's a lot easier to make a rational case to an adult that *he* has to bear the burden of becoming conscious of a problem. He just has to understand that all 13 year old boys hate their fathers as part of coming to love them more, if their dad can weather the rough period.

Fascinating topic, unusual for RelationshipFilter.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:22 PM on June 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

Obviously in my second paragraph I commenced to answer the question asked, but didn't mark the switch, so in case it isn't clear . . .
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:25 PM on June 19, 2006

Speaking as another 13, turning 14 year old, that was awesome FiestyFerret.

certain adults are relatable and approachable in general, and will be respected, and some aren't. I don't think it has to do with the message or anything, its just that some kids relate to some adults better, and if this kid can't relate to you, you probably won't get through to him. Since it appears as though he knows and trust you, just basically say, hey, I think you would feel and do much better if you blank blank blakety blank. He will know when you are bullshitting or trying to hide your motives, so just get to the point.

As for his friends:
He most likely knows within himself that these kids don't like him. He probably admires them in a way, and you should tell him that just because he thinks they're cool doesn't mean that he has to be that type of cool or that being their joke is a way to get "in" with them. He is not one of them, in their minds and he should try to form his own group of friends. I think a kid like him would probably be happiest with one or to best friends.

Video games:
Video games may be his hobby. His thing that he is proud of doing well. As long as he doesn't let his hobby turn into an obsession, he should be ok.

About School:
I'm in the twin of the school FiestyFerret talked about, and thank god I'm graduating. Our test score average was around 53%, which is very good for my (big city) school district. I scored 95% percent on the test. School is what you make of it and if he is just sitting there in class, he might as well make use of the time by at least absorbing the information given to him. Maybe he needs a certain stetting for school. For highschool, he should consider different options and find one that fits him. He may just be the type of student for the humongous public school, or maybe he might take more interest in an arts school or eclectic charter school. A "different" highschool fitted to him would also probably help with the friends problem. He will meet interesting new people completely different from those at his old school and it may be like a jumpstart to a dying battery.
posted by Suparnova at 6:17 PM on June 19, 2006

I'm not a 13 year old boy and never have been, but I was a horribly shy kid and shut myself up pretty well from puberty till my third year of college. During this time I had multiple people try to intervene and try to be the one who made a difference in my life. Nothing pissed me off more than knowing someone was trying to intervene and be the one to make a difference in my life. It was humiliating and I became really suspicious of friendly gestures later on, seeing everyone as condescending.

What I wish with all my heart is that I could have found something to be passionate about. I wish that someone had come and taken me rock climbing or bird watching or taught me knitting or archery or knife fighting, or something that I could have poured myself into, rather than just coming home and vegging. No big group activities (I can remember a disastrous pottery class that involved far too many other kids my age for me to be comfortable), just interesting things that I could learn to do with a couple people. I wish that I could have used some of those years in front of the TV to learn more about things that I could continue into my adult life. If I'd had someone willing to teach me something fun (or learn with me), I would have been a lot more likely to bond with them and open up about the rest of my life. I'm not talking any major time commitment, I would still want to go home and watch TV at the end, but an hour a week of (whatever) would have made a real difference to me.

The closest I came to that was one family friend who would occasionally take me to sort of artsy movies. In the car she'd ask lots of questions about other movies and books I'd seen/read lately and some about school, and then she'd talk to me about the movie on the way home. I thought she was prying at the time, and I felt bothered by all the questions (I had a hard time answering them, I wasn't very good at conversation), but I didn't feel like she was being condescending and I did talk to her.

I also want to add another vote for doing something with your hands while talking. My best childhood counselor kept a bowl of plasticine on the table, and I definitely took advantage of it. Now I find that I can be most open with my friends when we're playing cards. If we're just sitting at a table, I will either find something to do (folding and shredding napkins, bending straws), or shut up entirely.
posted by jheiz at 7:02 PM on June 19, 2006

FeistyFerret - well said.

As others have said, approach all kids as "full people" and not "small people." I've forged close relationships with my 12 y.o. and 15 y.o. nephews by speaking with them as I do other family members and friends. Often the conversation commences on topics of particular interest to them: videogames, sports and films. From there it evolves. And by all means, when you are in their presence do stuff. Ride bikes, ski, take a hike or go to a film. Being engaged in activity where you treat them as an equal, as a partner draws them -- and, you - out. And of most importance, let them know that they can consider you a confidant. One of my nephews has come to realize that he can share with me his concerns (most recently about his feelings regarding his relationship with his step-mom) and that it stays between us.
posted by ericb at 7:08 PM on June 19, 2006

You mentioned his interest in video games. Maybe you could offer to take him to a video game tournament (to participate or simply observe). He'd almost certainly enjoy it, plus it would give you a chance to bond. Some of the bigger organizations in that field are MLG, CPL and WSVG, but there are probably many smaller tournaments happening at any given time in bigger cities.
posted by A Kingdom for a Donkey at 1:45 AM on June 20, 2006

Metatalk. Shut it.
posted by cortex at 10:03 AM on June 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

FeistyFerret, you give me hope for the future. I mean that in a completely serious way.

