There is a scene from the movie “Princess Bride” that I’m often reminded of when trying to get a straight answer from my kids. In it, the heroes are trying to find a way into a castle that is blocked by a gate, which leads to the following exchange with the gatekeeper:
Westley: “Give us the gate key.”
Gatekeeper: “I have no gate key.”
Inigo Montoya: “Fezzik, tear his arms off.”
Gatekeeper: “Oh, you mean ‘this’ gate key.”
While it might come in handy to have by my side a giant who is capable of removing limbs when I am trying to get information from my kids, this is impractical for several reasons. For starters I would never advocate the removing of any child’s limbs (or any other physical violence) and my kids know that, so they would readily call that bluff. Secondly I hear that giants with that capability are quite expensive.
So getting straight answers from my two teenage boys requires different tactics. As my teenage sons and I get older, my cross-examination skills and their evasion skills have evolved. I have learned from experience that specific questions with verifiable answers are the way to go, whereas they have become masters of partial answers, deflections and generalizations.
For example on the topic of homework we have learned that simply asking “Did you finish your homework?” is a mostly meaningless query. Responses we have heard include, “Today’s homework? Why yes.” Sounds good and I start to walk out the door, but then think a little more and ask: “What about the project that was assigned last week?” To which I hear, “Well no, I am not quite done with that.”
Then another thought hits me and I ask, “What about the worksheet you missed last Friday when you were on that field trip?”
“I am almost done with that one.”
To which I follow up with: “Why did you say you were done with your homework then?”
To which I hear, “Because I thought you were asking about the homework that was assigned today.”
Another example demonstrates avoidance and misdirection, favorite tactics of teenagers everywhere. After complaining for several days that he wasn’t sleeping very well at night, I happened to walk into my youngest son’s room to talk with him about a different topic (e.g. the status of his homework). I looked around and noticed that the head of his bed was about nine inches lower than the foot of his bed (could this be why he was having trouble sleeping?!)
So I asked him about this, “Hey Tuck, how is it your bed is sagging?” Like the gatekeeper in the Princess Bride his first line of defense was evasion, “Hmmm, Is it sagging? I didn’t notice.”
I ignored this response for now (a tactic of mine) and investigated further. I initially thought one of the cross planks simply might have fallen off the frame, so I removed his bedding, and pulled his bed away from the wall only to discover that the entire wood bed rail had split away from the bed frame.
I am no Sherlock Holmes, but it was pretty obvious to me, even with my limited deductive reasoning powers, that this could only have happened by the application of a large force.
My son’s room is mostly like other kids’ rooms with one notable exception. There is a permanent ladder attached to the wall across from his bed that goes up to a small loft/crawl space. Now ever since we have been in this home, I have been warning my kids not to jump from the ladder to the bed below, and as far as I know (which I realize is not much of a guarantee) for the past eight years they have not done so.
Given that they are now “responsible” teenagers, I figured I didn’t have to continually remind them not to do this anymore. But the splintered wood indicated otherwise, so I asked, “Hey Tucker, any idea of what or more specifically who could have hit your bed with enough force to splinter the bed frame?” Which was met with a blank stare (the animalistic instinct inherited from possums).
So I tried with a smile to say, “Anyone I know for example jump off this ladder onto that bed over there?” “Anyone named Tucker?”
So Tucker did the brave thing and said, “I cannot tell a lie” – which is, of course, in and of itself a lie – “my friend George did it.” [Note: George is not the actual name he said – changed to protect the innocent, or if not innocent, then at least the innocent’s parents!]
Now don’t get me wrong. It is entirely possible that his friend was responsible, but lemmings rarely go off cliffs alone so I am pretty sure I figured out what happened.
My problem – or my kids’ salvation depending on how you look at it – is that I remember what it was like to be their age. In this case the apple may not have fallen very far from the tree, so it is hard for me to feign indignant anger for very long.
I recognize I might not be getting the whole truth, but if I work at it – and what else is there for me to do for entertainment – I usually have a pretty good idea of what is going down (in this case my son and his friend from the heights of his ladder to the depths of his bed).