Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tips on Raising Teenage Boys (or, "How to Push a Rope Up a Hill")

I'm probably not the best one to give you this advice, or I may be the best person in the world to give you this advice. I've always done things the hard way in my life, and rarely done them right the first time. I second-guess every decision I make and have the confidence of a one-legged man in a three legged race. And single parenting for the past 10 years hasn't given me the luxury of a sounding board to check in with for a consensus.


Looking back on my now six years as a parent of a teen - and a tough six years at that - and coming up on two years with the second one, I feel compelled to share some tips with you that might make this venture into Hades a little less hot. And note that I have two boys, so I'm speaking of them, since I know that having teen girls is a whole other hell that I've been blessed not to experience. Yes, I prayed to have boys. I was sure if I had a girl she'd be just like me, and nobody - including me - wants that. So anyway, this advice speaks to those badass moms of boys, God have mercy on your souls.

Seize the moment
When your kids become teenagers, it's like the body of that cute little kid who smelled like baby and felt like a silk blanket has been possessed by a hormonal, sullen, messy and incredibly odoriferous demon. It's your job to realize this, and know that if you look hard enough, that cute kid who brought you a handful of dandelions and called you "Mommy" and loved you so VERY much is still in there somewhere, and may in fact appear randomly from time to time. He might ask if you want to watch a TV show with him. Or let you sit next to him on the couch. Or do something the first time you ask him. Or robotically respond, "Love you too" when you tell him you love him. When he does this, don't make a big deal about it or you'll scare the spirit. Simply enjoy the moment until it passes. Don't blink. It'll be pretty quick.

Let him test the waters
Give him freedom. I mean, "I'm 16, for God's sake, Mom. I'm practically an adult." There is no correct response to this. Of course, the correct response to ME would be, "Actually, Honey, your prefrontal cortex - you know, that piece of brain right behind your forehead that's involved in complex decision making? Well, yours is not yet developed enough to be capable of the kind of reasoning that allows most grownups like me to make rational decisions." But I can't say that. Because I'm stupid. Just ask my teen.

However, it's easy to go along in life looking at your kid like he's still 10 years old. During the teen years, you need to let loose of the leash a little bit so they can figure out what they're made of. What they can handle. What they do when they can't handle it. And this is dicey for the mom, because I have to gauge when to step in and when to just watch from the sidelines like a huge-ass linebacker is bearing down on my kid and he doesn't even see it yet. I just kind of close my eyes, hope for the best, and mentally make a grocery list of all his favorite foods he can eat while he's recovering.

On the other hand, don't be an idiot. That prefrontal cortex thing is a real thing. Teenagers can be really, really stupid. It's our job to walk that thread-thin, fine line between, "Sure, honey, you can have a sleepover at your buddy's house" and "Sure, honey, you can go camping with those two boys and three girls." Lots of factors involved there. Lots to ponder. Is the sleepover at the buddy's house really just a sleepover at the buddy's house? Do you call the parents? Will they sneak out and go do something that's not a good idea at all? And if they do, is that just a rite of passage and you should just look away?  And the camping thing. Will there be an adult?  Should there be an adult? Is this kid a good kid? What's the deal with these two boys and three girls? Do you have condoms? WHY DO YOU HAVE CONDOMS? Thank GOD you have condoms. WHY DO YOU HAVE CONDOMS?????????

This is why I say "giving freedom" is a dicey issue. And absolutely exhausting, especially if you're me, who second guesses every decision I make. But you have to give them the freedom to an extent, or they'll take it themselves, and that won't go over well for a lot of reasons you don't want to think about but that I have had to deal with firsthand.

Don't be Mighty Mouse
OK, if you're old enough to know the theme to this cartoon, raise your hand. "Here I come to save the day!" was MM's go-to phrase. It doesn't apply to teenagers - not completely. If I made one mistake (and I made THOUSANDS) it's that I saved my oldest son from too many situations. I was momma-raised in the period where you breast fed forever, wore your baby until your back gave out, and didn't reprimand him for fear you would "wound his spirit." What bullshit.

If you want your kid to have a backbone and be independent and learn to do things for himself, you can't be late for work because you had to rush to school and drop off his homework. You can't call his coach and ask him why he doesn't play more on the baseball team. You can't completely change your plans because he said he'd walk home from his friend's house and now it's raining and you feel the need to go get him so he won't get wet. And don't sigh, roll your eyes and be the martyr because you asked him to take the garbage out/clean his room/fold the laundry/walk the dog and do it yourself. Well, walk the dog, probably. But the rest? My son once told me, "Mom, I know if I don't do this stuff, it'll drive you crazy and you'll end up doing it." He may be stupid, but he's no dummy.

