I refuse to accept the premise that, in modern society, all teenagers rebel. I remember reading somewhere, or maybe hearing, that teenage rebellion is a modern construct, rarely seen in society before the 20th century. (If anyone has a reference for this, please share it in the comments below.) That means it is not an essential part of growing up. Therefore, I am conducting a long-term experiment on my own children.
There’s a really funny YouTube video about the Toyota Sienna. If you haven’t seen the “Swagger Wagon,” check it out *here*. At one point, they speak-sing, “Where my kids at? Where my kids at?” Then the husband turns around to his wife and says, “No seriously, honey, where are the kids?” (In the interest of full disclosure, I was dragged into the purchase of a Toyota Sienna—our second minivan—but I decided to embrace it and ‘own’ this country-singers-cover-Motley-Crue and rap music-sells-minivans state of my life now. You know what I mean.)
It seems to me that many parents turn around one day when their children are fifteen or sixteen and say, “Where are my sweet little children that used to tell me everything? Why do they seem so closed? Why do they demand but never give?” Here’s my theory: We really ‘lost’ our kids a long time before this. Stick with me here. I need to paint a picture.
Back when they were babies, we had to do everything for them. Just in the everyday acts of changing diapers, putting on clothes, giving baths, and feeding green peas, we engaged them in conversation (albeit stream-of-conscience, entirely one-sided, and utterly inane) and gave them significant amounts of attention. On top of that, we spent one-on-one time reading to them, talking to them, singing to them and whatever else the pediatrician-of-the-day said was good for their cognitive and muscular development. (Baby yoga anyone?) We talked to them almost constantly and thrilled to hear them utter semi-coherent monosyllabic words. “He said ‘Mama’—I’m sure of it!”
When they became slightly more independent, they still required a great deal of attention from us: “Which video do you want to watch?” “No, you can’t wear your Superman costume to Sunday School, and yes, you have to wear underwear.” We imbibed the deluge of information propounding that these were the critical years, so we read to them religiously because it was essential to brain development, and we showed education videos in very limited quantities. (Baby Einstein made how many millions?) They still needed help with the hard things–like wiping their bums or washing their hair. And let’s just be honest, they didn’t have a lot of independent thoughts beyond their immediate wants and needs. “Need-a go potty!” is not a great conversation starter. If there was a conversation of any significance, the parent started it; the parent controlled it; the parent finished it. We enjoyed their increasing independence . . . partly because we might actually get to wash our own hair without interruption. As a matter of fact, Elmo’s World was the background music of my quiet time for at least two years.
But then they started school. Not long after that, they began choosing their own clothes and even (occasionally) blowing their own noses. They could make choices about what to play. They could read. What does a ‘good parent’ do at this critical juncture? Up to this point, being a good parent meant serving them. It was a physical, measurable thing. But now they don’t need us for those things. So we substitute, staying in that gear where good parenting equals meeting physical needs. How do we make that tangible? We drive them to music lessons, ball practice, martial arts, children’s choir, and too many birthday parties to count. We push them to eat their broccoli and minimize desserts. We forbid rated-R movies and check their video games at Plugged-In. We feel like we’re doing the right thing.
Suddenly at this stage, they have things they want to talk about. But those things are BORING. I do not have and have never had a favorite DC Comics superhero and I have absolutely no interest in debating the superiority of DC over Marvel. I can’t tell the difference between this Barbie and that one. I don’t CARE who pushed whom on the playground, as long as it wasn’t my kid. Plus, they tend to tell the same story over and over. So we turn them off. We tune them out. Now we’re the ones offering mono-syllabic responses at what we hope are appropriate interludes. Or we interrupt them with entirely unrelated questions such as, “Did you feed the dog?” or “What happened to this homework paper? Was there a flood at school today?” It doesn’t take them long to catch on to our lack of interest. Their fall-back position is naturally selfish, namely, Mom and Dad are here to serve me: supply my needs, give me everything I want, and take care of my problems for me. It’s not that we quit talking to our kids. It’s that we don’t quit talking long enough to listen. We preach. Go ahead; admit it. Even that line above about the flood at school was veering toward the ‘preachy’ side. So either they carry on one-sided conversations or we do, when what they really need is dialogue, a.k.a. ‘convos’ (my eleven-year-old just informed me of this slang).
Eventually, they become teenagers. (Okay, this is where I have to combine the overheard experiences of others because we’re not quite there in my house. Like I said, this is an on-going experiment.) The fact that they are learning to think for themselves is GOOD. We want that. It’s kinda the point of growing up. And we give them more freedoms because that’s what you’re supposed to do. However, they have been operating more-or-less independently for a few years now—at least emotionally and relationally—with Mom and Dad functioning as little more than stagehands while the kids “strut and fret their hour upon the stage” (sorry, Shakespeare). But now, the consequences have increased. They can drive. They can get pregnant (or get someone pregnant). They have access to all sorts of not-good-for-them things. And sometimes, even the good kids make really bad choices.
Where are we, the parents, when something happens? We say, “What were you thinking? Why didn’t you talk to me about that first? You know you can talk to me about anything!” And we mean it. We really do, but for years we have inadvertently judged their conversations as irrelevant. Thus, our words carry no weight . . . or worse, they sound hypocritical.
If the teenage child could really voice what is in his heart, he might say this: “Oh yeah? You haven’t listened to me since I was eight. Why should I think you wanted to hear about this? I thought your job was to take care of me and drive me around while I figured all this out by myself.”
At this point, we must all resist the temptation to say, “Well, I wiped your dirty butt!” because that fact is not a valid reason for him to listen to you now. Sorry.
We CANNOT let our children think that they have to figure out the world on their own! How horribly lonely and scary for them . . . how parentally disappointing of us. Perhaps some of what we call rebellion is actually their ignorant (in the best possible sense of the word) attempts to wrangle their tempestuous lives.
I heard Josh McDowell say, “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.” (I don’t remember where I read this, and someone else said they heard it from another person, so I don’t know the actual source of the quote. Again, happy for someone to clarify in the comments below.) In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell observes, “People who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice—that if they speak up, they will be heard.”*
My hypothesis is this: If I can stay conversationally and intimately engaged in the lives of my kids through these not-so-interesting years, perhaps it will pay off in teenagers who are used to talking to me about their lives . . . and listening to me. Maybe that will help.
So, for the record, my favorite DC superhero is Black Widow; I have my reasons, if you want to hear them sometime. I prefer NERF Elite weapons over Zombie Strike (because I don’t like anything having to do with zombies). And I can tolerate exactly two episodes of Madagascar Penguins before I feel like my brain is melting. When the day-to-day thought processes of my eight-year-old become too ridiculous for me to fathom, I think back to that night last week when we had this really great conversation about how God was never born and has always existed. I WILL stay engaged in his life so that, when the challenges increase and the fingers of independence begin to squeeze on his heart, he has someone to walk beside him and help him “figure out” this crazy world.
*Full quote: “Legitimacy is based on three things. First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice—that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today. And third, the authority has to be fair. It can’t treat one group differently from another.” from David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. New York: Little Brown, 2013. 207-208. Gladwell points out the application for parenting.