Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen: The Essential Conversations You Need to Have with Your Kids Before They Start High School

The 14 essential conversations to have with your tween and early teenager to prepare them for challenges ahead.

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kk: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.
kk: Today, we’re discussing Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen
The Essential Conversations You Need to Have with Your Kids Before They Start High School by Michelle Icard
This title tackles the thorny subject of communicating with tweens – those adolescents between the ages of ten and fourteen who are beginning to pull away from their parents and close down lines of communication. This title prepares parents to handle the most critical conversations.
kk: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.
kk: Vincent, what inspired this book?
vp: Michelle Icard is an educator who helps kids, parents, and teachers navigate the complicated social world of early adolescence. Her parenting research and her leadership curriculum have been implemented at middle schools across the United States.
Even with the best intentions, communicating with developing adolescents can be tricky. That’s why it’s so important to prepare yourself for the talks you’ll need to have with your tween. In this title, she guides parents through the fourteen essential conversations parents need to have with their children before starting high school.
kk: An area we’ve seen causes parents with tweens frustration is communication. Why is this common, and how can parents break the barriers to having conversations with their kids?
vp: The author says that as kids set out on the journey towards adulthood, they begin building their own identities and pull away from their parents. That leaves parents and children with less in common to talk about. According to evolutionary psychology, shared languages bind people together, but tweens don’t want to be attached to the family group. They want to explore for themselves.
kk: No wonder communication becomes difficult.
vp: Yes, and it’s frustrating for parents because silence replaces conversations, leading parents to try and force conversation. Which results in talking at their kids, not with them. Here starts that cycle of angry lectures and teary tantrums. So parents need to find a different way of communicating.
kk: I know those all too well. So what does the author present as the alternative?
vp: Well, it’s important to remember that your tween’s desire for autonomy is a healthy and regular part of growing up. Plenty of evidence suggests that kids who don’t establish a strong sense of self in adolescence are much more likely to end up in toxic or codependent relationships later on in life. You want your tween to become more independent!
kk: On the other hand, many parents use a kind of “shut it down” approach to keeping their kids out of trouble. How is this strategy affecting tweens?
vp: While that strategy does come from a place of love, it also denies your tween the chance to make mistakes. Yes, greater independence means your kids are going to encounter new risks and occasionally screw up. But they can’t learn to make wise choices if you don’t let them make their own decisions.
The simple fact is, kids need to have experienced both good and bad. But that doesn’t mean you have to watch helplessly from the sidelines. Your job is to help your child evaluate, process, and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. That can only happen once you learn how to talk to your tween. The author emphasizes that keeping kids safe is all about having the right conversations at the right time.
kk, what was a rite of passage that you experienced growing up? What’s an example of a time your parents let you have some independence?
kk: Hmm, either riding my bike into town to meet friends on my own or going to the mall without a parent.
vp: Those are perfect examples. How often did you ask or beg your mom to let you go to the mall with your friends and no adult before she let you do so?
kk: Oh, I was probably begging for months. It took a full presentation to convince her. Looking back, it makes sense that she was hesitant. The world is full of strangers, and there are lots of things that could go wrong that I wasn’t prepared for.
vp: I’m glad you said you weren’t prepared, even if you thought you were old enough at the time. The author says there’s a better approach to easing into independence. Even if they aren’t ready now, they will be at some point. And you must communicate this. Show them how they can become prepared. Otherwise, they’re likely to feel mistreated – especially if their friends end up heading to the mall without them. The author compares this to a roadmap.
kk: Hmm that’s interesting, what does this roadmap look like?
vp: You want to ease your child into independence, but that doesn’t mean you should say yes to everything your child asks. While saying no is a big part of being a responsible parent, you can think of shifting the dialogue to a roadmap or long-run plan. Here’s how the roadmap to independence works.
Instead of saying, “No, you’re not ready to go to the mall alone,” and leaving it at that, you’ll explain what milestones your child can reach to show they’re ready to explore the world on their own.
kk: Using the mall example, what would be a stepping stone to get your child ready?
vp: Start by thinking about why you are saying no to your child. You may think about what could go wrong. Maybe you’re worried they’ll forget their cell phone and get separated from their friends or that a stranger might get aggressive with them. What would you want them to do in these situations? Chances are, asking a suitable adult for help would be top of your list. Now consider how your tween can prove they’d be able to do that. You might decide that memorizing important phone numbers or practicing talking directly to teachers about assignments are good markers. This would show you that they can ask an adult for help when they need it.