Learn how to talk - er, I mean, listen
I have learned a great deal in the past year and a half about how to better communicate with both my sons. I have learned a few reasons why (other than the fact that I'm "Mom") they don't come to me about things. Namely because I'm Mom. And in the past, I lectured them ad nauseum. Because I'm Mom, and that's what moms do, right? Yeah, no. Lecturing is about as effective as spraying Roundup on your lawn and thinking it'll just kill the weeds. It won't. It will kill your whole lawn. And don't ask me how I know this.

Anyway, first rule here: Listen. Best piece of advice I ever received: "There is rarely anything in life that requires an immediate response." My son might be complaining about a situation with a friend. Instead of jumping in and solving the problem for him, I don't say a word, except an occasional, "Huh" or "Really?" to let him know I'm listening. Or I'll ask him what he thinks his options are to solve the problem (all the while biting my already-bleeding tongue because I of course COULD solve the problem for him.) Most of the time if I just listen, he will work it out on his own. Then I give him kudos for doing it, in a casual, "Looks like you figured it out - good job" kind of way, and pat myself on the back for doing something right for a change.

My oldest son LOVES to push my buttons. He says things under the guise that he is being "open and honest" when really he just wants to delight in my overreaction. I'm onto this. Whereas in the past, "I'm getting a tattoo" would have led me on a 10-minute tirade as to WHY he should not get a tattoo and how he hates needles and does he remember how many nurses it took to hold him down when he needed his yearly shots, the last time he broke this news I simply said, "Huh."

Same when he said he was getting a motorcycle. And changing his name. He knows how I feel about these things. He's not expecting me to say, "Now THAT is a great idea!" And the thing is, he's going to (potentially) do it whether I freak out or not. When he's 18. And with his own money. And when he's not under my roof anymore. And when he doesn't have the money to pay for what he's supposed to pay for, he'll have his own consequences. He doesn't need them from me at this point.

On the other hand, my younger son does still talk to me about a lot of things. And maybe from what I've learned from my first boy, I've been a bit more successful in communicating with my second. The thing is, it's all about place and presentation. You can't expect your son to spill his guts to you when you require a mandatory meeting with him and stare at him at the kitchen table. Gulp. Ain't nobody got time for that.

My son's and my best conversations usually happen in the car, when we're not looking at each other. And yes, I still employ the advice mentioned above, and truly try to listen. If he does have a dilemma, I ask him what he thinks he could do to solve it. Or if he can't do it on his own, who could he go to? If he is truly in a bind, I tell him, "If you don't find a solution on your own and you want my help, let me know." And you know what? He's come to me with a school friend issue, for example, and said, "Mom, I figured things out on my own." BOOM. Life Skills 101: Instructor: MOM. Grade: A+.

Miscellaneous Jedi teachings
Teach him to do laundry. Show him how to cook basic items at a relatively early age. If he loses or breaks something expensive like a phone or an iPad or whatever other stupid technology these kids who have no business with this technology insist they must have, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T JUST BUY HIM A NEW ONE.

Have him volunteer. Tell him to get a job as soon as he's able. He needs to see how the workforce is and what is expected of him above and beyond, "Make your bed," "Mow the grass" or "Clean your room." Make sure he's polite, which should have already been instilled in him but is sometimes forgotten in those selfish teen years. He opens doors for people. He looks people in the eye and shakes their hand. He helps old ladies or men with their groceries. Whatever. There's no excuse - even teenagerdom - for not being a respectful gentleman.

Last very important piece of advice
KNOCK. Always. You'll thank me for this one, I promise.

There's so much more, but reliving the teenage years in prose is almost as exhausting as living them in real life. The thing is, it's a crap shoot. You might be lucky enough to have your teen continue to like you and acknowledge your existence - and if you do, consider yourself blessed. But based on my experience, following these pieces of advice won't make your teen LIKE you anymore, but you'll be more tolerable to him and most importantly, it will take a bit of the burden off of yourself. Because you're gonna need your strength when they turn 18, move away, and all you can do is watch ... and worry ... and love from a distance ... and hope you did the best you could.