My son Nicholas turned 13. It happened more than a month ago, and I wouldn’t have any more to say about it than any other birthday if it weren’t for other people’s reactions. Nearly every time somebody asks how old he is now and I tell them, they have something to say about it (beyond the usual “they grow up quickly” kind of thing), and usually it boils down to one or more of these ideas:
- The fun part of parenting is all over now! Get ready to be abused and taken for granted!
- You must be so worried about all the trouble he’ll get into!
- Uh oh, now you’ll have to figure out how to avoid talking about those difficult subjects.
- Aw, too bad; he was such a nice kid.
I was a teenager. It doesn’t seem like all that long ago (unless I think about the hairstyles) and I remember, vividly, how it felt. It’s true that it is a stage of life when changes in the brain and hormones and stuff affect the day-to-day experience of being human. There is a reason we label “teenagers,” just as there’s a reason we label “toddlers” or any other stage. But our societal attitudes toward teenagers are more negative than they really need to be.
I’ve written before about the strange phenomenon of parents blaming their teenagers for still needing parents and how it may be the parents’ attitude that triggers some of the teens’ hostility and poor decision-making. I explained in that article how my own parents handled things differently than the parents of some of my peers, by teaching me skills and discussing how to make good decisions, beginning long before adolescence so that, when those brain changes hit, I already was in the habit of being responsible but seeking their advice when I needed it.
In my years of parenting so far, I’ve heard a lot of other parents fearing the teenage years. In particular, parents who are struggling with a defiant toddler or preschooler often say, “We’ve got to get this under control, because if she’s like this now just imagine what she’ll be like as a teen!”
I don’t really get it. Yes, it’s true that adolescence is a stage of life that brings new and different challenges and abilities. As parents, we have to adapt to each of our child’s stages, setting aside strategies that don’t work anymore and learning new ways to work through the problems that arise. This is just another stage. The differences between a preteen and a teenager actually are much smaller than the differences between a newborn baby and a toddler, and these changes happen more slowly.
I understand that some kids are very easy-going babies who grow into obedient children and then become teenagers who rebel as hard as they can and make life very difficult, sometimes with serious consequences for themselves and/or their parents. I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s suffering in that type of situation. What I’m saying is that the idea that all kids are most difficult in their teenage years is just not helpful to either kids or parents.
So, here are the things I tell myself when I encounter bad attitudes toward teenagers, numbered to match up with the list above.
1. Every stage of parenting has both some fun times and some times when I feel abused and taken for granted.
Before I became a mother, I thought preschoolers were my very favorite stage of kids, and I would just have to endure the baby phase and the toddler phase in order to get to the wonderful era of parenting a preschooler.
In the first few days after Nicholas was born, I learned that my own baby was far more fascinating than any infant I had previously met and that nourishing another person with my own body was a profound adoration that completed my soul. I spent hours gazing at his little face and soaking up his wonder at every new thing he saw. I also learned that Little Iron Jaws could cause me such pain that I wanted to throw him at a wall and I felt a heart-pounding, sleep-deprived, delicious glee at the mental image of his fuzzy little skull splitting open. (My second child was literally drinking my blood at this stage.) It was an amazing time of forming treasured memories and setting the foundations of a marvelous new life . . . and it could turn on a dime into a contest of who could sob louder as I tried to put him down long enough to eat some food or use the bathroom.
Nicholas as a toddler was my little buddy! He went with me almost everywhere except to work, riding in the sling on my hip, alertly watching the people around him and behaving appropriately. He wanted to help with whatever I was doing–washing dishes, hanging laundry, scrubbing the bathtub–and he did well enough that I could work around him and he wasn’t really in my way. We got along so well that I felt guilty about wishing I could have more time away from him and more time to be alone with Daniel. Nicholas nursed every hour throughout the evening, couldn’t fall asleep alone, and couldn’t stay asleep all night if he was alone. I was sick of changing diapers! And sometimes it took 45 minutes to brush his teeth!
Then, finally, he was a preschooler! He was walking and talking and toilet-trained and learning letters and numbers and appreciating more interesting books and loving the stories I told him and asking important questions and playing games . . . and taking more and more time to get to sleep, being more picky about what to eat, refusing to dress himself and spinning around as I tried to get his clothes on, arranging toys just so and refusing to pick them up for weeks at a stretch, demanding so much attention and explanation and help with tasks that must be done to his specific specifications or he’d have a freak-out screaming tantrum! Between the ages of 3 and 5, exactly the phase of his life I’d thought would be the most fun, Nicholas became far more assertive of his own will and opinions than he had been, and he started to negotiate exhaustingly about every little thing!
Every stage since then has been a time when some things get better and other things get more difficult. There’s no reason to see adolescence as a time of only difficulties.
2. There’s always something to worry about, but I trust Nicholas to handle risks sensibly.
If you’re the parent of a kid who has run off every cliff available, who has broken every breakable dish in the house and some of the unbreakable ones, who is always poking strange dogs to see what will happen . . . then you have reason to worry about how your child will handle risks as a teenager. (Even so, risk-taking personalities tend to mature eventually, and this could happen during adolescence! Don’t forget to watch for signs of improvement and reinforce them!)
But if your kid hasn’t generally been a risk-taker, most likely you’ll see only a slight increase in her impulsive decisions to try stupid things. Remind yourself of all the stuff you don’t have to worry about anymore, like packing the diaper bag and strapping the kid into a properly-adjusted 5-point harness for every car ride. Your kid has come a long way! This is a new phase of continuing progress!
Nicholas has been showing me, since he was a few months old, that he has a good sense of what he can and can’t do. He never crawled off the top of the stairs, jumped from too high a place, or walked on a wall too narrow for him to keep his balance. He did all kinds of fun things but only to the limits of his ability.
