Thursday, August 16, 2007

Remembering What It's Like

It's hard to know what it means to be a good parent. Like so many other things in life that really matter, there is no standard textbook of website that gives parents the answers they need, so much of the parenting task is really based on intuition and instinct. And much of that, for better or worse, results from our own patterns that developed while we were growing up. With young children it's not difficult to evaluate our parenting skills. As they are learning to walk we guide them, then eventually free them to stagger forth in their first steps of independence. When it's time to start pre-school or kindergarten we can just our parenting acumen by the degree to which we release our child's care into the hands of another trusted adult. In grade school we make some assessments (right or wrong) about our parenting based upon how well our son or daughter complies with our appropriate requests about bedtime, snacks or homework.

But when adolescence visits our home, first sporadically as an occasional guest and then consistently as a household intruder, it is much more difficult to know whether our parenting role is effective or helpful or rewarding. Relying as we did in the first years of our child's life on intuition or instinct is not always a very useful mode, because so much changes in our relationship with our child. Although the changes creep up on us over a number of years, it always seems like a surprise the first time the angry, tear-filled words greet our ears: "I hate you. You are the most embarrassing, most disgusting parent I know. All my friends think you're too strict, too." (The sentence is not always worded this way, but the vehemence with which it is delivered is pretty typical across the teenage landscape).

With all of its fury and confusion, the landscape of adolescence is littered with unwelcome changes, relational questions and an unidentified disregard for all that has been familiar. It is these years that parents, more than ever, need to remember their own teenage years and at least find some moments of compassion, reflecting upon how difficult they can be. There is the temptation on the part of parents to throw up our hands in frustration, relinquishing complete autonomy to the emerging child-adult. Parents are often preoccupied with proving that they are right, to the damage of the changing relationship. (I like what our friend Pat O'Brien, Director of You Gotta Believe!, an adoption agency in Coney Island, NY, says: "If the choice is to be right or to be kind, always be kind" ... I've paraphrased, but you can hear the meaning).

Our daughter who will soon be a high school freshman causes me to remember what it's like to be a teenager. Externally she has all the reasons in the world to be happy -- she is attractive, gifted in athletics, gets good grades, knows how to relate socially with friends. Internally, however, she is a different person -- moody, vacillating between anger and giddiness, doubtful, perplexed, irritated. While she has never taken a personality inventory, her resuls would probably indicate that she is most like her father, an introvert with deep feelings and a fairly "grey" (versus black and white thinking) worldview. I think sometimes that's why I do my best to keep my distance from her these days. It reminds me too much of my own dispiriting adolescence, and I'm not sure I want to relive that pain (or have that pain inflicted upon me) all over again. When I was her age I wanted to be left alone so that I could crawl into the protective womb of my existence (as an introvert it really isn't as much about social isolation as finding the time to simply have some space from others), so I try not to invade her life. I remember what it's like, and I hope my distance isn't perceived by her as rejection.

It's one of those ambiguous moments as a parent of a teenage daughter. Since my wife is most involved with our daughter's life, I don't want to overwhelm her with dual parental inquiry, but at the same time I often wonder if I'm being irresponsible. To afford her to emotional space I think she requires might be perceived by some as an aloof, uncaring relationship. But sometimes I think the most meaningful gift I can offer her is to simply give her the space she seems to need.

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