Alien Nation

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A couple of years ago, I TA'ed a Young Adult Literature course taught by my friend Maija.

The title of the course was "Alien Nation" and at the time, I thought it was clever and funny; a perfect title for a course on Young Adult Literature.

( oh, we language lovers with our double entendres...we crack ourselves up)

Now, at the time of the course, I was the mother of a not-quite teen. Logically and empirically, I knew of the changes her body was beginning. I knew the science of the brain chemistry changes.  I knew of the peer bullshit that was about to begin in earnest.

I've jokingly told hundreds of parents of toddlers that they might want to take a good look at the utter incomprehensibility of the behavior and rationale of a two year old because they were going to see it again as when said child is a teenager....and they wouldn't be able to pick up their teen and put them in their crib.

The context of that previous statement was that we need to parent with consistency and respect because we are setting forth the boundaries of the later relationship. Toddlers need strong boundaries. To be two years old and able to dictate the way adults act? Terrifying.

We set the boundaries with our children when they are young, and we renegotiate them as they age. Some of these boundaries are easy peasy: "Sure you can cut your own bread with a butter knife", which later becomes "Sure you can fix yourself some soup in the microwave", which later becomes "Please make dinner".  A gradual stepping up of responsibility, or to use a Vygotskian term- "scaffolding" - until the child is able to competently able to perform a task.

Other boundaries are much much harder: Body. Sexuality. Privacy. Separation and Independence.

The line we walk with these boundaries is, frankly, exhausting and well -  horrifying. As in "when I think about my child and sexuality I want to crawl into a cave and weep". Let me be clear, this is not because I don't want  for my daughter all of the wonderful things that a healthy sexuality can bring....but because I know all the dangers and pitfalls along the way to that healthy sexuality.

However, because I am the Adult, I must be able to remove my fears from the equation in order to scaffold her to the place she needs to be.  She, after all, is NOT ME. Her life has not been, nor ever will be, MY LIFE. Her experiences are not and will never be MY Experiences.

She is not Me.

(This, by the way, is a lesson that I am not sure all parents learn, given the culture of "My Kid is So Special")

Now, here is where I get to the reason for this post.

There is a video, which I will not link, of a father going batshit nutty after his daughter posts a mean letter on her facebook page in which she complains that she is not his slave and how she should be paid for all the chores she does around the house etc.  At the end of this video, the man takes his gun (!) and shoots his daughters laptop as punishment.  This is after he attempts to rebut her every point by telling her how good she has hard HE works, and how much harder he had it at her age.

To be fair, I didn't make it to the point in the video where he shoots the laptop, mostly because his inability to realize that he was echoing his daughters teen tantrum clearly wasn't sinking in and I was getting angry.  Furthermore, I have seen guns pulled out in anger, and have had my own biological father shoot at cars I was sitting inside because my mother was peeling off in the car after a fight, or kill the dogs with same gun when they wouldn't stop barking, or bring out gun and "pretend" to look for Santa/Easter Bunny so he could shoot him.

 I don't find gun threats funny. Or lesson teaching.

The reaction to this letter/video, seems to have been mostly "You Go DAD!" and "Teens are so disrespectful/entitled today, I would have NEVER done that".

OK. To the second group, the "I never acted like that and I was utterly respectful to my parent(s)" people....I call BULLSHIT. UTTER AND COMPLETE BULLSHIT!

You did act just like that.

Believe me. I heard you act like that when I was a teen. Our parents heard you act like that when they were teens...because that is what Teens DO. We, collectively, were "those teens". We tried to get out of things, we complained when we had to do chores, we bitched and moaned to our peers about the sorry state of our lives and how our parents enslaved and denied us our basic human rights.

The problem now is that teens do it in such a transparent and instantly broadcast to the world manner. They don't do it in hushed tones at sleepovers, or even sotto voce over the one phone in the kitchen (with the super long tangled cord so you could try to get as far away from the other members of the family as possible). They post it on the internet. They text it, they record themselves Saying it and post it on youtube for the whole world to witness.

Why do they do this?

Because they are teens and their pre-frontal cortex isn't fully developed. It's why we don't give them certain rights. Their decision making skills aren't fully "on-line" as it were. You know, the same reasons that their car insurance is so expensive.  They don't always think things through to the end. They are impulsive.

