Mama Bear: A Crummy Role Model for Parents of Adolescents.
When our children were little, my friends and I cried "Mama Bear" to justify our slightly crazy parental instincts. We are all familiar with the archetype: the dad who leaps to yank a kid away from speeding cars. The mother who can hear, identify, and respond to a real cry of trouble three blocks away. The out-of-nowhere gumption it takes to yell at menacing big kids on the playground. Yes, we share Mama Bear's instincts to protect our brood. Most parents relate to her example of strong parenting. She justifies the surge of anger we feel when our child is bullied on the school bus. When we pull a toddler away from a hot stove or jolt from our sleep because something feels not right, Mama Bear makes sense to us.
Here’s the trouble: just as her babies gain some independence, Mama Bear goes to sleep. She hibernates. Mama Bear is a crummy role model for the parents of teenagers, even though we share her instinct to close our tired eyes. As my children and their friends became adolescents, I noticed something strange: the very same parents who once hovered and helicoptered around their little ones tended to check out—in various ways—as the kids got older.
They Still Need Us (Even When They Act Like They Don’t).
It is understandable. Just as our children can feed themselves and use fabric softener and maybe even change a tire, they develop wicked strategies to convince us they don’t need us anymore. It is tempting to believe them. We are exhausted. We are struggling to get some semblance of our groove back. They are just so mean to us! But we must not hibernate. Our teenagers need us. They need us in different, ever-changing ways and yet they reject everything we do for them (because it’s their job). Nevertheless, we cannot go to sleep. Very real predators threaten our kids: abuse, addiction, peer-pressure, the media, apathy, bullying, and good old-fashioned sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Our adolescents are worth saving and we cannot fall asleep on the job.
Mama Bear: She just seems so sure of herself!
Not only does Mama Bear hibernate when the going gets tough, she’s got a lousy attitude for someone who lives amongst pubescent people. Thanks to her animal instincts, Mama Bear just seems so darned sure of herself. In my experience--and according to the hundreds of parents I have observed and interviewed--one thing is certain: when teenagers live in your home you rarely (if ever) feel confident or cool-headed. Even when things seem pretty good and the family is mostly getting along, it's a messy, muddled mind-trip. Mama Bear never second-guesses herself, feels guilty or shows any signs of ambivalence. That attitude is supremely un-helpful for parents of teenagers. We spend most of our days feeling rotten at our jobs and unprepared for everything.
Raising teenagers is bewildering and personal and painful. It's hard to step back and gain any perspective. It’s easy to sink into patterns of anger and chaos, and it’s easy for parents to lose sight of their purpose. Everything we know about parenting evaporates when kids get hormonal, because thirteen-year-olds don’t respond to anything the same way they did when they were six or seven. Gone are the days of feeling confident, protecting our children with atavistic aplomb, only to sink into our pillows each night exhausted but sure of our role in the world. With younger children, rules are clear and pretty simple to enforce. Stove, hot! Street, dangerous! Dipping your cookie in the toilet? Not the best choice! We know what young children need to learn, and they are interested in all of it. The alphabet, numbers, the names of things, how trees grow and why it rains and how to play the piano and clean up your mess and tie your shoes and use the toilet and tell a joke and eat with a fork. Once they become teenagers, things are more complicated. The rules? They're difficult to negotiate amidst brave-new technology and old-school adolescent rebellion. Teenagers--because it is their job--tell elaborate lies, crawl out windows, test limits, and beg us in many other ways to question values we hold dear.
Do Not Hibernate! There’s Too Much at Stake.
It is unexpectedly tempting to check out. To take their abuse personally and give up on them. To think, “they don’t need me.” It’s our job to teach adolescents so much, but they specifically don't want to hear it from us. They are mercurial and confused. They are whirlwinds of angst, self-loathing and pretense. They contradict themselves with wild passion. Negotiating with teenagers is like a carnival funhouse; everything is familiar and disorienting at the same time. Meanwhile, our children are developmentally programmed to act recklessly, make awful decisions, test boundaries and act like little criminals. There is too much at stake for parents to hibernate. In many ways middle- and high-school kids need us more than they did when they were in third or fourth grades.
They are almost-adults, smack in the midst of actualizing their unique personalities. We know how difficult they can be, but when we engage with them, we lose our objectivity. We bite their crazy-bait and let them hurt our feelings. We almost never feel sure of ourselves. I recommend we let Mama Bear go as a role model because expecting perfection--or certainty, or family harmony, or knowing what the hell we are doing--makes everything so much worse.
Parents of teenagers need new role models because it's supposed to be hard. Raising a family is difficult and awful by design; raising people who can survive on their own and contribute to society and enjoy their adult lives is just an ugly, painful process. If we expect to know what we are doing--if we think we should feel sure of ourselves while raising teenagers--it's a million times harder. We need to cut ourselves some slack. Pretending everything's okay--and expecting it to be perfect--eventually exhausts us; all we can do is cover our eyes and hibernate.
We Live in Hope
If you—like Carl in the first installment of this chapter, like all of us—are feeling defeated by it all, I hope you’ll remember to ask for help. I hope my work will help you understand your kids and your parenting and give you specific ideas for how to survive. I hope you will lean on your tribe of elders: moms and dads who have been there before you, who can calm your darkest fears with a gentle scoff and a frank reminder to take it easy. I hope you will be convinced your kids are worth staying engaged for a few more years. I’ll tell you why it’s worth it (for them and for you) and I’ll give you some practical ways to find your balance in the three-ring adolescent circus. My observations have taught me that parents do best to know, protect and honor their adolescent children. There is not one new role model for the likes of us; there are many. In order to meet the demands of raising our children to adulthood, parents must find a balance, walk a fine line, and quick-change between many, many hats. It's arduous work but--I promise!--our teenagers and our sanity are worth it in the long run.
In my upcoming book and in my talks and presentations for parents, I present some new role models for those of us raising teenagers. I will remind you often to check balance on the high-wire of raising a family. I will remind you how often we must make split decisions and practice super-human discernment. I will remind you to stay vigilant. I will remind you to laugh. When we work hard to know, protect and honor our teenagers, we can help pave their way to becoming the very best versions of themselves.
This is the second part of Chapter One of my in-progress manuscript. Read the preface here:
Chapter One, Part One: Beyond Mama Bear: Why Parents of Teens Need New Role Models