Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Dispatches from the House of Teenagers

February 2007

It has been a humbling time in my household, which is always awash with children, both his and mine. His are with us two weeks a month; mine is back from school most weekends and vacations, often with friends in tow. When I tell people what that I'm a social worker, they jump to the conclusion that I must know something about "handling" teenagers. I assure them that I do not. And here is my proof:

Little Miss

Little Miss is 12 years old, with an imperious streak. She insists, demands, refuses, rejects. She is terrifyingly resourceful at satisfying her own exacting standards. Her bedroom is entirely pink and orange, for instance, as she required. She does not miss American Idol, and she will not eat anything "natural." Also, she loves a lot of things her father and I find depressing, including logo-rich clothes, sparkly eyeshadow, and Cosmo Girl. Last weekend she attended a strictly A-list seventh-grade sleepover where she happily ostracized the "pity invite" (who just the weekend before had been an overnight guest at our house). Dizzying drops in social status are common in her crowd — but still, I asked, isn't all the backstabbing a little … mean? She rolled her eyes and inserted her pink iPod earbuds. Goody-two-shoes philosophizing bores her. In truth, I bore her.

The Psychologist

My son, on the other hand, finds me fascinating. Since about kindergarten he's been making exhaustive lists of my flaws. In middle school he composed "The Ten Top Reasons I Hate You," followed that same year by "Let Me Tell You Everything You're About Ready to Say." But that was just child's play, in retrospect. Now that he's 17 and a star student in his high school adolescent psychology class, he's fully armed with paradigms and theories — real facts, not opinions. Lately the facts have to do with the various weaknesses that attend my X chromosome. As a good Psychologist, my son wants to steer clear of gender stereotyping, yet he can't help noticing that I drive — well, like a girl. (By contrast, he drives like a boy, having had two crashes in the six months since he got his driver's license, thereby justifying my through-the-roof insurance rates.) He's also noticed that I have passive-aggressive tendencies, which is also common in females, and that my parenting style is driven by fear and anxiety about his well-being. Another woman thing, it turns out. When he's not dismissing me for irrelevancy or trivial thinking, he's throwing his arm around my shoulders and giving me a protective squeeze. After all, he figures, I need all the help I can get. He's right about that one.

The Panda

This sweet, roly-poly creature is 15, mostly nocturnal, and lives almost exclusively in a virtual habitat called World of Warcraft. He spends dozens of hours a week as a devoted member of The Alliance, slaying enemies, discovering deposits of gold, and earning new magical powers so he can kill yet more enemies and discover yet more gold. We rarely see him except at meals, where until very recently he appeared only in T-shirt and Bart Simpson boxer shorts. (The passage of the Permanent Pants-On Policy, or P-POP, facilitated by the Psychologist and pushed through by an outraged Little Miss, constitutes the pinnacle of our family legislative process.) Mealtimes with the Panda involves intensive work on table manners, including use of fork and knife and napkin. Otherwise, I encourage him to keep his fingers out of the decorative candle flame and pay attention to the general stream of events, to which he often seems distractedly ignorant. He is capable of answering questions (though only in his very own Nizzle-Dizzle language, where "nizzle" connotes the negative and "dizzle" the positive) but for days on end utters only one word: "Whaaa?"

I love these children and occasionally would like to exile them to a land far away. They're wonderful and terrible, bursting with spirit and utterly self-absorbed. The bottom line, though, is that while they may create problems, they're not problems in themselves, and thus, I have to tell inquiring friends, there aren't any solutions. There's no "handling" them, and nothing "works." They're a roiling, vibrant agglomeration of gripes and yearnings and oddball ambitions, as are their parents, and the best we can do is make peace with that knowledge.

So when people ask me — foolishly, hopefully — for advice on coping with their teenagers, I tell them I haven't the slightest idea. Well, maybe I do know one thing: Keep them talking. What my son has to say to me is usually more important than what I have to say to him, because every time he opens his mouth — even if it's just to air his latest list of grievances — he's trusting that I care how he feels. And he is right. I do.

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