Preface: I Love Teenagers. (Catcher-in-the-Rye Parenting)
TEENS ARE THE NEW TODDLERS.
I love teenagers. I need to start with this, because I am going to say a lot of horrible things about them. Raising teenagers sucks. But this is also true: I love them. I adore teenagers in exactly the same way most people love toddlers. They really are so very much the same (and we’ll discuss this at greater length in future chapters). Adolescents—like toddlers—are goofy and silly and awkward in their own bodies. They are easily confused and constantly distracted. They fall down a lot. They are prone to temper-tantrums. They over-react and over-celebrate, and if you catch them in the right mood, they have an over-flow of love to share. They say things so ridiculous it’s just hilarious. I love teenagers and I long to help them when they are in trouble. I want to stand at the edge of Holden Caulfield’s crazy cliff and catch them all. This Catcher-in-the-Rye Complex began even before I started teaching high school, before my own children morphed into difficult teenagers, probably somewhere around the time I became a teen-in-turmoil myself. Young people get lost—go over the cliff, unravel, drift away—in a million ways. If you’re a parent, I don’t have to tell you. A long list of real predators keeps us all awake at night. Take your pick of worries (or perhaps your progeny will choose for you): everything from good old-fashioned sex-drugs-and-rock-roll to new-fangled technology threatens our hormonal offspring. If you are like me you may be most freaked out by the memories of your own misspent youth. Teenagers are difficult and they are in danger, but they are also full of hope.
They are full of hope and they can’t help it. It is their lot in life. They’re neither fully grown nor fully independent, so every pore teems with possibility. Teenagers—even when they adopt attitudes of contempt and threaten to grow bitter before their time—believe in the future. Anything is possible as far as they know. As much as it scares them, they enjoy looking into the next several decades and imagining what might be. They rarely see student-loan debt or complicated relationships or broken dreams. At 14 and 16 and 18 and even 22 they look into the future and see themselves as professional athletes, race-car drivers, magicians, fighter pilots, artists and activists. They believe—really, really believe, and nothing the cynical adult world does can shake them of this notion—they will make the world a better place. It’s very nice to spend time with people who have this attitude.
Don’t get me wrong; teenagers piss me off, frustrate me and disappoint me every day. They’re just so darned adolescent all the time. The journey toward adulthood can lead our kids into dangerous territory. Once in a while, despite their youth and natural enthusiasm, one of these adolescents gets lost in the forest of despair. She loses hope. He forgets feelings are temporary. And before we can help them find their way to a clearing, where they can breathe and see and feel okay again, they choose to leave us. Some of the young people I cared about got lost. Some of the teenagers I tried to help didn’t make it; some went astray without me even guessing anything was wrong. Some of them have committed suicide or made reckless choices that killed them. Others have gone down paths that have left them lost in countless ways. Many others have strayed, stood on the edge of the abyss, and found their way back. These happy stories we celebrate with a metaphorical fatted calf, because those who were lost are found.
IT IS THEIR JOB TO REBEL.
Adolescents have a biological imperative to act recklessly. It’s physical, emotional and social; they are quite literally in the midst of identity crisis, and it’s their job to muck their way through and make the best of it. If they don’t, their beautiful, authentic identities will never fully mature. A lot of young people simply must run full-speed in the direction of the cliff. I understand this mandate, and I want to let them run. But by God, I’d like to catch them before they go over the edge. I know why sprinting toward danger feels so right at their age. When they play with fire, they forge their adult selves. Only when they push limits, test theories, question authority and tilt at windmills can young people become the adults we dream they will be. I also know how wrong things can go, how lost kids can get, and how adolescent angst can send entire happy families right over the edge.
