This parenting gig, it isn’t easy. In fact there are times when it’s downright scary. My kids are in their late teens now. Naively, I used to think it would get easier as they got older. Even more naively, I thought the judgments about my shortcomings as a mother (and therefore my moral failing as a person) would recede as my kids got old enough to make their own decisions.
Wow was I wrong.
If you’ve currently got a 10-year-old, enjoy it. This is about as easy as it’s going to get for a long time.
Teenagers are scary because they’re starting to become independent. They’re going places without me. Not just to the shops and movies, but to friends’ houses for the night, to parties, out on dates, maybe even away for the weekend. And the only way I really know where they are and what they’re doing is if they tell me the truth.
The thing about truth is that I remember, too well, the lies I told my mother when I was 16. I know all the stupid teen things I was really doing when I told her we were just going to the movies. (And no, I’m not telling, you’ve got your own stupid teen things to giggle over).
So knowing that, how can I know my teens are telling me the truth?
There are a couple of options. I could helicopter all through their teenage years, going to further and further lengths to check up on them, proving each time that I don’t trust them and expect them to lie. Such methods will almost certainly lead to epic door slamming, and far more worryingly, increasingly convoluted lies about where they are and what they’re doing as they try to hide their own stupid teen things from me.
And, of course, the pursed lips and pointed stares from everyone who knows they’d never hover over their teen like that. If they actually had a teenager they’d prove it to me.
Or I could stick my head firmly in the sand, accept everything they tell me at face value and hope the things I taught them were enough to keep them safe. As strategies go it’s probably the one that’s going to cause the least anxiety. But teens are like toddlers, they like to kick up against the boundaries. Sometimes just to make sure those boundaries are there and that they have something safe to throw themselves against in a tantrum.
And the same crowd who looked down their noses as I refused my 14-year-old’s request to go to a rave will stare in horror if I let them catch public transport by themselves.
Or I could take the really scary option and dive into full disclose. Knowing they’ll only tell me the whole truth if they think I won’t stop them doing the things they were brave enough to tell me about. And hoping the trade-off is that I can help them make safe choices about dangerous subjects.
Then of course the cat-bum-mouth brigade know I’m talking to my kids about drugs and sex and why do I want my children to end up on meth and riddled with syphilis?
Truth and teens are not easy. It works well if they’re spending a night with friends I know and like, at the house of parents I trust, consuming nothing more dangerous than too many simple carbs and terrible TV. But what do I do with far less palatable truths?
What if a 14-year-old tells me that her mates sometimes take ecstasy at parties? Or a 15-year-old says he’s going to a friend’s place and last time he was there some of the other boys got drunk and started fighting?
What if they tell me about a new boyfriend or girlfriend who’s putting pressure on them to have sex? Or they tell me about a friend who is mean and controlling but they’re still learning how to do relationships so they stick with it and keep getting hurt?
What about the truly awful stories they might tell me about sexual assault or violence in their group of friends?
I don’t think there’s a right answer to any of those questions. All kids are different; even brothers and sisters can have huge variations in their skills and abilities to deal with difficult situations. And with teenagers those skills can change in seconds, months can seem like a lifetime. The answers depend far too much on the specific combination of circumstances for there to be any blanket response.
I probably leaned too far towards wanting the truth and trusting my kids to find their own way. Sometimes that worked out great, other times not so well. And because I’m their mother and caring for children is “woman’s work” it was always my fault when the consequences of our combined choices weren’t good.
Too much time on the internet is dangerous: Your teenagers will become obese! They’ll be groomed by predators! They’ll watch porn and turn into sexually depraved monsters! The light will damage their brains and they’ll never sleep again! What kind of mother deliberately turns her child into an obese, sleep-deprived monster? Teenagers need to understand the digital age or they’ll be unemployed their whole lives! Why weren’t you watching everything they did? Why aren’t you teaching your child to be completely self-sufficient? Why aren’t you watching every mouthful to make sure they never touch a grain of salt or sugar? Why aren’t they doing the shopping and cooking for the entire family? They’ll never buy a house if they don’t learn to manage on their own you know.
One of the most useful things I ever learnt was ignore the inevitable Greek chorus of judgment because, with rare exceptions, other people are almost never helpful.
Telling me I’m a bad mother probably ignores the realities of my life. And, as the inimitable Amy Gray once said, telling me I’m a good mother just means you agree with my politics.
One of the advantages of getting older is that I’ve slowly learnt to have more faith in my own judgment. The advantage of getting older and being a feminist is being able to see how much the judgments of others is gender based and therefore worthless to me as a mother or a woman. These are about the only things that makes parenting teens easier than parenting toddlers.