Thrill Ride of Parenting Teenagers

thrill ride of parenting teensPlace every thrill ride in Florida end to end as one long ride and they still could not scare, shake, rattle and roll, nauseate, induce screaming panic, disorient or to give that negative-G, freefall-in-the-dark experience like parenting teenagers. As a writer, I try to learn from my life experiences so I can portray my characters with more depth. Sometimes my life is so odd I don’t think readers will believe such experiences. Raising a teenager falls into that category of too weird to be true. The following comes from my journal.

Once my daughter was safely out of my sight in college, I staggered away from the recent years in search of a solid, level place to recover. I was reminded of a curse: May you live in interesting times. This essay is about one interesting event in that thrill ride known as parenting a teenage daughter.

My daughter’s freshman year of high school was marked as the time we most often denied ownership of Jessica, whose name means Gift of God. Conversations often began with “that child you wanted to have” or “your daughter” and followed with the shocking news of what she did. If she put off studying for an exam until the night before the exam, she was “her mother’s daughter.” Her struggles in math were attributed to my genetic influence. Her need to have the last word in an argument was chalked up to Hubby’s genetics even though his mother, father, sister, and grandmother were always gracious, patient endearing people as far as I could tell. Both Hubby and our daughter possessed a seriously dangerous belief that they could be right despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. As much as we tried to deny her, she was thoroughly a product of our genetics and our parenting, but other outside influences gradually took control of her. Forces of peer pressure and hormonal impulsiveness struck us like rogue tidal waves. We were at the mercy of forces greater than us and we sought refuge and peace in tiny increments to keep going.

We previously dreaded phone calls from telemarketers, but that year we welcomed them as a chance to chat with someone who wasn’t bringing us bad news about our daughter. We subscribed to twelve magazines and two newspapers that year through telemarketers. We didn’t have time to read them all. We were too busy separating truth from the lies we wanted to believe.

Like the time the little darling at fifteen years old started receiving calls from a friend of a friend whom she described as someone who “likes” her. She strategically omitted that this someone who likes her was twenty years old. Of course, she was flattered by the attention of an older man and never stopped to consider why a twenty-year-old man would pay attention to a minor. She lived in a world where she knew everything and adults were marginally functional idiots. We were kept around, tolerated I suppose, simply to tend to her needs.

By the grace of God, my husband and I discovered this 20-year-old someone’s identity and age before the relationship moved beyond kissing. The joker called our house at 11 p.m. on a school night and asked to speak with Jessica. Well, since her well-bred friends from grade school knew better than to call after 10 p.m. I assumed it was one of her new public high-school friends, the kind whose parents gave them the freedom to run the streets until 2 a.m.

“Who is this?”

“I am [name changed to protect his identity] Doofus, Jessica’s boyfriend.”

“Boyfriend? And how is it that we haven’t met you?”

“Well, we haven’t really been on a date yet, but we’re talking.”

In teen-speak, ‘talking’ didn’t mean talking like people do in conversation. It was the equivalent of having his posse talk to her posse in preparation for actually talking to one another. Consider “talking” as a meeting of the tribes. Once the couple actually met face to face on a date, the term changed to “hooking up” which could also mean that they were engaging in sex, but at this point in the conversation and Doofus’s relationship with Jessica I was not compelled to dump his bloody corpse at the police station.

“And which school do you attend?” I asked.

“I’m not in school.”

Silly me and my assumptions. “What does that mean, exactly?” Jail? Dropout?

“I’m twenty.”

“Well, Doofus, Jessica is fifteen. She might have told you she was older, but she’s fifteen.”

“She told me you were cool with our age difference.”

“She lied. Until a few moments ago, I didn’t know you existed, so how could I possibly be cool with an adult dating my minor daughter?” At this point in the conversation, my husband sat bolt upright in bed and held his hand out for the phone. I held up my palm to signal that I would take care of this.

