Dear Carolyn: I have a high school-age stepdaughter with whom I have almost nothing in common. She lives with her mother, and we see her about once a week for dinner. Her interests are pop culture (TV, YouTube, movies, what the stars are doing) and fashion/beauty/shopping. She has no hobbies, history of employment, sports or any other activity outside school. I try to ask about her classes, but she inevitably says they did nothing in them, they are boring, and the conversation stops.
When I push it and try ask something specific, like what time period are you studying in history, and she answers, I say something like “What do you think about that?” and I just get “I have no idea.” She acts stupid, even though I’m sure she isn’t.
One thing that will usually get her going is to talk about a neighbor or acquaintance, but I don’t really want to encourage gossip. Suggestions? – Stepmom
What are the chances this intelligent kid doesn’t recognize that you find her interests beneath you? Contempt is the cigarette smoke of opinions – sure, try to mask it, but it’s in your breath, your hair, your clothes.
Don’t you want to know what intrigues and motivates her? Deciding that her tastes represent nothing but laziness of mind or spirit, without consuming any of what consumes her, is a laziness of its own. And, it’s smug.
I’m advising a love-fueled tour of her cultural landscape, deliberately seeking ideas, beauty or wit. (One place to start: the online discussion hosted on Wednesdays by my Washington Post colleague, “Web Hostess” Monica Hesse: live.washingtonpost.com.) And just ask her what she likes about X show, Y celeb. Again – with genuine interest in knowing her.
Merely challenging your biases might soften your demeanor toward her, enough for her to loosen her guard – and quash your parent-caricature history-class queries before they reach your lips.