I care, of course, because it’s personal. Like Holden, I’ve conflated the youngsters with my own lost self. My cliffside fantasy really ends with someone swooping in and re-writing history, saving my adolescence from the edge of a terrible cliff. If I shine a light of hope for teenagers or their parents, maybe I’ll illuminate my own way out of the darkness. Like most loving parents, my husband and I started our little family with full hearts and the best intentions. Somehow—in spite of our flaws, foibles and wicked ways--we trusted we had the right stuff to raise a couple of human beings. We turned our gaze toward the Divine, read a lot of books, relied on family and friends. We were blessed beyond our wildest dreams with two healthy, beautiful boys. We expected the teenaged years to be rough, but we were confident we would rise to the challenge. For many years, our family ups and downs were bearable and life was pretty sweet. And then—almost suddenly, but also gradually, slowly, like the drip of a torturous faucet—we lost our way. Our children turned into emotional, over-sensitive, brooding, irrational, spiteful creatures. It seemed too early to be puberty—so emotional at ten years old!—and it took us by surprise. Before we knew what was happening (before we could consult the proper parenting manuals), we were in it. Simultaneously, I was spending my days with high-school students. I sometimes described my job as, “arguing with teenagers and banging my head against the wall all day long,” but I managed to teach them how to read a little better and write decent essays. I also formed real, raw relationships with my students, and because they were a few years ahead of our boys, I started taking notes.
I observed some champion parenting. I saw adults make choices and take actions that saved their children and I saw these children blossom into responsible adulthood. I also observed how adults, including me, let our teenagers down. This job of ours—this parenting of teenagers—is painful, personal and absolutely disorienting. Professionals and experts call adolescence a great “disruption” to the life of a family. No kidding. Even those of us who know better—we with training or education or personal vows to be better than our own parents—fall right through the rabbit hole after our kids. Everything gets topsy-turvy. Logic goes out the window. All bets are off. Pretty soon we find ourselves immersed in power struggles and all the eye-rolling sends us right over the edge into some awfully bad parenting decisions. Although I certainly do not have all the answers, my experience has taught me we can change this course. If we meet them with open eyes, strong arms and full hearts, we can help teenagers grow up.
Anyone who has seen me in the full throes of losing my cool will attest I am not a parenting or child-development expert. Much of my very own parenting and teaching have been messy and imperfect and marked far more by failure than grace. But I am almost certain what I have to tell you is important. I think you will want to hear it. If you are raising teenagers, I think it may even be vital that you hear it. Like most of us, I am balancing on a high-wire strung between good intentions and bad habits, between Things I Know Are True and Things That Make Me Doubt Everything. Among a smattering of degrees I feel are mostly decorative, however, I earned one I believe applies. Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to present my PhD in Keepin’ it Real. Mine is wisdom learned in the trenches also known as high-school English class. These are lessons learned in desperation. Few things are so humbling as realizing your clever lesson on subordinate clauses matters nothing at all to a teenager struggling to find her place in the world, keep her skin clear, or gain the attention of that cute guy back in the corner. High school students stand on the precipice of leaving the nest and starting lives on their own. They are at a unique moment in time where they crave independence and boundaries simultaneously, often in equal measure. They are dizzyingly close to becoming the adults they will soon be and yet they are light years away. They are difficult, rebellious, confused, brilliant, impetuous, impulsive, prone to drama, and really, really stupid.
WE LIVE IN HOPE.
It is a beautiful mystery how many of my former students are now doing wonderfully well regardless of the parenting they received. The human spirit is invincible; we thrive in rocky soil; we all shine on (like the moon and the stars and the sun). I do believe, however, that parents can make a difference. I believe we have the power to give our children a strong foundation and a view of the world which can help them become the best versions of themselves. Surely we can strive to do no harm to the miracle-people we brought onto the planet.
What I have to tell you is based on years of very real, very raw relationships with teenagers. Here are the stories of my own spectacular failures as my children turned into people I did not recognize, who suddenly spit venom at me when I entered a room. My findings are also based on interviews with parents and teenagers, the latest neuroscience research on adolescence, and tried-and-true theories of family systems. Raising teenagers into responsible adulthood is a hard-scrabble, often ugly process. It takes grit and generosity and super-human tenacity. Raising teenagers—I will remind you again and again—is not for the faint of heart. It might threaten to destroy you, your family and everything you hold dear. But raising adolescents to adulthood can also be the richest and most redeeming thing you have ever done. I will share some very practical things about how to save them from getting truly lost. And along the way, let’s remember how much we really do love our teenagers.