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

“Yeah, you must know that you’re looking for trouble by fishing in the kiddie pool. I may be cool about not judging people, but honestly, as an adult, I have to tell you that you need to protect yourself. Parents will wonder why a twenty-year-old isn’t dating other twenty-year-olds.”

“Oh, Jessica’s real mature for her age.”

“Or you’re just immature for your age.”

“Why are you being mean to me?”

“I am treating you like an adult. Let me explain it in terms you can understand. My daughter is a minor and you are legally an adult. If you give my child a beer, a cigarette or have sex with her, then I will make sure you go to jail or the hospital and then to jail.”

“But she likes me.”

“Of course she likes you. Teenage girls are awed by the attention of adult males. But tomorrow you will call Jessica to break off this relationship.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“That’s true. Listen. If you were twenty-five and Jessica was twenty, I would have no business getting between you two because you would both be adults. So if this is real love, it can wait until Jessica grows up. Then she can make decisions like an adult. Until then, I am in charge of her welfare. And don’t assume that you can sneak around to see her even if she suggests it. This is a small town and news gets around eventually. If you continue to see her, then I will get a restraining order. Is that clear?”

“Yeah.”

“Goodbye.”

The next morning Doofus, the 20-year-old coward, called Jessica and blamed me for making him break up with her. Very mature. Jessica labeled me a hateful person and accused me of ruining her life. She really said those words just like a soap opera actress. Fortunately, Hubby was foraging in the fridge when Jessica stormed into the room.

“But I looooooove him,” she wailed.

“Perhaps you do. And when you’re a legal adult you two can run off to China if you want, but for now, you are a minor and he’s an adult. He could go to jail for dating you, so think of breaking up as a way of keeping him out of jail.”

“You just don’t understand.” She searched for support. “Dad?”

He shrugged out of the fight since I had volunteered to handle it.

“What is it exactly that I don’t understand?” I asked.

“We’re only five years apart.” She then pointed out two May/December marriages of our friends.

“That’s an excellent argument. Yes, sometimes people of different ages fall in love. However, they are all adults.”

“So? Five years doesn’t make a difference!”

“At your age five years is a huge difference.”

“Prove it.”

“Okay.” I held up my hands.

Hubby spewed cookie crumbs. “NO!”

“Honey, I got this,” I said.

parenting teensHubby stood by eager to countermand my decision if he disagreed with it. As the head of household, he had the right and duty to make executive decisions. This was one of the few times I wanted to assert my authority as Queen of the castle, to figuratively throw down my scepter to challenge the upstart princess.

I told Jessica, “You can prove that a five-year age difference doesn’t matter. You can date any ten-year-old you want.”

Her face contorted into gasping disgust as if she had found half a worm in her apple. Words swam in her head. Finally, she shuddered and spat out, “Oh, my God, mom. I could never date a boy in grade school.”

“That,” I said in a soft voice, “Is a five-year age difference.”

The realization struck her like a slap. She looked to Hubby for support and found him suppressing a grin. She took a deep breath and spun on a heel in retreat. She slammed every door she passed on the way to her room.

Hubby mimed applause while I took a bow.

To all my friends with teenagers, take heart. When you are in the midst of an estrogen or testosterone storm with your teenager, remind yourself that this time with them will pass. Perhaps like gallstones, but they shall pass. Keep your seatbelt securely fastened for the ride.

Postscript: This article was originally published in 2006. Today my daughter is married with children of her own and I get to enjoy a front-row seat as she and her hubby face the thrill ride of parenting.

Mom Rules

I have learned that teenagers live in the age of forgetting. Simple skills–even basic rules of civilized conduct–they mastered at age seven disappear at age 14, like closing doors, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’, putting things back where they found them, hanging clothes on hangers, using hampers, carrying dirty dishes to the kitchen. They forget where they put their belongings. They forget their given names and adopt nicknames like Moose, Bucky, Bubba, Skip, and Gator. They forget civilized behavior when it disagrees with what they want to do on the impulse of the moment—like telephoning a friend at midnight.

