Two days out of the Victoria Day long weekend were gloomy, rainy and chilly – the perfect atmosphere for a Tom and Daniella Netflix marathon. On Friday night, Logan, our 14 year old, had just finished watching the series 13 Reasons Why and he said he found it well done, accurate (give or take a few unrealistic things) and intense and suggested we give it a try. I had seen the press on it and planned to watch it anyway and it did not disappoint with regards to it being gripping.
I think 13 Reasons Why is somewhat today’s teen’s version of what the movie Desperate Lives was to those of us who are in our late 40’s and early 50’s. The important thing to remember here is the two shows are similar with regards to certain content and are similar in impact but like today’s teen, cannot be compared to our generation’s teen experience.
In spite of the fact that puberty and its side effects have been around since Homo Erectus strolled the planet, it’s effect on each generation has always been dependent on the world’s environment at the time. So, what I’m saying is, hormones have been raging and clashing for centuries – sometimes against the walls of caves, sometimes in a log cabin in the middle of a forest. At times they were being harnessed in tightly by waistcoats, corsets and chastity belts and another time they exploded out of bell bottomed jeans, floral tops and naked bodies at Woodstock.
In my time they bounced off video screens in nightclubs, bounced around on sandy beaches, on beds in house parties and in the back row of movie theaters. Now those hormones are flying through cyberspace, popping up on and every single second of every single day.
The speed at which this generation of teens receives and sends information, is so rapid that their hand eye coordination is so much more advanced than ours. I feel that we should sit back and applaud them once in a while because of how tech savvy they are. We admire it in babies and in the occasional old person but sometimes we criticize the same abilities in teens. Rather than criticize what we think are the shortcomings of teen use of technology today, we need to try and understand it, embrace it and talk about it with our children so that they use it in a safe and responsible way. It is the hardest part of parenting, I think, keeping up with the times and technology – knowing what to say and when to be quiet…knowing when to step in and take action and when to be patient and wait for them to come to us. It is a precarious balance of knowing when to take that next step to the end of the tight rope of adolescence and when to hold your position, be still and let the whirling wind subside. We struggle not to get left behind so that we can help them (or in some crazy cases, spy on them) navigate their way through this tumultuous yet wondrous time so that we can birth well adjusted, multi-dimensional, independent, respectful, generous, kind and happy adults.
I hear all the time that teens today are oddly quiet, lack focus, secretive, lack respect and are entitled. Weren’t we from time to time? I hear that they lack people skills because there is a lack of human contact because of their phones. While there is some merit to these observations or criticisms, I have two things for you to ponder – 1) You can have a real problem with inappropriate photos, cyber bullying and luring and it is imperative to speak to them about safety on line but in their casual chats with each other … well, they can’t get anybody pregnant on or …you still have to physically hook up for that.
2) I remember therapists saying I had to help Adam work hard to socially interact with his peers. Well one day at a speed skating meet Adam was bouncing a rubber ball and I told him to go and be with his teammates and try talking with them to which he responded “Why? They are all texting and their moms are texting,” Touché Adam. We are all becoming like you. The whole world is already connected by devices and soon, the spoken word; meaningful verbal utterance will be no more and your “autistic lifestyle” as it were will be globally adopted.
Any adolescent will tell you their phone is vital to them like air is to all life and without it they are stranded, disconnected and basically screwed. Their phone (which they rarely use to speak into unless they are talking to Siri) is like the telephone with the long, long, long cord we had in our room that we would put under our covers late at night so we could talk repetitive chatter (what is to me now at 50, repetitive bull shit). Their phone is how they talk to each other, get creative, do homework, create problems, solve problems, check their schedules, chat with their teachers, take photos, listen to music, make music, say “I love you”, say “I hate you”, make mischief and sometimes wreak havoc and pain. But, as a mother of two very different teens, I will tell you, even though it took me some time to open up to it, I do praise technology and the era we live in and all the things that we can do better, faster and more effectively. I applaud it and I allow it because I worked through understanding it, figured out how to control the use of it and how to release that control to them over time because we have made our children understand that at any time we have a right to check their phones and we have the right to have open discussions with them about proper used of their technology. They understand having a device is a privilege and by no means a right.
Today’s teen. Yes, their spelling without spell check is utter shit at times. Sentence and paragraph construction, disastrous; handwriting, illegible. But consider this – do we speak ye olde Shakespearean English anymore? Do we use slide rules? When was the last time you saw a T-square sticking out of a kids back pack? Don’t many of us use computers and tablets instead of notebooks? We send e mails in lieu of letters by mail. We can take a photo of a cheque with our phone and deposit it into our account. Times change as they should. Pretty soon we may not need our pinky fingers…we’re all thumbs now, really. I guess what I am trying to say is, while I agree we need to continue to hone in on teaching them the value of trust, self respect and respect for others, work ethic, punctuality, responsibility, empathy and all the attributes needed to make great human beings, we need to find a comfortable functional balance between parenting and friendliness and between guidance and control and vigilance and trust.