Me too.
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on June 20, 2006

Response by poster: Holy crap. While I was away, this thread turned awesome. A lot of really great stuff here. Thanks for chiming in everyone, and especially FeistyFerret.

If anyone's still reading this, let me pose some more specific questions to you...

The young man in question is 10. As I see it, one of the big problems he's having is that no one is teaching him any discipline at all. His parents will give him an ultimatum, then completely fail to follow through.

6:00 "Ok, time to stop playing that game now. We're having our family dinner with our guests."

6:05: "We're about to start. Shut that game off this instant!"

6:20: "I said turn the game off! You're going to be in huge trouble if you don't get in here!'

6:24: "Ok, that's it! Turn that game off or you won't get any more video games for a week!"

6:25: parent turns off video game, drags child to table

6:51: child leaves table before dinner is finished, most of his food on his plate (he'll just fill up on chips and soda later), goes back to playing video games, parent does nothing

He is interested in some non-video-game things. He was really into soccer for a while, and he's in band. He quit soccer the first time he had a discouraging experience, and he never practices his instrument, even though he enjoys playing it.

I'm childless, so this is easy for me to say, but it seems like just plain bad parenting to me. Furthermore, it's exactly the same kind of parenting I received. Nowadays I wish that I had been given some kind of discipline. I think I would have made so much more of my life than I have. So I see the exact same thing happening to this young man, and it tears me up inside. Does anyone have any ideas on how to help him with this? I had a talk about this with his father the other day, and the dad seems to understand that what he's doing isn't working, but lacks the focus and follow-through skills to implement any kind of real discipline.

And of course I understand that I can't just sit him down and say "Young man, here is the key to life", then dust off my hands and walk away. In my original question I mentioned "sneaking in some preachiness", and by this I meant trying to deliver some lessons in an undetectable way. There have been some great suggestions here.

Yes, I am taking the long view with this. I'm going to be taking some of the suggestions in this thread and trying to arrange day-long trips with him, and investing in slinkies and whatnot.
posted by pornucopia at 10:26 AM on June 20, 2006

Thanks mathowie for the pointer to FeistyFerret's comment and this thread in general. Great stuff!
posted by intermod at 5:16 PM on June 20, 2006

I have no experience with raising kids or spending time with them. I did take care of developmentally disabled adults for about 10 years though (I don't mean disrespect to kids by that, it's strikingly like raising kids from all the parents that I know). There are some similarities and there's one I want to warn you about. If you aren't going to committ to this then don't get too involved. Maybe that's harsh, but I've taken care of dozens of people that need help. I've seen thousands - literally, the field has a ridiculous turnover- of people with the best of intentions come into the situation and think they're gonna be a superhero. Six months down the road, something interferes and then they're gone. I've seen a great deal of damage done emotionally to people due to this then alot of other things. By no means am I saying to not get involved, you did mention looking at the long view. I just want to very strongly emphasise commitment to helping this kid out. You're a good man for giving it a shot and paying enough attention.

P.S. One lady I took care of was working on her Ph.D. in developmental psychology. Something I picked up from that and working in the field is don't fall into the trap of most men. Guy's don't listen and will take over an activity, if you want someone to grow and learn your job is support and letting them fuck up. Just not to the point of anything egregious.
posted by andywolf at 6:01 PM on June 20, 2006

Porucopia, the whole issue of how to mitigate bad parenting without overstepping your bounds is a whole other issue. I would love to hear some people's strategies on that can of worms.

