August 6, 2001

People are always asking me for advice regarding their teenagers. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they know that I have a daughter and was like a surrogate dad to a niece, and they lived with me during their teen years. All their teen friends thought I was the hippest dad around. I think that was because they could say almost anything around me and I didn’t flinch. Which was true mostly because I am not, nor have ever been, much of a flincher.

So I would have these very strange creatures hanging out at my pad. But the fact that I have experienced (and survived) teenagers does not make me an expert on them.

But one of the problems with teenagers is that they think that they are experts on being teenagers, when in fact they are not.

The truth is, teenagers were invented in 1934. (I don’t know what month.) Before that, people between the ages of twelve and nineteen were simply known as “cheap labor.”

Experience has taught me a thing or two about teens, but when parents ask me how to raise a teen, I usually tell them that we don’t raise teenagers — we just survive them.

Actually, the whole concept of raising children is kind of weird to me. It’s the word “raising” that gets me.

You “raise” plants, and do something else with children. We parent children in spite of the fact that almost none us have a clue as to how to parent anything.

Arguably the most important thing we do, and absolutely the most difficult and complex thing we do, is parent our children.

And if you think you’re ill equipped to deal with your teen, then take a look at the public schools. They’re no more organized to deal with the actual nature of children than a business is organized to protect the environment.

A number of years ago, I posed a question to the superintendent of one of our larger public school districts: what is the rationale behind the idea of having these kids sitting in chairs all day listening to somebody talk? During this time of their lives, teenagers’ emotions are running amuck, they have the energy of a moon rocket, their hormones are flying loop de loops, and their bodies just want to move.

I can’t tell you what this superintendent actually said, but the first word began with the letter “F” and the second word was “you.” I took that as a kind of inverse way of acknowledging that I might just make some sense, and a definitive way of his saying no, he was not about to deal with it.

Okay, I will quit picking on public schools before my mother who is an ex-teacher and ex-high school librarian, decides to never talk to me again.

Speaking of parents, I think that one of the first things we should do when we finally mature and recognize what we were like as teenagers is to go to our parents and apologize. If you can’t get yourself to apologize, at least promise never to do it again before you ask them to let your teenagers stay with them for the weekend.

Teenagers today are both remarkably similar to and remarkably different from the way teens were back when I myself was one. There are things they do today that I just don’t have an explanation for.

No, I don’t know what the boy teen thing is with the baggy pants hanging so far down on their hips that at least half the length of the crack of their butt is hanging in the wind. I don’t get that one.

I also don’t get the tattoo thing — unless the tattoo is a way of reminding the world that the kid thinks he or she is as unique as the tattoo.

Then we have piercing — my kid and niece both did that. My niece had an earring in her nose, which I guess is called a nose ring. My daughter had an earring in her lip — I could not look at her face for two weeks. Then, when I finally sort of got used to it, it was gone.

So I said, “Honey, your lip ring is gone.”

She said, “You’re happy about that, huh pop?”

“Yup,” I responded. But then she stuck out her tongue, which had a bronze bolt the size of the George Washington Bridge in it. I think I said something like, “Yarg!” Around this time, my niece had a friend with a bolt through her naval.

I asked my kids if they thought this stuff was attractive and they couldn’t understand why I didn’t. After my kid showed me the bolt through her tongue, I asked her what was with this body mutilation.

She said, “What mutilation, pop? Pop, do you have trouble with earrings? Isn’t that body mutilation?”

I hate it when kids outsmart me. I said, “That’s different.” She asked why. Then I said, “Yarg!” again.

Next, my kid told me about how her friends pierced places in the body that you couldn’t see even when they had their clothes off. I am going to leave that one to your imagination — although, personally, I have been trying to get that out of my imagination for years. My kid offered to buy me a book on body piercing throughout history, so that I could better appreciate it. I gave her my best death stare and told her to forget about it.

Here’s another thing: I don’t know why teens walk into the living room and just drop their coat on the middle of the floor. (And I should understand that one, because sometimes I do the same thing.)

A teenager’s relationship to school is so different than in my day. I recall my kid bringing home a report card with two Ds. I asked her what was her problem with these two classes. You won’t believe her answer: she told me that she just didn’t like the teacher of one class and that the teacher of the other was boring, and therefore those Ds were okay. It was the teachers’ fault, apparently.

All I could think of was what would have happened if I had come home with a report card like that and told my parents that the problem was I that didn’t like my teachers. After they got up from the floor from laughing, they would have killed me.

No, I don’t know why kids think that their grade is connected to how much they like the teacher. I also don’t know why so many teens think that attending any given day of school is optional.

