A Household Word: My Son's Not Talking

By Carol Band

I can count on him to belch the Pledge of Allegiance at Thanksgiving dinner, and he always speaks up on allowance day, but getting any real information out of the child is practically impossible.

My 12-year-old son, Lewis, doesn't talk. Oh sure, he can regale the dinner table with blonde jokes that he heard in the middle school cafeteria ("A blonde and a brunette walked into a building the brunette used the door!"). I can count on him to belch the Pledge of Allegiance at Thanksgiving dinner, and he always speaks up on allowance day, but getting any real information out of the child is practically impossible.

Believe me, I try. Just today, he came home from school and we had this meaningful exchange:

"How was school?"


"What did you do?"


"Did you get any papers back?"

"I don't think so."

"What did you have for lunch?"

"I don't remember."

"Do you have any homework?"

"Mmmmrgrrff. " His reply was muffled by a mouthful of microwave popcorn.

Then the phone rang. It was my friend Bev. Her son is in Lew's class. "Did you hear about what happened after school today?" she asked.

She knows I didn't hear. She knows that I never hear about the lunchroom brawls, the middle-school romances or who said what to whom on the bus. My kid doesn't talk.

Her son, however, is a fount of information. He tells her who brought what for lunch, who threw up in the Friday assembly and which sixth-grade boy already has armpit hair. I can count on her to know when the social studies project is due, if I need to pack a lunch for the field trip and whether my son scored a goal at soccer practice. Her kid talks.

"Well," she continued, "Sam came home from school very upset. Apparently there was some kind of fight."

"Hang on a sec, OK?"

I look at my son for signs of bruising or trauma. He is digging into a carton of cookie-dough ice cream and appears unscathed.

"Are you OK?" I ask.

"Huh?" he says, as he pours Hershey's syrup onto his ice cream.

I don't know. Maybe I should be worried. I mean, the child is gone everyday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and when he comes home all he can relate is a blonde joke that someone told at lunch?

"Bev, are you still there?"

Now, I've read the parenting articles that say if we want our kids to talk, we have to ask the right questions. They suggest that we grease the conversational wheels by asking open-ended questions - ones that can't be answered by a simple grunt or a roll of the eyes. They caution against sounding accusatory, confrontational or judgmental, and remind us that our body language should be sincere and empathetic.

I unfold my arms and arrange them in a pose that I think looks appropriately sincere.

"Sweetie, can you tell me the worst thing that happened at school today?" I inquire in dulcet, nonthreatening tones.

"Nothing," he replies.

The parenting experts also recommend a technique they call "active listening." This involves asking a question and then restating what your child has said to make sure that there is no misunderstanding.

"So, you're telling me that nothing bad happened today," I confirm.

"Right," he says.

"So now you're telling me that you just told me that nothing bad happened today."


Enough psychology. I put my hand over the receiver and hiss, "Did you get in a fight today after school?"

"Not really."

"Whaddaya mean, not really?" I probe.

"It was no big deal."

"Well, Sam's mom is on the phone and she says that he is upset, so something must have happened." I am finding it hard not to sound accusatory and confrontational.

"Bev, I'm gonna have to call you back," I say, hanging up the phone and employing the time-honored parenting technique known as "the look."

My son succumbs and blurts out a confession: "Someone called Sam a bad word and I told the kid to leave him alone."

"That's it?"


"OK," I breathe a sigh of relief. "I'm proud of you for sticking up for your friend." I kiss the top of his head and he rolls his eyes. I reach for the phone to call Bev back.

"Oh, Mom, guess what?"

My heart leaps. He's telling me more! He's sharing! We're bonding! "What, honey?" I ask, putting down the phone, ready to hang on his every word.

"A blonde had a pet zebra. She named him Spot."