Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hiding In The Bushes

This is a blog mostly about preschool aged children, but being the parent of a teenager, I'm here to tell you, as unlikely as it might sound to those of you with the younger kids, that's where they're all headed, god willing.

When my daughter Josephine was in sixth grade, she and a friend wanted to go to a dance, at night, in an all-ages venue. This wasn't the usual chaperoned school event, although I'd heard of the organization hosting it and knew nothing bad about it. On the other hand, I'd often walked by the place and been slightly taken aback by the scruffy looking teens hanging out there, although it was purely a reaction to their dress and hair, not behavior. I'd spoken with her friend's father so I knew we were all on board with the plan of us each driving, and our kids meeting up there. As we got close to the venue, Josephine asked, "You're not going to walk me to the door are you?"

"Well, how will I know you've hooked up with your friend?"

"We're meeting right out by the street. You'll see us."


"Thank you. Mama would walk me to the door. She'd probably try to come inside."

"Really? She would do that? I wouldn't do that."

She paused for a moment, then said, "No, you'd just pretend to leave me, then hide in the bushes." And sure enough, she was more or less onto my plan, which was to drop her off, park the car nearby, then spend my evening within a 2-block radius eating dinner and window shopping. It bugged her, but at the same time I think she also felt a little relieved to know that I'd be nearby, just in case. It's not that I distrusted her, I told myself, but rather that I didn't trust those other kids and what they might all do together. I often look back on that as my first real experience as the parent of a teen.

Probably the most common response I get from new acquaintances when I mention my teenager is something along the lines of, "That must be stressful," or "A challenging age," or just, "Good luck." It's a sort of culture-wide joke we tell about teens, one we all have the right to tell because not so long ago (or so it seems), we were all dopey, mopey, distracted teens ourselves. That this characterization doesn't match my experience as a parent so far, however, has started to really make me wonder over what we think about adolescents.

I genuinely love being the parent of a teen. I like her teen friends. I don't mind her messy room, her clothes, her hair, or even the fact that she seems to spend all her free time trying to expand her social world. In fact, I admire her persistence and energy, wishing I had a little more of it myself. Other parents bemoan the fact that all their kids want to do is "hang out," even forbidding it, worried that it's just a set-up for getting into trouble, and it is. But I think I understand it: after 15 years of being relentlessly on her parents' radar, being off it, just hanging out with friends out in the world, is enough of a unique experience all by itself.

And while I'll never come to peace with some of the "stupid" risks she's taken, and will likely take in the future, there's also a piece of me that knows, deep down, that she's going to do whatever it is she wants to do, try whatever it is she's wants to try, and the only say I really have is to give her my best, most honest advice, and love her. Indeed this is the bottom line truth for every parent, so if I'm going to do that job, I need to do everything I can to keep those lines of communication wide open, to not be overly shocked or punitive or despairing, but rather to have conversations about the real risks and rewards. I sometimes feel the pull toward putting the hammer down the way other parents do, to just say, "Because I say so." The world of drinking, drugs, sex, and driving, after all, has laid waste to so many young lives, but authoritarian parenting is far more likely to lead to the chaotic, chronic behaviors we label as delinquent. So while I attempt to walk the middle ground, when I err, it's on the side of permissiveness, starting with a desire to say "yes," if only she gives me time to think about it; time for us to talk about it; time for me to find a good hiding place in the bushes.

Sometimes after our talks, she decides to not take the risk after all. More often she goes ahead then later tells stories of being there with all her friends whose parents put their foot down in righteous opposition and now have no idea where their child was and what she was doing. The kids are all there taking the same "risk," but at least I know where mine is, equipped with my best advice, whether she takes it or not. 

I recently came across a fascinating article in National Geographic entitled Teenage Brains, in which author David Dobbs discusses teenaged brain development (which goes on into our early to mid-20's) in the context of evolution.

The resulting account of the adolescent brain . . . casts the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.

These are the years when their brains and bodies are making the final preparations to leave the nest, to head out into that thrilling, dangerous world, and whatever we feel about it as parents, it is their destiny. As neuroscientist B.J. Casey puts it:

We're so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It's exactly what you'd need to do the things you have to do then.

I'll let you click over and read the entire article about the biology behind why adolescents take risks, seek novelty, and bond so passionately with their peers. It's all adaptive behavior even if we sometimes view it as quite the opposite. I walked away with a renewed admiration for the teenaged brain, but this is the part that stood out for me:

We parents, of course, often stumble too, as we try to walk the blurry line between helping and hindering our kids as they adapt to adulthood. The United States spends about a billion dollars a year on programs to counsel adolescents on violence, gangs, suicide, sex, substance abuse, and other potential pitfalls. Few of them work.

Yet we can and do help. We can ward off some of the world's worst hazards and nudge adolescents toward appropriate responses to the rest. Studies show that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life. Adolescents want to learn primarily, but not entirely, from their friends. At some level and at some times (and it's the parent's job to spot when), the teen recognizes that the parent can offer certain kernels of wisdom -- knowledge valued not because it comes from parental authority but because it comes from the parent's own struggles to learn how the world turns. The teen rightly perceives that she must understand not just her parents' world but also the one she is entering. Yet if allowed to, she can appreciate that her parents once faced the same problems and may remember a few things worth knowing.

In the meantime, you'll find me hiding in the bushes.

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Birdie said...

What a wonderful,inspiring post. My son is only 4 (and a half! he would say) but I already think of the teen years we have before us...Thank you for this!

Juliet Robertson said...

I have a teenager son (15 yr old) who is super - he spends his weekends sleeping til midday. He's currently chatting with his friends whilst playing the soccer game via TV link up (I don't get it but he does). His hair is long and different to his peers.

He's thinking about his future and actually does get down to doing some studying without me asking him too . I'm really proud because coming from the oil capital of Europe, he's decided he's not going into the oil industry like most of his peers. He's studying politics, history, possibly philosophy and has decided to drop English which could be deemed controversial. I admire him for his independent thoughts and actions.

He's just started fencing classes with 2 friends, entirely independently of me. Sometimes he goes and hangs out with his friends around our local town. He's not into alcohol, smoking or drugs. He can get himself on a train from our town down to Edinburgh, catch the bus and walk up to my parents house - a 4 hour journey, by himself.

He's a typical teenager. He's a credit to himself. My husband and I love him very much.

So I agree with your sentiments, Tom. Let teenagers be who they need to be. And let's be proud of them.

Meagan said...

Escaping the Endless Adolescence. Best. Book. EVER. or at least it nailed my experience as a teenager.

50smom said...

Thank you. I've been thinking that we need a cultural shift around our perceptions of teenagers and toddlers. Both are phases of intense brain development, curiosity, exploration and desire for independence. These phases should be celebrated.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

When I read this I had to smile, as I actually did hide in the bushes, to watch my son make it off the school bus for his first day at kindergarten. :)
(He's now 31).
You sound like a good father, Tom!

Your Therapy Source Inc said...

Once again you have produced such a well written post. As a mother of five (oldest 12), I get tired of hearing parents moan and groan about the teenage years. I am not there yet so not sure what is in store but appreciate your positive outlook.

I believe that a teenager's behavior is truly nature's way of getting them ready to leave the nest and getting a mother ready to let them go (perhaps b/c she is tired of dealing with it all!)

Thanks again for your insight.

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