He’s always been interested in learning about things like fire, electricity, chemicals, and sharp tools and how to use them safely. He doesn’t rush into things but is very cautious until he understands how to manage the stuff.
Nicholas was 8 when I wrote about how we gradually expanded the area in which he is allowed to walk alone. He was 11 when we let him travel outside the neighborhood alone, to a specific destination. Since then, he and his friends have been planning travels together, sometimes to a specific place, sometimes just to “go Downtown and wander around.” He tells us where he’s going and approximately when he’ll be home. We confirm that he’s dressed for the weather (he doesn’t get cold easily, but we’ve had some seriously dangerous cold this winter!) and has everything he needs, because he is kind of forgetful sometimes. Then we don’t worry.
Our confidence is built on his history of trustworthy behavior. He knows that. There have been only a few times when he forgot to call to tell us he went to a friend’s house after school, and we took those very seriously–and so did he, apologizing for worrying us and spelling out how he would do it correctly next time.
Last weekend, Nicholas and a friend wanted to explore an abandoned building. He told me several days in advance, asking me the locations of buildings he remembered seeing from the car. I thought about it–when I was his age, some friends and I went into an abandoned and literally condemned house to explore, and I remember how interesting it was and how exciting, and nobody got hurt, but gee, that really wasn’t a very smart thing to do. So I told Nicholas not to go inside the building, and he blinked in bafflement and said, “Of course not!” We talked about how even the yard or alleys around a building may be private property, so if anyone tells you you’re not supposed to be there, go back to the public sidewalk. We went over these points again when his friend was here. I helped them find the building on Google Maps and plan a safe walking route. (The most direct route involved a narrow sidewalk right at the edge of a high-speed road; they agreed it would not feel safe to walk there, even if the cars stayed in their lanes! So they took a back street instead.) I pointed out where the bus routes are in case they got tired of walking. They had a great Adventure, walking almost 8 miles, and took some moody Instagram photos of each other looking at graffiti.
That’s exactly the kind of thing I think teenagers ought to get to do! It’s all about gradually building up your skills for navigating the world, assessing danger, knowing your limits. I’m glad that some of the parents around here agree that our kids can go places!
The informed skill-building approach works for the risks of sex and drugs, too. I am grateful to have had a few years of comprehensive drug education in school before the “just say no to the wildly exaggerated dangers of Drugs, which we will talk about as one thing, as if all drugs were equally dangerous” approach took hold. Starting in 5th grade with clear explanations of what each substance is, what it does as an intoxicant, what it does as side effects, and the contexts in which one might encounter it is a great way to develop an understanding of what’s out there and why to say no or to think through the particular circumstances in which you would feel safe saying yes.
3. I love talking about those difficult subjects!
One of my favorite things about being a parent is getting to explain things. It’s true that in the past few years, Nicholas has become less interested in hearing me tell stories–he’d rather be making his own stories than hearing mine!–and that extends to hearing me explain things I want to explain to him right now. I have to watch for the times when he’s interested in talking about a particular subject, and I need to do as much listening as explaining, instead of “telling the whole story” like I did when he was younger.
Still, I’m baffled that so many parents–not just my parents’ generation, but mine!–think it’s so difficult to talk with children about sex. People are dreading The Sex Talk that they expect to have when their kids near puberty, dreading it before the kids are even born! I don’t understand. I’ve always liked talking about sex! Am I just weird?
I’m not going to get into a lot of detail here out of respect for my son’s privacy, but we have had several conversations about physiology and puberty, different sexual activities and the related safety concerns, relationships and intimacy, stuff like that. He thinks it is more embarrassing than I do, but I think I’ve managed to convey that it is safe to ask me stuff and I won’t get upset that he’s thinking about it.
Although we haven’t yet had a teen-level discussion of substance use, we talked about addiction when he was just a preschooler and have had other discussions about substance use since then.
4. He’s still the same person.
Nicholas celebrated his 13th birthday while we were visiting my parents for Christmas. He had his 5th, 7th, and 9th birthdays at their house, too. His choice of entertainment was the same as on those other birthdays: A viewing of That Darn Cat! starring Hayley Mills, recorded on VHS cassette from a Tulsa TV station in 1990, complete with commercials! Those antique commercials are as entertaining as the movie, and we always roll around laughing.
I remember many things I enjoyed in my childhood that I continued to enjoy as a teenager–maybe not when my friends were looking, but with my family. Some of them were books or movies or music older than myself, which my parents had enjoyed before they knew me and introduced to me so that we could share the experience. There is a lot of value in continuing to share experiences like that as a child moves through adolescence and into adulthood.
There’s value, too, in sharing things that a child or teenager has discovered in the wider world and is willing to share with you. I listen to music or watch stuff on YouTube that Nicholas wants me to check out, partly to be in touch with the media that influence my teenager but also just because trying something new can lead to finding something that I like, too!
These are “the best years of his life,” right?
It’s a cliche that adults who don’t know what to say to teenagers say, “These are the best years of your life,” and it makes teenagers want to kill themselves. I can tell you that my teenage years certainly were not the best years of my life!
But it’s true that adolescence has a certain energy; it’s a time of possibility, when you’re learning and changing and excited to try new things, when you prepare to make trembling decisions about your future and throw yourself out there and find out who you can be.
It’s hard to say which stage is the best, but I don’t see any reason to expect this one to be the worst. Honestly, my hunch is that our conflicts with Nicholas peaked when he was 8, and it’s actually been getting easier since.
Anyway, I’m tired of the doomsaying and ready to move on with this new adventure!