Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Godspeed, teenager.

If it’s hard to live with, understand, communicate with, provide for, and know a teenager, there’s one thing that I believe is harder still, and that is to be one.

I’m not talking about all teenagers of course. There are the outliers who blow through peacefully, who visit the elderly, floss regularly, volunteer at crisis centers, and remember our birthdays. And there are teenagers who are raising themselves because their own parents can’t grow up and take the wheel. 

I’m talking about the other kind. The ones who respond to your smile with a look in the other direction, who deal with a question like “what time will you be home?” as though they can’t possibly be expected to know that, who make a show of trying to comprehend you, who leave the room when you appear, and who talk to you with such obvious patience you wonder when you became dense. Those teenagers.

About ten years ago, when we were all at different stages in teenager-parenting, a friend said to me about his own fifteen-year-old daughter (and may I pause here to say, few things are as fearsome as a fifteen year old girl):
“She acts like it’s the worse thing in the world to be part of this family.” 
“Put yourself in her shoes,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “You’re right. It’s hard to live in a nice house, have parents who care about you, send you to study abroad, buy you all the clothes you want, give you an allowance. That must be awful.”
Before he could add the equally irrelevant, “When I was fifteen, (hardship here)…” I said, “It’s still easier to be you.”

Those of us who remember our younger years as the easiest, forget that teenagers had younger and easier years too, when life was scripted for them and solving a problem was a matter of finding someone in the house who was older and taller.

Then they hit middle school and lose the map. And then, because they want to and also, because if they don’t, they will become Dwight from The Office, teenagers begin to shed those carefully structured lives while we wonder what is bothering them.

They deserve our sympathy.

For a teenager – and I don’t mean the outliers who walk dogs at the SPCA, or sell drugs behind the grocery store – every day is a fill in the blank quiz:  who to talk to, what to say, how to act, what their friends will think, who they like but must shun, who they don’t like but must appease, what they lose by being honorable, what they gain by being cruel. They cling to their values and dissect them at the same time.They assess themselves not on the basis of accomplishment, but in the headlight of a single bad day.

They become secretive. They become sullen. They become  unreasonable and defensive and indignant and fickle and abominably shallow. They know how to keep us at bay, but behind our backs, they monitor and supervise their progress on the new path, chastising themselves mercilessly for missteps and scrutinizing their failures in ways so harsh it would make us cry.

They deserve our compassion.

We try to help because we think we remember being fifteen but really, we only remember selectively, because we offer the same advice we never used: “If she’s that mean, don’t be her friend anymore.”  Or, the equally useless, “Bullies want attention. Ignore them and they’ll leave you alone.” Teenagers don’t want to be alone.

If we’re new at this, we wonder two things here: what we did to drive them away, and what we can do to bring them back. It took me a child or two to realize that a teenager’s behavior is not a direct product of our influence, or some measure of our skills. Skills have nothing to do with it because teenagers don’t drift away. They leave in the night and send in replacements. We get up in the morning and there they are with their “why are you looking at me like that” faces. Meanwhile, their siblings, little hidden cameras that they are, watch and think this is “awesome” – a teacher’s copy of where the holes lie in the terrain.

"We used to be us," said a friend of mine once, about her teenager's refusal to be who he was.

I have raised four children I enjoy being around, and around whom, others like to be.  They laugh, they cry, they text me with funny observations, they stop to pet the cat when they’re busy. They tell me a lot about their lives but not everything. They use expressions which I purposely butcher so they will always have cause to mock me.  They miss each other, they love their friends, they look forward to the future.

But at some point in each of their lives, after some row in which one of us said something painful, regrettable, desperate, I watched them leave the room, finally understanding that the “someday” when they will begin to leave me, had arrived. 

By the time we were down to one and I was being friended on Facebook by our three former teenagers, I had come to see these years as a tunnel.

“You know, you’re almost fifteen,” I said to our last teenager, a while back. “Any day now, you’ll be in the tunnel. Please empty the dishwasher and pick up your room while you still like me. Thank you.”

Take heart, parents of tunnel dwellers. It is a short journey, even if it seems endless. They hear and see you out there at the entrance but it stays in sight for a brief time. Then, for what seems like a chilly, gray eternity they see neither the beginning nor the end, and your voice will be muted and hard to place. But sometime in the senior year, they will emerge like miners. They will discover that somewhere in the long silence you scrambled ahead to wait for them. And when they hit college, where they will have their independence handed to them like a dorm room key, it will not be a path too overwhelming to navigate, but a test they’re ready to take, because we will have let them prepare. 

And that’s what they deserve, most of all. Time to prepare.



  1. To be read again several times through my tunnel years ahead.....
    Thank you!

  2. I loved the picture of Larry and Sam on the deck. This was a wonderful post, a couple of tissues worth. Thank you.