Sarah Conover, blog and newsletter editor: as we have a number of families in Haystack Heights, some with teens and some with families whose children are headed to adolescence, I thought I'd feature an article by my friend, Evelyn Messinger, who I can always count on to see any situation in unexpected ways.
My twins Sam and Kate are teenagers now. I’m grateful that neither of them are manic or theatrical children. They are not likely to show up one day as members of a religious cult, or with tattoos on their faces. Nonetheless, at 15 years old, they tend more and more towards the classic sullen teen archetype. Dinner table conversations evaporate. Information is withheld.
It all happened very suddenly, after an early adolescent golden age during which they actually thought their parents were cool. Now they have pushed their little dinghies off from the parental cruise ship, rowing against the fearsome swells to escape. Whether we like it or not, we won’t prevent them from sliding over the waves, hell-bent on mastering adulthood.
They demand that we no longer treat them like children, even though they act like big babies. We hear less and less about their exploits, even as they venture further and further from home. Of course, they don’t drive themselves to these adventures—oh no. It is still I, mom, who spends uncountable hours driving clusters of girls or boys hither and yon. The girls mutter incomprehensibly to each other between fits of irritatingly raucous laughter. The boys play video games that we can’t comprehend, but suspect might be bad for them.
They don’t cook much, or clean up without prodding. They do come to the dinner table when called, to consume massive quantities of food that have been lovingly prepared for them. So my drudgery goes on: all that food is purchased and lugged home, cooked and consumed, the leftovers discarded and the dishes washed–mostly by us.
But here’s the surprise: this situation has led me to see the great secret of the battle between teens and parents that characterizes the modern age. Truth is, the kids are getting a bad rap. It’s the parents who rebel against their teenagers.
As the most onerous aspects of parental indenture fall away (think diapers, glitter, and broken keepsakes), parents begin to remember what life was like before the great child-raising task began. We find ourselves considering our own needs, long deferred. We hit a breaking point; we demand that our teens be more responsible for the family enterprise. “You are old enough to take some responsibility!” means: I am done being your slave!
That is when we become entrenched in a kind of domestic sectarian warfare, where retaliation can escalate to punishment. “That music is awful,” I scream. “How many times have I told you to use headphones? I need to listen to the news on NPR and it wouldn’t hurt you to start paying some attention to the real world. I said, HEADPHONES! Be careful, I am about to take that phone away…wait, wait–since when are you a fan of Lamar Kendrick—I mean, Kendrick Lamar?”
Imagine how this looks to the kids, their whole lives until now bathed in the tender love and attention of childhood. My sudden demands must feel like a form of rejection, even abandonment. And their reactions look like rebellion, but may be closer to confusion. Because after all, I’m the one who wants more now–more time to myself, more interesting food, more engaging entertainment. They just want what they have always had: unconditional praise and affection.
This is embarrassing for a parent like me to admit. How often have I imagined myself the better parent–better than my husband, my own parents, the parents of my kid’s friends, the parents of the future shoplifters, hackers and dropouts who lurk just beyond the horizon of my protection? But how can I be a good parent when the only positive outcome of parenting is that my children leave me? Does the “good” parent buckle them into their lifejackets and set the engines of the mothership in reverse? Or am I “good” when I hold the prow of their rowboats in a frantic grip and insist that they’re not going anywhere.
I’m only now groping towards understanding this problem. It has something to do with mutual respect, and with a parent’s role in maintaining civility. If I ask them to grow up as well as to continue to love me, I should be prepared to be grown up too, or more precisely, to stay grown up. At least until they graduate from high school. I have a feeling it doesn’t actually end at that, but I’ll let you know when we get there.
Eveylyn Messinger is the television producer of www.thisplanet.tv