I spoke to a young mother recently who was bemoaning the fact that her daughter, now 12 years old, had made an early start into the eye-rolling teenage years, the ones that once prompted Mark Twain to write “When a child turns 12, you should put him in a barrel, nail down the lid, and feed him through the knot hole.”

Knowing that I had managed to survive my own children and was now actively involved in the life of my grandchildren, she asked me if I had any advice on how to maintain communication with children as they enter an part of their lives where they mistakenly believe that they have all the answers.

I laughed.

Then I tried my best to disabuse my friend of the belief that grandparents are imbued with any special wisdom. Older, I said, did not naturally translate into being wiser. In my case, I was almost certain that it did not.

But my friend persisted and I recalled that I’d had a similar conversation with my own daughter about why my granddaughter never seemed to roll her eyes at me, but seemed to reserve that particular action for her mother.

I stopped laughing and thought about it.

“I don’t know,” I managed. “Over the years I guess I’ve learned that there isn’t a person alive that doesn’t know something that you don’t. I guess I try to let kids know that I believe that and I listen to them,” I said.

But how do you get them to talk in the first place?, my friend asked.

Despite my denying having any special wisdom, I was being sucked into the role of wise old teacher.

The answer, I said, is to ask questions that are impossible to answer with a monosyllabic response. Ask them about their opinion of school as opposed to asking if they had a good day.

And when you ask a question, actually listen to the answer without allowing your mind to think about something else. Letting our minds wander is a natural thing to do, of course, and we all do it. Someone is talking and you’re already thinking about the next thing you’re going to say instead of trying to understand what the person is saying and how they really feel about the topic.

I’m not sure my friend was listening any more, but, hey, I was on a roll and kept talking.

“When you do listen—and that’s a lot harder than most people think—let the conversation flow. Regardless of where your intended road map for the talk says you should be heading, if your child (or grandchild) wants to steer the dialogue toward some esoteric discussion of the merits of tattoos or why a teacher always smells a little like vanilla extract, let it go there. You might be surprised what you find out.”

By now I was in full Socratic mode.

“You know what will turn off a conversation with a kid faster than anything?” I asked my friend. “Pontificating.”

No kid wants to hear your opinion of what they’ve just said. They sure don’t want to hear that what they’re feeling is wrong. You can try to steer them in that direction, if it’s important, but tell them they have to think a certain way and you’ve ended the conversation.

I went on to say that another big mistake was to try to equate your own experience with theirs.

“Never tell a child that you know exactly how they feel. You don’t. And don’t tell them that you’ve experienced the same thing. You haven’t. It’s always going to be different and your kid is going to pick up on those differences as soon as you start talking,” I advised.

Finally, I said, admit it when you don’t have the answers. Nothing will set eyes to rolling faster than a parent or grandparent who tries to fake it. Children are not stupid, and if they catch you saying something that isn’t right, your chances of having them believe the next thing you say is pretty well shot.

I glanced at my friend and I might have caught her rolling her eyes.

I shrugged. Maybe it was genetic.

“Hell, I don’t know,” I said at last. “Maybe it’s just as simple as really liking the kid you’re talking to. I guess if you do, and you can make them like you, they won’t roll their eyes at you quite as much.”

“And if they do,” I said with a grin, “tell them to knock it off.”

Tim Collins is a writer and freelance journalist living and working in Victoria.