13 Reasons Why not only opened my eyes to today’s teen experience, it opened my eyes as to how they must perceive us as parents. We can play it too cool, we can be too strict and not strict enough. We can be stupidly unreasonable, we can be unavailable, distracted, too trusting, too naive and too friendly. We can also be too chatty, too intrusive and too controlling. 13 Reasons Why made me review my parenting skills regarding my own teens, which I think we should all do from time to time. You know, examine what works, what doesn’t. what to keep and what to change. Reflect on what the communication is like in the home between them and us and how can we keep them talking to us no matter what.
I know parents who are super strict. They love their children as deeply as anyone and they use rules and control and have no problem dropping the discipline hammer when they have to. Some are strict because of their own shortcomings and mistakes in their own teenage years. The old do as I say but don’t ever do as I did. Others try to be friends with their children. They even the playing field and blur the lines between parent and child and run the danger of losing the ability to guide their kids, give them consequences and maintain respect as a parent. Kids want parents to be parents. They don’t need or want you to get them whatever they want but they will sure take it if you do. They want their own friends and want you to get friends your own age. They want you to be happy, especially if you are raising them on your own but they don’t want to come in second to your boyfriend or girlfriend. They will grow up and move on soon enough… too quickly actually, and they really do want you to be present for them.
On the other hand, I’ve known parents who place too much faith in their teens and are absent from their lives even during the moments when they are in the same room together. Heck, sometimes they don’t know if their kids are at home. Remember when you were a teen? You loved to hate your folks and you hated to admit how much you loved them, wanted them and needed them. Teens are adults in the making but they are also adults slowly gaining the independence to leave their childhood behind. I think moving from your teens into adulthood is like slowly taking off a sticky bandage. Sometimes it feels okay and sometimes the pain is maddening but bearable and other times it’s just frigging harsh and the pain can bring you to tears. At times teens think they are ready for everything but truly can only cope with a few things and they want parents to be interested in them, want parents to hassle them, want the consequences, the life lessons, they want love and they want parents to care about all that they do even if it makes us angry. They want us to always step up and parent, no matter what comes out of their mouths. It is the craziest love-hate relationship sometimes but it’s how they learn to be grown ups. They need us to lead by example, hold them accountable and remind them of the consequences of their choices.
Right now, I am in a band aid ripping situation with my second teenager. I miss who he was … a lot! I guess I miss the kid because I am afraid to acknowledge the man that is emerging. He continues to have all the wonderful attributes that have always made us proud and has even become more confident (which is great) but he has changed a whole lot in a short space of time and I have to get over myself and the emotions I am having over his change. We are, I’d still like to think, quite close. He talks to me and includes me in what goes on with him and he really is a good son.
Last year was rough in his world as he had to navigate around some unfair hiccups that concerned the thing he is most passionate about. He was angry and hurt but took my (and his father’s) support and advice and worked on himself rather than focus on how he was wronged in the past and what he could not control. Add to that, he was transitioning into high school, hoping it would be better than elementary school, not really knowing what to expect. During the past year, his life was a roller coaster of weird events. Just when things looked up sometimes, plans changed and he was disappointed yet again but he continued working hard towards his goals and improving himself; continued to follow his path and when things finally looked up again, he broke his arm. But, the Almost-man as I sometimes refer to him, took it as part of his journey and just as we were getting close to the end of a trying year for him, he had one of those “just not your day” days and in reflecting upon it with me, he, in a very emotional conversation he told me about the areas where he no longer needed us.
Shooing his father back up the stairs, I listened to and watched this long, lanky Almost-man who used to be this robust, solid little sumo type creature with his big head upon which a bright blond bowl cut sat for years.
My cherub was telling me to back off in the best and most decent way he could, in a moment of frustration with himself and with us. I sat there and knew instantly how my parents would have reacted if I had even tried to say what he was saying. My parents were of the “we are your parents and we alone know what is best for you” era where being young meant you were basically foolish and inexperienced and anything you had to say was solely driven by infatuation or some other adolescent induced emotion. Their reaction to something like what my son was telling me would have been expected and I suppose justified considering the era when they were parenting teens but I don’t want to be shitty to him at a time when he is upset over something that is important to him, I donèt want to be a know-it-all, who would raise my voice over my child’s and dismiss him with a hand brush. I make an effort to be careful not to say or do anything like my parents would have have done because I am parenting in a different time and I don’t understand everything but I do know how it feels to be passionate about something and how defeating it can be when in spite of all your hard work, it beats you up from time to time before you reap the good stuff it yields. I also refuse to tell them that I didn’t understand what could be so bad after all we give yo them and definitely would not tell him that “teenage years is really stupidness, oui!” I hate lessening the importance of something to someone just because I don’t understand what they get out of it. I hate telling someone they have no reason to get angry, or cry. I hate reminding people that they have it so much better than others when all they really want to do and need to do is be upset in that moment and I don’t like flaunting the ego charged “I am your mother and it is my way or the high way” over teenagers. For Adam (the Man-child) because of his autism and his struggle to understand consequence sometimes, we have had to remind him that he needs to respect us and that he does not run the house but I know and believe it is important to respect his feelings, his likes and dislikes and that it is not up to us to make him do everything our way. Plus, with autistic people, you can try to make them fit your mold but it ain’t gonna work!
