When I watch young parents delight in their toddlers' first words, I am filled with nostalgia. The miracle of emerging speech in our kids is so thrilling, I don't have the heart to tell these parents that it won't last. But more experienced parents know the hard truth: after your children have barraged you with conversation throughout their early years (some of which, admittedly, nearly drove you meshugga), they fall into a deep and perplexing silence during adolescence. This silence may last as long as two presidential administrations, or the occasional dictatorship in East Congo. By the age of fourteen or fifteen, teen communication with parents can often be measured in unwilling syllables, doled out in miserly fashion, like porridge in a Dickens novel. It's possible that the first, full post-adolescent sentence you might hear from the beneficiary of all your life's energy, money, and heartstrings, will be when he is twenty-two and announces, "I'm getting married."
Can a mom have a conversation with a teen that will last longer than it takes to utter the word "con-ver-sa-tion"? This is, admittedly, a problem more common among boys than girls, and it was no hyperbole for the Talmud to state that there were ten measures of speech given, nine of which were given to women! (If you need any proof, watch your daughter's rapid-fire talk on her cell phone.) I have had this problem also. I have watched several sons attached by the ear to an iPod, texting endless messages to friends and doing geometry homework, all at the same time. Apparently, the dictum "Say little and do much" is one they have taken to heart.
But how do we break through that classic "strong but silent" persona? How can a mom who isn't fluent in Dodger talk have a conversation with a teen that will last longer than it takes to even utter the word "con-ver-sa-tion"? One night, as I watched one son laboring over a book of Talmud, I had an idea.
Family dinner conversations were increasingly laced with halachic references and "Talmud-speak." My public high school didn't offer Aramaic as a second language, so I felt as if I almost needed subtitles in my own kitchen. I began cribbing notes when my boys tossed off various Talmudic references, and
paid close attention to the disputations at hand. After about a month of furtive note-taking and my own research, I launched Operation Confabulation – one mother's attempt to wrest recalcitrant repartee from her beloved son.
I was very excited to test my plan. No sooner had my son come home for dinner than I said, "You'll never guess what happened today."
"Huh," he responded.
"This woman's ox gored my ox in the market today," I said, indignant. This actually got his attention. However, his expression suggested that he was trying to decide how to cope with a mother who had become mentally unhinged right before his eyes. I wondered if this might not have been the smartest conversation starter. What was the right response to this kind of statement,anyway?
"A woman's ox gored your ox in the market," he repeated. "What are you talking about?" Wow, my plan was already a smashing success! I got two consecutive sentences out of the kid, for a total of fourteen words, just like that!
"Happens all the time, especially on Fridays," I said. Pressed a little further, I then admitted it wasn't literally an ox; it was a shopping cart, and I
described the woman's heedless banging of my cart as she plowed toward the meat case, inspecting the shoulder roasts as if looking for radioactive contamination. I tried to segue into a discussion about the damages he felt the woman ought to pay, since if there's one thing I know about the Talmud, it's
that there is a lot of talk about damages. What should she pay me, considering that her aggressive maneuvering of her ox (cart) ensured that she snagged the freshest and biggest shoulder roast left in the case, while I was left with only a deckle roast?
This was a classic Jewish strategy: deflecting one question with another This first attempt had mixed results. Unfortunately, my son seemed to quickly lose interest in my case, even when I threw around impressive terms, such as hava amina and chiddush. (I hope I used them correctly.) But I was cheered that we had spoken for nearly three entire minutes, uninterrupted by even a single text message.
Of course, I had enjoyed excellent luck in shopping with this shor muad (a serial and wanton banger of shopping carts) in the market. The next day, I needed more inventiveness to keep up my promising Talmudic discussions with my son. Checking my notes and an Artscroll edition of Tractate Bava Metzia (camouflaged in a brown paper wrapper), I wasted no time in lobbing a question for my son.
"Let's say it's the established custom in a home that a child who is older than thirteen is responsible to do the laundry when it begins to spill so far over the basket that it is creating a trail in the hallway, where others could trip on it, but this same child fails to do so? Would this negligent person be permitted to consume produce purchased by the mortgage owner of the property?"
I exhaled in satisfaction at my own question, especially since I also managed to toss in the term nafk mina (a difference in Jewish law--I think; I got some of my flash cards mixed up) in there somewhere. Perhaps I could take at least some credit for my boys' "Gemara kops"(Talmud-learning heads!) My brain cells were all fired up from this intellectual exercise.
If my son's expression the day before was worried, today it was panicked. "What's wrong with Mom?" he clearly wondered. "I think," he said slowly, "any child should be able to eat in his own house unless he is a rebellious son, even if he's a little behind on the laundry. Hey Mom, did you remember to make that orthodontist appointment for me?" Well, this was a classic Jewish strategy: deflecting one question with another question, and one with no connection to the matter either!
I wish I could claim that Operation Confabulation was a complete triumph, resulting in long paragraphs of continual conversation between mother and son. However, this would not be completely emesdik (truthful). He still seems to prefer shteiging (scaling intellectual heights) over his Talmud than shooting the breeze with me, but he has directly spoken more than twenty-four sentences to me, and only half of them were on the topic of the shor muad (a goring ox).
I know there is hope. I have seen young adult sons resume conversation with their mothers, and besides, I still have a daughter who is a very reliable conversationalist. Sometimes, it's even with me!