kk: You’d probably want to make it clear to your tween that these aren’t random tests to make life hard but milestones on the road to independence.
vp: Exactly, that’s why honest communication is vital. The author also says you should talk about money with your tween. This conversation is not solely focused on spending money responsibly. A 2012 study done by the National Consumer League showed that 90% of American teens save their money, and 40% save half or more of their money.
kk: To understand the basics of financial responsibility, then what do you need to talk to them about?
vp: The author says the trickier conversation is about teaching your child the context behind monetary decisions. Kids compare their families with others, and that makes money a hot-button topic. An example the author gives is if your child’s classmates vacation in Hawaii or have swimming pools in the backyard. They’ll probably complain that it’s not fair and want to know why your family doesn’t.
kk: What’s the best way of handling these kinds of conversations?
vp: First off, you want to avoid keeping discussions about finance secret- if you want your kids to learn about money, you have to talk about it. That doesn’t mean telling your kids everything and divulging details you wouldn’t want them sharing with their friends. The author says instead of thinking of being transparent, think of being translucent with open and honest dialogue that deals with general concepts.
Start by talking about what you can’t see. This brings up the concept of value. Value isn’t just about the cost of a pool or a holiday. Value is how that cost stacks up against a larger budget. You can introduce this idea by explaining your own spending decisions.
kk: What would be a scenario in which you have the opportunity to teach value?
vp: The book uses the example of your tween wanting a new video game at the store. Imagine they point out that the price reduced from $30 to $20, and they know you have $20. You can take this opportunity to say that while this is a good sale, it’s not a good enough reason to spend $20. A good reason would be if the family needed a new game and had put aside $30 for that purpose. In that case, it’d be a great deal. But you weren’t planning on buying a game, which means that you’d end up using the money you need for something else, like a school field trip. In other words, in the context of your budget, this decision doesn’t make sense.
kk: That’s also a great example of how you can bring up budgeting and planning what you save towards.
vp: Yes, that’s very true. Normalizing these conversations teaches your tweens how to make financial decisions and gives you the chance to lead by example.
The next important conversation topic centers around technology.
kk: Yes, especially in this day and age, children engage with technology at a younger age. I’d imagine a whole new set of ground rules is in order. How can you encourage your kids to develop a healthier relationship with technology?
vp: Yes, that’s a critical topic. Letting your tween explore doesn’t only apply to parks or malls. It also applies to online locations and social media to develop their sense of identity. And as you can imagine, this is even more problematic for parents. A source of worry is not only the pace technology grows at, but the media is full of reports about the dangers of new apps and trends.
kk: Is there a way for parents to avoid feeling like they are playing catch-up with new technologies or platforms?
vp: The author gives an excellent message to parents: technology doesn’t have to be scary. Remember, it’s a tool. Like scissors, technology can be used safely. What matters isn’t the technology itself but how your child interacts with it. You encourage your kids to develop a healthier relationship with tech by setting ground rules.
kk: How do you start the conversation about how to consume technology and set the ground rules?
vp: Have a family meeting to create a set of ground rules that govern how the household interacts with, enjoys, and relates to technology.
The goal is to create a framework that you can also use to deal with smaller issues that might arise later on. This might include conversations about which apps your children are allowed to download or questions like “Why do I have to put my phone away?”
Go into your family meeting with an open mind. If kids sense that it’s only a meeting to impose rules you’ve already decided for yourself, it won’t work, so this does need to be a genuine dialogue. Just as importantly, the rules you adopt should apply to all household members. You can get the ball rolling with some starter questions. How can tech be helpful, and how can it be disruptive? How can we tell when it’s derailing us, and what can we do instead of staring at a screen?
When you’ve figured out your ground rules, encourage all family members, yourself included, to write a personal statement listing five to ten things they want people to believe about them – think of adjectives like “kind,” “funny,” or “fair.” This statement can guide online interactions. Before posting comments, your tweens can ask themselves whether their online behavior aligns with how they want others to see them.
kk: Wow, I love the idea of having them outline who they are and how to keep it consistent offline and online. That’s a great way to help them develop a healthy sense of self value.
vp: I like this idea too. The next topic is criticism. Specifically how to help your child mature by paying attention to how you phrase criticism.
kk: Tweens are some of the most criticized and critical people.
vp: That’s very true; it’s a critical time. At home, they face commentary on everything from what they wear to their grades and choice of friends. It’s the same at school with judgemental peers evaluating every aspect of their appearance and behavior, while teachers and coaches bombard them with academic feedback.