While listening to the Almost-man, I was able to also pick out the drama and I knew in time he would learn to diminish this drama used to embellish a story and learn to focus on the problems at hand and solve them rationally.
Most of the time, I get it wrong with my sons in moments like these when they are bent out of shape over something that to me, on the surface, seems to be blown way out of proportion. I get it wrong because I am fifty and not there anymore but if I try hard there are times when I do understand or remember how it feels to be awkward, oversensitive and confused. But as I sat with him, the realization that his wings were beginning to spread and he was on track to using said broad wings to fly away from me, hurt a little. But why shouldn’t he? After all, that’s what we taught him to do, right? My husband and I always wanted to put two happy independent people on the planet. His older brother, the Man-child, was ready to fly away at 6 and I suppose his personality even back then prepared me for helping him get ready for independence in spite of the obstacles of autism. He was not taking any form of smothering or helicopter parenting at all and that is why raising him has been so challenging. He is the kind of hero who wants to show everyone he can do it all without giving us the opportunity to teach him just how to do all these independent things. However, in spite of himself, he has and still is learning and is on his way to the independence he craved since he was 6 years old. The Almost-man on the other hand was the child I could have a conversation with. He is a loving and affectionate person and wanted to be a part of everything we did beyond the age of 6, unlike his brother and now that he is ready to sever ties somewhat, I am proud as I am pained. But…that is my problem. Not his.
In his emotional conversation with me that night, the Almost-man was letting me know in the best way he could that he was ready to handle some of his issues on his own. He was letting me know that he did not need our opinion on everything and that sometimes when he did what we told him to do, it didn’t feel right to him and things did not work out any better. He told me that sometimes he wanted to feel shitty and mad and wanted to get over it on his own without us…without me …always trying to make it better. He told me that he has listened to us his whole life and he understands everything we have taught him and that we have to trust that he is going to make safe and smart decisions and that he will still keep us informed about where he is and how he is getting there and will respect our opinion with regards to how long he is out and where he is not allowed to go and will keep in mind all the rules and guidelines we have set. He also assured me that he knew that having Adam has affected the way I feel about him and he basically outed me with regards to why I am so protective of him even though I do work very hard to give him his space. He said he knew having a special kid was tough and that he understood that he is our only “normal experience” with a kid but now he needs and wants his space. I was given examples of when our ideas and opinions secretly infuriated him. There was a not-too-long list of annoyances but it was a list nonetheless that took me by surprise but he had a point. We were hovering in some ways without realizing it and it was making him feel like he was caught in vines fighting to break free. Then came the sentence to end the night like only a mature man could,
“I know all that you do is because you love me. Let me use all this love and upbringing to see what I can do on my own,”
Mic drop! Bravo! And yes, absolutely, my wonderful, intelligent, intuitive Almost-man.
If I were to take a snapshot of our home and our lives, it would look pretty much like many people’s at the stage of life we are in. Yes, I lose my cool when I am given disrespect or the occasional attitude. Yes, rooms look like pigsties and smell not-so-great at times. I lose my mind when a wet towel is left on the floor and I don’t like it when they put off doing their chores. There are arguments and closed doors behind which they dwell for hours on the days they are actually home, coming out only for food and to use the washroom. There is occasionally a parade of missing dishes that come from a room across the hall or from a room in the basement that they do eventually wash while giving me an impish grin. My husband and I feel like we are suddenly living with roommates we don’t remember signing up for. Roommates who aren’t always as clean and orderly and as helpful as we would like. Roommates who take way too long showers, monopolize our Netflix and our WiFi and data who look at you with blank stares when you complain. They are like frustrating roommates who eat everything in sight with an opinion on everything and there are days when imagining retirement without them is like imagining living in a perfect peaceful paradise. Then there are the days when we talk about school and friendships and the goings-on in the lives of their peers. There are days when we watch a show together or share a snack in the kitchen while I am reassured that they are coping with their lives just fine in spite of puberty and adolescence. When we talk openly, I am elated and relieved and more educated about their world. I think our unlikely roommates are both going to be okay but I am always going to worry about them I suspect and like the lyrics of Helen Reddy’s Candle on the Water suggest, I hope they remember I’ll be their candle on the water and that my love for them will always burn. And while I miss singing that song and dancing with them holding their chubby little infant bodies close to my heart, I know I have to let them go.
So, I will say this to you my boys… Man-child, I understand you; I always have. I accept your headstrong ways and your quest for freedom and independence and we have set you up for just that. Almost -man, I know you well and I have faith in you but I am going need some time to get over missing the little boy you were while being proud of the man you are becoming. Your futures are bright my boys and I am proud of you both (even when you frustrate me and Dad) and I can’t wait to turn and read the next pages in the chapters of your unique and admirable lives.