Arguing with Teenagers: Is This the Hill You Want to Die on?

"Arguing with Teenagers: Is This the Hill You Want to Die on?"

"Roy Orbison sucks!" So announces my 13 year old son as he strolls into my office where I'm writing, and listening to one of my favorite CD's, the greatest hits of Roy Orbison. What divide between the generations is more common than taste in music? But, there are other things going on here: he's at the age where he needs to declare his independence from his parents, to become an adult in his own right, and for me, this isn't an argument I need to win, so I decide to have some fun with it.

"Oh, yeah?" I say, "Name 25 bands that are better." I arbitrarily pick a high number just to throw out a challenge. He's up to it. "Guitar Hero" is a big part of his life now, so he launches into his list. "The Beatles, The Who, Cream . . . " I figure I'm going to have to stop him, so I throw some road blocks in his way: "Wait, you just said "Number 8"; you skipped number 7." He knows by now, that in situations like this, I'll cheat and lie to win, so he just rolls right past my faux objection.

I try another ploy: "Wait, you just said "Red Hot Chili Peppers", a band you don't like."

"They're still better than Roy Orbison. #18: Guns and Roses."

"You already mentioned Guns and Roses."

"No, I didn't. #19: Rolling Stones." The kid is unflappable. 13 years of living with me have made him so. I've shot all my best shots; the kid cruises on to triumph and, to rub salt in my wounds, he adds two more bands, finishing with 27.

Instead of the traditional generational argument about musical tastes and the like, we've had a fun moment together, he has bested his dad with no hurt feelings or acrimony, and apparently he enjoyed the exercise; he tells me later that he was discussing "Guitar Hero" with some friends at school, and he challenged them to name 40 bands. I wonder where he got that idea?

Differences of opinion with our teenagers are inevitable. Their task isn't to sort things out into what is a worthy argument or not; their task is to cobble together their future adult independence from their parents, a job that is incumbent upon the young in all of nature. Adolescent lions are driven from the pride, fledged birds are tossed from the nest to fly on their own. These things must be, it is nature's way.

Our job as adults is to figure out which arguments are important. I dare say most aren't. In the marines, they ask the question, "Is this the hill you want to die on?" We have to ask that same question as these moments with our kids pop up. There are some hills parents need to die on, such as drugs, how sex will be approached, choices in friends, sticking with school, social and behavioral problems, and deeply held family values, but we don't need to die on every hill that comes along. Some of them we should just climb up with our children to enjoy the view, such as the hill of whether or not Roy Orbison is any good.

I heard one sad story of a discussion between a grandmother and granddaughter where grandma made the wrong choice regarding the hill. The child observed that the chair grandma was sitting in wasn't an over-stuffed chair, but that it was stuffed just right. (And isn't this one of the joys children bring to our lives? A fresh view of things, new ways of looking at old paradigms?) And, the kid had a point: if the chair truly was over-stuffed, seams would be ripping, and stuffing would be falling out.

Grandma, however, chose to defend adult convention in the face of youthful innovation. She insisted the chair be referred to as "over-stuffed". The discussion degenerated into an argument, then it became personal. Grandmother and granddaughter wound up not speaking to each other for several years. These were teenage years; years that the child needed all the wise adult counsel and support she could muster, especially during times when counsel with parents was out of the question. Grandma simply wasn't there for her. Further; grandma missed those years, and they can never be brought back; they're gone. And that over an over-stuffed chair. What a shame. Grandma chose to die on that hill; it was the wrong choice.

Your teenagers are going to present you with hills. That's the nature of the beast. You have to decide quickly and wisely if it's a hill to die on, or just enjoy the view. That's your job. And if, in fighting on the hill you decide it's not worth more bloodshed, then have the adult maturity and humility to accept your wounds and not make the situation worse. Your child will respect you for a wise reversal of position when wisdom and priorities demand such, and they'll know they can come to you with their problems and you're not going to go ballistic over every little thing.

Pride and principle are two-edged swords: you can cut your opponent; you can also slash yourself. If you hear yourself saying, "It's the principle of the thing", my guess is that you've taken a "die-on-this-hill" stand, and the hill truly isn't worth your life. If you must have pride, take pride in the maturing of your child, the intellect they can bring to bear in a discussion, the workings of their developing minds and personalities. A more important thing is maintaining open communication with your child; a trust in them that they can come to you with the hills that maybe they're being called to die on.

And, no, Roy Orbison doesn't suck.