Saturday, October 15, 2005

I am standing in the hallway outside my son’s bedroom door, listening. OK, I’m eavesdropping — but it’s the only way I’m going to find out what’s really going on in his life.

Not that I don’t ask him directly. Every afternoon in the van at the end of a long school day, I pitch questions such as, “What made today fun?” or “What happened that surprised you today?”

I have read parenting articles that recommend asking open-ended questions rather than those that can be answered with a simple “yes,” “no” or the most meaningless reply, “fine.” So, instead, I ask things that should elicit a thoughtful response.

Unfortunately, the answer I get from my son these days is “nothing.”

How is this possible? He leaves the house before 8 a.m. and doesn’t climb into the car until after 3 p.m. It’s inconceivable to me that in more than seven hours away from home, nothing happens that is even remotely remarkable.

Yet, ever since he started sixth grade, I have noticed a change in my son. The boy who can talk for seven or eight minutes without a breath about last week’s soccer game or last night’s Yankees game or the last frozen waffle in the refrigerator is suddenly mute about middle school.

When I ask, “Who did you hang with at recess?” the answer is, “My friends.”

If I probe with, “Tell me about your classes,” I get, “They’re boring.”

Once I asked, “So, do you have a girlfriend?”

He said, “No. Should I?” This felt like a conversational victory.

“Of course not,” I said. “I just wanted to see if you were listening.”

It seems unlikely that overnight my son has developed the male propensity for uncommunicativeness. His voice hasn’t even started to crack, so it’s too early for him to bury his face behind a newspaper and ignore the woman asking what he might like for dinner.

Besides, what I hear while standing in the dark is proof he’s still talking. He’s just not talking to me.

The whispered voices and muffled laughter are a sharp contrast to the busy, businesslike tone my son and I have adopted lately. Our time together is always short, often hectic — we interact in staccato, sharing cryptic messages to convey the bare essentials. It isn’t talking so much as debriefing.

“Homework?” I ask.

“Science, lit and vocab,” he says.

“Got your gym clothes?”

“In my locker.”


“Music room.”

“Peanut butter?”

“Turkey. Cheese. No mayo.”

It’s not unfriendly, but it lacks depth, that’s for sure.

That is why I am so surprised when I hear the conversation between my husband and our son.

I’m in his room, hustling him along because he is well past his 9:30 bedtime. I grouse about the clothes on the floor, reminding my son to bring his dirty laundry downstairs with him in the morning. I make a nagging comment about the pile of stuff on his desk and also about the unfinished book on his night table. I ask if he brushed his teeth and set his clock.

Then I tuck and kiss with maternal efficiency, already thinking about the chores that await me before I, too, can climb into bed.

Just before I leave the room, I pick a towel off the floor and head toward the bathroom to hang it on the towel rack. As I walk out, my husband comes in to say goodnight.

That’s when I hear, “Sit down for a minute, Dad. I want to tell you about my day.”

Unseen in the shadows, I freeze against the wall and listen to the animated, enthusiastic dialogue I have craved for nearly a month. Words tumble from my son’s lips as he tells his dad everything I long to know about — the plot of the book he loves from literature class, a quiz he aced in math, a test to come in social studies — all the details that gave his day meaning and purpose. He did not do “nothing” but enjoyed a day filled with interesting ideas and challenging work.

When their conversation ends and their goodnights are said, I slip back into my son’s room and sit on the edge of his bed. I tell him I understand why he likes to talk to his dad, who is a great listener.

I tell him that our relationship is changing as he grows, as it should. It’s natural for him to be closer to his dad as he gets older.

I remind him that he still can talk to me, too, even if most of our time together is rushed, our speech the familiar shorthand of daily conversation.

He gives me a hug, and we choke back a few tears. We both know it’s inevitable that he will become the man he’s meant to be, not the little boy who’ll live forever in his mother’s heart.

Then again, in the still of darkness, I discover there is much this boy will tell me when I stop and really listen.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site ( or send e-mail to

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