As a parent, it’s part of your job to provide criticism – after all, feedback is part of the learning process. But not all critiques are created equal. Some forms hinder development, while others boost growth. This is why the way you phrase criticism is essential.
kk: What does the author mean by this?
vp: The author discusses how traditional feedback isn’t as helpful as you might think. A paper published by Harvard Business School in 2017 found that pointing out someone’s flaws can be downright detrimental. This paper looks at how the human brain responds to criticism. Cognitive growth, the authors point out, is driven by the creation of new neurons and synapses. Most of this growth takes place when someone feels confident and competent. So this is why you enjoy doing tasks you’re good at, and when you work on something, you don’t think you’re good at, you’re much slower to pick up tips to improve.
This relates to tweens when talking with them about strengths. Their brains are busy constructing new neurons and connections. So if you focus on their mistakes, their brain processes this as a threat and shuts down.
kk: Knowing this, how can you be careful about giving feedback or criticism?
vp: For example, imagine your child runs up to you while you’re in the middle of another conversation on the phone to tell you about a great idea they’ve had. A valuable critique would be, “Please don’t interrupt me when I’m talking on the phone.” A detrimental one would be, “You’re someone who doesn’t let people finish their thoughts before interrupting.” You can also take it a step further and pair your feedback with strength by saying, “You have lots of good ideas, but I’d like you to remember not to interrupt me when I’m talking on the phone.”
kk: You could even encourage your child to jot down their ideas in a notebook and tell you them when you’re ready to hear them.
vp: Right. The last topic the author covers is consent. You may think your children are too young to talk about sex, but discussing consent early makes later conversations about sex easier.
Thankfully for parents, sex education at school has improved since they were in school. Today, consent has become a crucial part of sexual education. But the author says you don’t have to wait until tweens are ready to talk about sex to introduce the concept of consent. It’s a good idea to bring it up in non-sexual contexts, too.
kk: I’m sure talking about consent earlier allows tweens to get comfortable with the concept, too. How should parents approach this topic?
vp: Remember, consent isn’t just about sexual contact – it’s simply about deciding who touches you and when. More broadly, it’s about boundaries.
Every child is different when it comes to saying no. Some will happily tell people to stop doing something they don’t like; others might need to learn that saying no isn’t rude. The author gives examples of tweens using the strategy of conflict avoidance to avoid saying no at summer leadership camps she runs. Often, these children will tell unnecessary lies. If other kids press them to play, but they’re too tired or want to read a book, they’ll make something up about having to attend a funeral for their aunt’s cat.
If you notice your tween telling these kinds of lies, encourage them to practice giving a straightforward, simple “no” when they don’t want to do something. Remind them that they don’t need to justify themselves – it’s their choice because they get to set their boundaries.
kk: Could you use personal property as a way to teach consent?
vp: Yes, that’s another strategy the author discusses. Tweens can often fall into a “What’s yours is mine” approach at home, especially with siblings. So call a family meeting to discuss this topic. Lay down some ground rules about respecting other people’s belongings and about asking permission to use things that don’t belong to you.
kk: There you have it- simple but effective strategies to get all of these difficult conversations started and keep them going as your tween grows and matures.
kk: It sounds like the key takeaway from this title is if you want to communicate effectively with your tween, you need to learn a new language for dialogue. That starts with moving beyond simply saying no to age-appropriate requests for more independence. You’re in charge, but you also need to give your child a roadmap to greater autonomy. Avoid a “Do as I say, not as I do” approach by collaboratively figuring out ground rules for technology that apply to the whole household. As for criticism, keep it positive and explain your reasoning to boost your child’s learning process. And when it comes to sexuality, start slow and introduce the concept of consent in non-sexual contexts.
kk: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.
vp: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.
kk: We’ll see you next time.

The 14 essential conversations to have with your tween and early teenager to prepare them for the emotional, physical, and social challenges ahead, including scripts and advice to keep the communication going and stay connected during this critical developmental window.

Trying to convince a middle schooler to listen to you can be exasperating. Indeed, it can feel like the best option is not to talk! But keeping kids safe – and prepared for all the times when you can’t be the angel on their shoulder – is about having the right conversations at the right time. From a brain growth and emotional readiness perspective, there is no better time for this than their tween years, right up to when they enter high school.

Distilling Michelle Icard’s decades of experience working with families, Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen focuses on big, thorny topics such as friendship, sexuality, impulsivity, and technology, as well as unexpected conversations about creativity, hygiene, money, privilege, and contributing to the family. 

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