TO understand the mind of a teenager, one must first understand the mind of a dog.
Like a teenager, any self-respecting dog will try to get away with whatever it can. Its needs are simple: food, drink, play, and opportunities to indulge its burgeoning interest in romance, from which it’s best for the owner to avert his or her eyes.
What we owners/parents crave is personal connection, which is where my analogy concerning dogs must end. In that arena, the mind of a teenager is more like that of a cat. Now, I know little about cats, and I want to know even less. But what I have observed over the years, as numerous felines mercifully made a beeline for another room after I appeared, is that cats are particular about whom they snuggle up to, and whom they tolerate. The same is true of teenagers. They will tolerate their siblings, and stick like glue to their peers. And they’ll avoid their parents like cats avoid bathtubs.
If teenagers could, they’d hide in closets and dive under beds whenever their elders appeared. They would lock themselves in the bathroom with their smartphones for a month, if only pizza could be delivered there.
The hard part for us parents is understanding, and accepting, that this animosity is inevitable, especially when it comes to the most primal of animal and teenage behaviours – questioning authority. Challenging parents is the teenager’s natural impulse, just as a young dog disputes the dominance of its pack’s leader. The child who once wailed non-stop when we left him or her with a babysitter for a couple of hours now looks at us in much the same manner as suave Mitt Romney regards absurd Newt Gingrich. Who is this frumpy has-been who’s trying to pin me down and cramp my style? Why doesn’t he or she just get out of my way?
It’s unpleasant! Let’s admit that here and now. We keep trying to rope in this dear individual who can’t get out from under us fast enough. The ascendance of Twitter is proof. The Globe and Mail ran a wire story last week about how teens are abandoning Facebook for the comparative privacy of Twitter. Why? Because their parents, their parents’ buddies and their grandparents insisted on being their Facebook friends, offering them unwelcome input and other reminders that they aren’t entitled to their own dynamic, independent lives on Teen Island.
In reality, as opposed to the world of social media, it’s a parent’s natural, countervailing instinct to offer guidance and suggestions, no matter how brusquely they’re rejected. We may think we’re the personification of tact when we ask our teenagers whether they’re “aware of” something, or “realize” something else, but all they hear is the sound of a choke-chain being attached to their necks and then clamped to a stake in the ground. As far as they’re concerned, we’re obsessed with curtailing their freedom and raining on their parade.
Thus, the common refrain whenever I try to give advice to my children is a sarcastic “Thanks, Tips!” or “No kidding, Captain Obvious.” It’s sadly true that common sense is not my forte, but even my language skills are perceived as gratuitous.
It’s weird that as parents, our role is to produce and nurture fine human beings so they can go on to reject as many things about us as they possibly can. But that’s the way it goes. By the time they reach their thirties, it dawns on some of them that we aren’t that bad. I guess that’s why we parents like to say that patience is a virtue – we’re really trying to persuade ourselves.
I’d like to point out, however, that it was never my ambition to be the world’s worst mother. Among my own countless gaffes: while driving a carful of Grade 8 boys to a high school dance, I asked what I thought was an innocent question. “So, do you think there will be any slow dances tonight?” Complete silence. So, of course, I threw in a follow-up. “Do you guys know how to slow dance?” I had no idea all four of them would be paralyzed with embarrassment. Afterward, I mentioned their “odd” reaction to Stanley, who instantly recalled what it was like to be an adolescent boy. He was horrified.
My most recent transgression, after listening to a little bit of guitar being played for my benefit, was to praise the performance, then suggest mildly that the guitar might need to be tuned. I might as well have said to Mitt Romney at a televised debate that I’d discovered he was a member of a Satanic cult of commies for the reception that attended this helpful hint.
The message here, mums and dads? Provide the car. Pay the allowance. Make the food. Feed the friends. Offer the praise, which may or may not be accepted. Otherwise, zip it. Too bad I rarely take my own advice.