We, as parents and adults, should expect them to be less than logical. It's kind of their job. Their brains and bodies are going through SERIOUS hormonal and chemical fuckery. They have become aliens in their own bodies, prone to shifting and sudden landscape changes.

Another thing that bothered me about that video? Privacy. Yes, I know the daughter is 16....and she posted the letter on her facebook page...and that things on the internet aren't private....But...

There is a line that has to develop between parent and child, that line being privacy. It's part of a healthy separation and is really difficult for parents to respect. But Yes, Teens have a certain right to their privacy. They have the right to bitch and moan to their friends about what an asshat you are. Even if you are feeding and clothing them. Even if you are buying them laptops and ipods.

I know. As the provider of those things, it feels ungrateful. Yet, it is what it is. And please don't use the "I had it so much worse than you" shtick, even if it is true. Remember what I said about their lives not being yours?  When you devolve to that argument,  you are now at the emotional level of your teen, and that, honestly, isn't attractive.

When the father found that letter - not intended for him to see - and then rebroadcast that letter? Trampled all over her right to privacy. There was no pressing health/safety concern that he had to address. She wasn't shooting up heroin or having unprotected sex with people. She didn't say she was about to kill herself.

She was being a teenager. She was complaining. She was, perhaps, even saying some things which might be true.

I, for instance, clocked a shit load of babysitting hours from the ages of 14 to 16. I had to be home right after school to pick up my baby sister...who was being dropped off by her child care provider at about 2:45. I then cared for Jessie until our parents got home at 5 p.m. or so.  Did I do this? Yes. Did I complain - bitterly - about my having to do this, about not getting to hang out with friends after school? Absolutely.  Was what I complained about true? Yes.  Would my parents screaming at me that I should be grateful about caring for my infant sister because they clothed and fed me have helped change my attitude? No.

Teens - like toddlers - are built to be completely egotistical.  Shockingly similar brain chemistry, folks.  Which is why arguing with either can be similarly frustrating and pointless.

When Emily, now a full blown teenager, begins to throw tantrums, I try to establish a couple of things.

She may not be verbally disrespectful to either parent:

She tries to bad mouth Terrance to me all the time,and while I am allowed the privilege of being a smart ass to him, she is Not. One of us is his wife and the adult. And you can THINK it, but don't let me hear you say it.

There are some things/decisions that will not change:

I don't give a rats ass if every child on the face of the planet has one, SHE is not allowed to have a facebook account.  Arguing with me does nothing to sway me. In fact, it makes me send her to her room. And believe me, she tries to argue. She gives it her best supreme court justice attempt. She stomps. She shuts doors with intent and drama. She occasionally glares.

There are consequences to bad decisions:

If you lost your ice skates and I have to buy a new pair, you now owe me the $$ for the new skates. Logical Consequences. X=Y. If I have bought 8 protractors and suddenly, on Sunday Afternoon, you find you need a protractor and can't find one because your room is the hellmouth - Well then. After I make you spend 5 hours cleaning your room, I may go and buy you a protractor, but you are going to attempt to clean and find one first. And Lying makes it all worse. I may not punish you for the act, but I will punish you for the lie.

I never threaten unless I mean it:

This is a tough one for too many people. As a teacher, if I used idle threats I would have been trampled all over. If I gave you fair warning that next time I have to ask you to put away your computer, then you are losing it for a week?  It's happening. So don't threaten with crazy shit you don't intend to do.

 (cough cough, my husband... whose last threat was that she would never go to camp ever again in her life if she failed her exams, and that was because she was complaining about studying for the exams and how Hard her life was/is, and how  tired she is/was from being at school all day...)

All those idle threats do is teach your kid that you don't mean it, and they can amp it up to the next level ( or 2) before you do anything. It goes without saying that they have no problem with amping it up. To 11.

I will not embarrass you in front of your friends:

Sure, I wear my super cool tshirts and quirky outfits which make you wish that I looked like the other moms. But I will discipline you in private. Teens need to save face in a way that adults forget. It is ALL about the social group at this don't want to stick out of the herd too much. Yes, I will give you the look in public. The one that broadcasts to you that it will be ON when we get home, but doing the discipline in public? I won't do it.