I also don’t get Mohawks or purple hair with phosphorescent green tint, unless it stems from a desire to be more visible at night. Now to tell the truth, I think a Mohawk hairdo is pretty ugly. But I also remember what girls did when I was a teen — they called them bouffants, I think. Their hair would stand about a foot high and a foot wide, with enough hairspray on it to stand the leaning tower of Pisa straight. Us guys used to wonder what kind of insects lived in those hairdos. When making out in those days, I couldn’t run my fingers through a girl’s hair; I had to more or less slide my hand around the thing on her head.

I don’t understand combat boots or these heavy, luggy black boots called Doc Martens. They are ugly and awfully heavy to be dragging around all day. And my kid still wears them. The upside of the combat boot thing is that my kid was really cheap to dress. About once a year, she would hit me up for $25 so she could go to the Army-Navy surplus store and get another supply of combat boots.

As for drugs and alcohol: the fact is, we drank when I was a kid. As teens, my friends and I had never really heard of drugs, but I have no doubt we would have tried them if we had. So I have nothing at all to say about teens and drinking and drugs. If you are a parent and you are worried that your kid might be drinking or using drugs, my advice is that you start drinking or doing drugs until you just don’t care. It may be unhealthy, but we are talking about staying sane here.

I do remember one attempt we made to do drugs. One day, I was hanging out in my room with my friend Johnny when our pal Cookie shows up all excited claiming that he had just bought a leaf of this stuff called marijuana. Cookie pulls out this giant green leaf — which, in retrospect, I realize looked an awful lot like a maple tree leaf, but what did we know. It took us a while to figure out how to smoke it. Finally, we just rolled it up and puffed away. Than we spent a long time trying to decide if we felt anything. I felt a lot like a maple tree, but didn’t say anything about it because I didn’t want Cookie to be embarrassed about the fact that somebody had just ripped him off. Just know that you can’t get high on maple tree leaves — stick to the syrup.

There are things parents do with their teens that I don’t understand. Spending time with them is one of those things. Do you really think your teen wants to go on vacation with you? If you are a father and you tell your son that you want to do some bonding, I guarantee the kid is thinking, “There he goes again,” as his brain starts to fill with excuses about all of the other things he has to do.

I don’t understand parents who buy their sixteen- or seventeen-year old a brand-new car. Typically, they run their first two or three cars into the ground or a wall or another car anyway. Not only that, but insuring a seventeen-year old will kill you even if watching them drive doesn’t.

But there are some things that I do understand about teenagers.

The teen years are a special age of transition — the transition from being a child to becoming an adult. It is the time of life when we begin to know that we are separate from our parents. We need to feel separate, like we have some power over our own lives. Childhood is about being totally dependant on the parents, while teenage DNA demands that they begin to break that dependence. The teen years are really preparation for adulthood.

So when we say “No,” they say “Yes.” When we say “Up,” they say “Down.” They have to — it is the only way to establish that they are no longer an extension of their parents. It’s the time of life when they are beginning to become socialized and learning to be with their peers, who are much more interesting than their parents.

Now is their time to test themselves against reality, to explore it before they are tied down to real jobs and families of their own. So they experiment, in part to find out who they are, what they like, what they dislike and how they are. And they know that their experimentation with life is a way of separating themselves from their parents, who prefer that they don’t experiment with anything.

For all the childhood years, parents are the absolute authority. Teens are faced with the dilemma of how to have authority over their own lives. Psychologists call this “differentiation.” Kids need to defy the authority that we hold over them.

On the other hand, they really do want to be loved, which puts us parents in a bind: how do we let them know that we really do love them when they are making us insane?

This can really mess us up, because when we finally allow ourselves to love and accept our teen, they decide that our acceptance is just another parental control trip. So they get busy finding new ways to be unacceptable, and then complain that we don’t accept them.

When you get right down to it, it is a no-win situation for the parent.

I came up with this idea once and tested it on my kid by suggesting that the federal government should establish camps for teens all over the country. These camps would have schools, recreation and even ways for the kids to experiment and be defiant. Every thirteen-year old would be drafted for the next six years and sent to one of these camps. Parents would have visiting rights — but only if the kid okayed it. My daughter was with me right up until I told her about the heavy electric fencing around the camp, but I still think the idea has merit.

Over the years, my daughter, niece and some of their friends would regularly invite me to their parties. I still know most of them, and you know what? For all of my worry, for all my anxiety, they have all turned out to be fine young men and women.

Here’s my advice: have faith that your kids will turn out okay. Raising a teenager is about letting go until you think you can’t bear to let go anymore, and then letting go again.

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