RulesAfter studying my daughter and her friends, I found that teens respond quicker to peer-pressure than to a parent’s decrees. To wit, I developed a method for using peer pressure to my advantage—to make Mom’s rules equally memorable and effective.

Teenagers are old enough to understand civilized behavior. They know better; they just don’t care. To make them care, I wait for them to make an egregious error and then name a rule after them. For example, the Emily Rule is that no one is allowed to drive the SeaDoo on the lawn. Doing so causes the loss of driving privileges. Sucking up dirt also damages the motor.

We have a home theater that seats seven and a small exercise room beyond the theater. I’d rather have the darlings at my home where I can watch them than worry about where they are, so we share our toys. Put teenagers in the dark, however, and anything can happen, so I made it my policy to occasionally open the door, offer to make popcorn and silently count heads. On one evening the count showed two missing. I strode through the movie room to the exercise room and found a pair of teens on the floor groping one another. This enacted the Megan/Scott Rule. Now when teens settle in for a movie, they hear me say, “The Megan/Scott Rule is in effect.” The students familiar with the policy explain it to the others.

Talk about a chilling effect. Teens want to be famous but not for dumb stunts. Fear of having a rule named after them works quite well. When Bucky, an 18-year-old who lives on his own, came to visit he brought over a giant convenience store cup. He’d always behaved wonderfully on previous visits, but this time he tried to smuggle in beer. It became suspicious when these germ-phobic teens passed the drink around. I intercepted it.

Bucky pleaded, “Oh, no. You’re not going to—“

“Pour it out? Yes. Name a new rule? Oh, yes.”

He groaned, apologized and then said, “Are you going to kick me out?”

“You’re welcome here without the beer.”

He hugged me. Perhaps he’d been kicked out of homes before. As we say, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

We recently held a going-away party for one of my daughter’s close friends. About thirty teens showed up to eat like locusts and sign a giant card. Near the end of the three-hour open house a few older boys showed up. They had accessorized their cars with the latest, most useless and expensive lights to illuminate the undercarriage and the stick shift and the headliner. The party moved outside where teens ogled the car. Others did flips and cartwheels on the lawn. One of the parents called to speak with her daughter, so I carried the cordless phone outside. That’s where I picked up the scent of marijuana.

I handed the phone to the girl and closed my eyes. The wind was blowing from the west, so I pivoted westward and started walking. Like a targeted missile I headed toward the bushes. The bushes suddenly shook and two older teens burst from them.

“We were just smoking,” said one who didn’t look at me.

“Do you have a note from your doctor?”

“Sorry?” Both looked up.

“Unless you’re being treated for cancer you’re not allowed to smoke marijuana on my property. It’s time for you to go home.”

“Who said we were smoking pot?” said the one with spiked hair. He glared at the other teens standing far off.

“I grew up in the sixties.”

They mumbled apologies and left. Before they had left the block a group of teens gathered around me and asked what I was going to do.

“I’m going to make a new rule. Since I didn’t get names, theirs is the Dope Rule. If this happens again I’ll call the police, so spread the word.”

Rules for TeenagersAnd yes, lest the gentle reader imagines that only visiting teenagers earn rules, let me state the Jessica rule. There will be no parties held at the house unless at least one parent is at home. The darlings cleaned up so well we almost didn’t detect the party, except for the drained boat tank and the rearrangement of pool furniture. Jessica was in full-denial mode until Bucky visited the next week and casually asked me if I was proud of how they cleaned up after themselves. The poor dear young man simultaneously received a pat on the back from me, and a kick in the shins under the table from Jessica.

Years from now when these young people graduate from the age of forgetting I hope they will remember the safe haven of my home. Mine won’t be the house they remember for the shooting or the Saturday night fights or the liquor closet. I hope they remember my house for the movies, the afternoons on the lake, the pizza parties, and the Rules. Perhaps they will even use my techniques on their own children. Let this be my legacy.

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Tampa Bay Sounding, a publication within the high-IQ organization Mensa. Yep, I am a card-carrying geek and proud of it.