On one hand, I can't fault a parent for having the attitude that they know what's best for their kids and that they won't be told how to parent. (Because god knows, all parents get unsolicited and often sanctimonious advice from all quarters.) But it's frustrating as hell to see someone give their adolescent kids mixed signals, irrational responses, lilly-livered authority, etc., especially when you care about said kids are are friends with said parent.
posted by desuetude at 6:10 PM on June 20, 2006

desuetude - I forgot to mention something like that. They're the main caregivers and authority in the situation, so some form of communication needs to be established. My situation was similar with disabled folks in that you're coming in later in the person's life and you're also on the outside trying to make a positive change. I would feel out the parents as to how much involvement they would be comfortable with. When talking to them also be careful of how you're framing your dialogue, nothing even remotely like you're pointing a finger in anyway. Not so much in terms of you saying this is what you see the situation to be, but turn the question around on them, let them voice any concerns they have. Anything you're thinking about put into terms of "what do you think of..." or "have you noticed...?" You can bring up your concerns, just try to make it like they're the ones that thought of it. Like the kid it's important starting out with something like this. At the start it's alot more about what you don't say and what you're actions are. Does that make sense? Like the gist of alot of the suggestions I've read, it seems to me the best approach is facilitating someones proactive role in the situation. The same with the parents as the kid.
posted by andywolf at 6:44 PM on June 20, 2006

andywolf, great answers. And I totally agree with the commitment aspect that you mention as well. I was asking somewhat hypothetically, as in my particular case I am good friends with the parents, and they do seek out my opinions and advice regarding their kids, to whom I am somewhat like an aunt.
(But gods know I'll be glad to see them safely off to college where they can exchange stories about their crazy parents with a more diverse group.)
posted by desuetude at 8:28 PM on June 20, 2006

well, being a fifteen year old, here's how i think an adult should approach these topics in a way that would make me feel comfortable:

Video games are not everything
this one's tough. i don't think you should talk to him about this stuff, it's not gonna help much. i think you should show him. take him out to a movie, for a burger, or even just to walk the dog. show him that he can have fun without being glued to a screen.

You really should try to learn stuff in school
also a tough one. you can't tell him he should learn stuff in school, and you shouldn't bug him about that because he'll HATE that. you should talk to him every time you see him about school, about people in school, about his teachers. if he has a very unfair history teacher, for example, make fun of the teacher with him! show him that you're on his side. after a few simple conversations about school, you can try telling him its important.
but one thing you should never do: don't try to make it seem like his parents really want him to do it. i.e. dont say "you're making your parents so disappointed" or "think of how happy your parents will be". firstly, he should study to benefit himself. and secondly, no teenager on earth wants to do something that makes their parents happy.

Your parents aren't perfect, but are trying their best
I gather from this that your teenage relative is having a tough time with his parents. well, i think this is a lesson he should learn for himself. the only way of truly realizing your parents are doing their best is by seeing other parents who don't try their best. but he'll see that one day and appreciate his parents.

You're approaching some very difficult years, but it gets way better after this
this is the easy one. tell it to him like it is. but just a tip: try your hardest not to sound patronizing. because this idea that you've stated is pretty patronizing, but if you're smart you'll jump that hurdle.

School is going to be a popularity contest pretty soon, and here are some ideas on how to handle that
hon, school is already a popularity contest. just give him the tips straight away. but dont say "school is a popularity contest, here's how you can handle it". you have to be subtle, you have to make it seem like casual conversation.
for example, talking about school and making fun of his teachers with him, then slowly sliding to what a shitface the school/grade/class bully is, and then just talking to him about all kinds of things he can do to overcome the shitface bully.

God is dead and we are all alone
If there's anything important in this reply, it's that you cant force religion upon a kid/teen/whoever. you have to let him discover his theological beliefs on his own.

good luck!
posted by alon at 9:39 PM on June 20, 2006

The poster was kidding re: the God comment.
posted by lyam at 6:08 AM on June 21, 2006

right :)
silly me.
posted by alon at 7:08 AM on June 21, 2006

FeistyFerret, let me know when you your first novel comes out so that I can pre-order it! (Your English teacher should be nurturing your talent.)

I want to say something about school: school is something we force on our kids, and it's natural to resent being forced. As adults, there's little we're forced to do. Sure, we "have" to go to work, but not in the same way a kid has to go to school. As adults, we have more options.

I know some adults are trapped, but generally this is due to poor choices. At the very least, they know they are lying in a bed of their own making, which means they have some sense of free will. Kids are more like slaves.

Also, as adults, we know that all things come to an end. You can only learn this via experience (by living through many things that DO come to an end). For a kid who is trapped in school, it feels like he'll be trapped there forever.

Even those of us who are trapped in jobs or bad marriages are allowed to bitch about it. We can get sympathy. Whereas many kids are told that their "jails" are good for them and that they're lucky to live in a country where they get a free education. They're told that if they resent school or education, they're stupid, lazy or immature. I know that as an adult I've had plenty of jobs that I've hated, and I'm not stupid, lazy or immature.

So it's VITAL that if your kid hates school, you acknowledge his right to those feelings. He may have to go to school, but he doesn't have to like it. And if he doesn't like it, that doesn't make him stupid. That makes him normal. Even if his school is a great school (in your opinion), it's something he's forced into. For him, it's a chain around his ankle.