I will try my damnedest to respect your privacy:

So, after living 12 years with zero privacy ( Can I get a What What from all my fellow parents who haven't used the toilet alone in several years?), this is a tough one.  Not just with body stuff, but life stuff too.

While I am Emily's mother and hope that I have built a healthy line of communication between us, I am not her Friend. There are going to be things that she doesn't tell me.  This is both a  good thing and makes me sad.

On the one hand, I am aiming to raise a woman who can launch into the world and have the tools to survive. On the other hand, I have protected and nurtured this person for so long, that the habit is hard to break.

Yet perhaps it is within the idea of protection and nurturing that I need to bring some scrutiny. Protection and nurturing doesn't equal "smoothing everything over". It doesn't mean "I do the work for you".  It means, I think, to scaffold for help you notice the super huge cliff off which you are about to blithely jump. Then to patch you up when you insist on jumping. Not to put a big cushion at the bottom, or prevent you from making a decision about jumping.

When I worked with 4 year old boys, I found they didn't listen to me if I overstated my case. It wasn't until I stopped preventing them from experiencing that they began to heed my words. My warnings about a playground game which was clearly going to turn into an unpleasant experience couldn't be heard if I always warned and nothing happened.  My suggesting that I had a concern that rubbing snow in peoples faces was, perhaps, not the best idea became that much more powerful when the game went very badly and everyone was in tears after 3 minutes.

As our children become teens, our role as "consultant" needs to expand.  There needs to be an implicit understanding that we have been working together to craft the child's decision making skills. And then we have to TRUST that in as many situations as possible.  As terrifying as that may be. If we rob them of the opportunity to make shitty decisions while still within the scaffold of parent/child safety, they never truly learn.

So, cut the teens a break. Yes, they can be maddeningly argumentative. And Contrary and tantrum throwing and stroppy. It is the last messy and difficult metamorphosis on the way to adulthood, so I think we can forgive them.

Parents who react in the same manner? I have no patience for that.

2 Baleful Regards:

roo said...

Oh, my good lord. We were talking about that clip on my forum last week. I find it embarrassing to watch (and yes, I saw the whole thing), because while, as you pointed out, daughter needs to understand that the Internet is public (and should have realized a dad who works in IT would figure it out), still-- dad's reaction said more about his own immaturity. He wanted to re-establish his coolness by being badass in from of her facebook friends (and all the gun-totin' red-state folk who might also see the tape later.)

He could have just taken the laptop away. Made her earn it back. But he shot it (note that so-called gun-totin' badass didn't actually know how many bullets were in the gun-- Doh!)

Is it just me who sees weird sexual domination overtones to that move?

Regardless, if he heard her bitching about him over the phone, would he have shot the phone?

There's a funny parody video floating around, where he takes a flamethrower to the diary he found under her bed.

I didn't get the sense the guy is a terrible person, or anything. But he made a stupid parenting move, and did it in such a way that millions of people have seen him do it. Not cool.

Dawn said...

Exactly, my dear Roo.

Listen, I have documented plenty of less than stellar parenting moments right here...yet I (hope) I have retained some sense that I am the ADULT, and as such need to be able to recover my shit a bit better than the child.

I get the whole "I can not believe you are bitching about having to do X...when it is so simple and really just part of living together as a family" - Really, I do. I say this as I have waged a day long campaign to get Em to put her clean clothes away. Not even Fold them, just Put them AWAY. After I have placed them on her Bed.

You are right on when you assess that he needed to be "Cool" in front of god knows who...and that I suspect that he is more than a little uncomfortable with his daughters burgeoning "womanhood"
(nothing like your dad toting a firearm to warn suitors away), and yet all he did - in my opinion, was make himself seem like a teen having a fit.

I know that the reactions that I witnessed - the "YOU GO DAD" stuff made me think "What the hell?" - since it seemed to play into some cultural trope about "teens today" - which is exactly That...a Trope.

Kids aren't any different - in a fundamental way. What is different is the opportunity to screw up on such a grand and public scale - for parent and child.

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