Growing up, my schools were all bad. (That's not just my opinion. When I talk to childhood friends, we all agree on this point.) Yet for years, I was told that my resentment meant there was something wrong with ME. And some of that sunk in. I'm now in my 40s, and I'm still recovering from my relationship with school and the people who pushed it -- and its ideology -- on me. Even though I read voraciously, had a talent for drawing and could program computers, I believed that because I didn't like school, I was stupid. Because that's what I was told.

Please note that there's a difference between school and learning. Sure, one can learn in schools -- some school, anyway, but schools aren't the only ways to learn.

I was told over and over that I had no love of learning because I didn't do well in school. Whereas in fact, learning is my favorite activity. Again, even if the school is a great school (one conducive to learning), that doesn't mean that if a kid hates it (or is indifferent to it), he hates learning.

It's not enough to say, "It's important to do well in school." WHY is it important? It's important to get good grades (for most people with typical life goals), and it's important to learn (for survival and personal growth).

I WISH someone had told me this when I was younger. I WISH someone had said, "Sure, school sucks. Unfortunately, grades count in life, so you have to somehow get through school and come out at the end with good grades. If you want, I'll help you 'beat the system'." If even ONE adult had talked to me this way, it would have shaved years of anxiety off my life.

Instead, grades were confused with learning and "correct values." Because I didn't get good grades, it meant that I was lazy and hated learning and didn't know how lucky I was to be allowed to go to such a good school...

And I wish someone had recognized my desire to learn and showed me ways to further my education on my own. As a parent, this means clicking into your kid's world. Learning is learning, and at 13 it's more important that you help your kid develop a love of learning (and a means of finding information) than, say, a specific love of math or classic literature. If your kid is into video games, fine. Then meet him in his world (YOU might have to learn something) and help him push its boundaries. Help him learn things about video games that he doesn't know. Does he know their history? Does he know how to program them himself? Does he know how gaming features find their way into simulations and movies? Does he know how gaming affects the brain?

Kids today live in a very different world than I did when I was a kid. If I wanted to study something, my choices were to ask questions, go to the library, or participate in school. But now there's The Web, Google, Wikipedia, etc. For many kids, traditional sit-in-a-classroom-and-listen-to-a-lecture school must seem beside-the-point. Make sure you understand your kid's world. He has to grow up in that world. Not in your world.
posted by grumblebee at 1:06 PM on June 21, 2006 [5 favorites]

about sperose's last comment, it's "Perks of Being a Wallflower", by Stephen Chbosky, and it's amazing, but I don't know how suitable it would be for a ten-year-old... maybe in two or three years...
posted by alon at 8:55 AM on June 25, 2006

So (I mean this in a nice way) either come to us in our world or take us to places in yours where we are allowed and won't get yelled at. Don't just talk to us. Cuz after you've said all you're going to say you'll get in your car and drive back to your house and we'll still be stuck at home with our video games and AIM.

I just caught this thread from FeistyFerret's link on the sidebar. To FF, I have only this to say: When you are old enough, please do civilization the courtesy of breeding like a motherfucker. The world needs more people like you in it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:01 AM on June 27, 2006

I WISH someone had told me this when I was younger. I WISH someone had said, "Sure, school sucks. Unfortunately, grades count in life, so you have to somehow get through school and come out at the end with good grades. If you want, I'll help you 'beat the system'."

amen grumblebee. I have a brother-in-law who is 13 and has had a rough i've told him exactly that. Told him about how awesome it is to be older, to choose what you study in college...wish someone would have explained the jump-through-the-hoops game when i was 13.
posted by th3ph17 at 8:35 PM on June 30, 2006

This kid sounds just like me when I was a kid. I don't know him but it sounds like he's quite depressed and might need to be treated professionally. I wish someone had done that for me. I'm in my 40s and sadly still digging my way out of a hole that might have been treatable early on.
posted by zorro astor at 11:23 AM on July 6, 2006

Take him a sci-fi con or Ring Game. Seeing 200 or so shy, ackwards, bookish types throwing a party, running around, and interacting socially would be a very good thing. Seeing a few with PhD's talking real science would be great too.

The big thing is that he needs to understand is that he doesn't need to be embarassed about being himself, and that he has a social life ahead of him - it's just that big, lousy high schools don't concentrate that type of person well and make socializing difficult for them.
posted by ransom_k_fern at 4:17 PM on July 14, 2006

easy: "hey, want some candy?"
posted by jcterminal at 1:50 PM on January 1, 2007

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