The Secret of a Good Life With Your Teenager

By Angela Barron McBride, PhD

(Times Books, 1987) 198 pp., $16.95

One of the more striking phenomena found during a stroll through a modern bookstore is the number of self-help books written by psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, charlatans, gurus, crusaders, proselyters, priests, rabbis, doctors, nurses, dietitians, food faddists, simple lunatics, recovered and sometimes not recovered alcoholics and addicts and assorted normal, borderline and over-the-edge neurotics.

Among such books are a thousand titles or more on how to deal with that most mysterious of all human beings (or, as some might choose to believe, subhumans), the teen-ager, that conglomerate of hands and feet and hair and mouth and nerve endings engineered to come into full flower (as in poison oak) just as the parents are beginning to enter their own middle years of crisis, confusion and conflict.

Now, it has been some time since I was involved in the parenting (oh, hateful yuppie word) of anybody, but I did my share of it with three people, now purported adults, who passed through my co-stewardship during their teens at regular but overlapping intervals of about two years. And of course I went through my own teen years, which began just as I finished being 12 and ended, emotionally speaking, around the age of 47, give or take three or four years. My mother had been no better equipped to deal with me and my sister, two years my senior, than my wife and I had been to deal with the three aforementioned progeny. All of us had been as well-prepared to rear children as is a forest aborigine.

These self-help books of which I speak generally have as a common denominator the idea that you and I have it in our power to Make Something Happen. Make Something Happen with nine steps to a fuller figure, 16 ways to lose weight while shopping, 10 paths to controlling your destiny, the harnessing of self-esteem for fun and profit, eating trees or pumping iron or bending spoons or aerobic break-dancing, living with the anorexic, three roads to safe and sane sex, the yammering of cause and effect and rules and lists and suggestions and charts and graphs and chants, counting and breathing techniques and grappling therapy and primal scream and on and on, into the rarefied air of Eastern Mysteries.

Which is why I wanted to tell you about "The Secret of a Good Life With Your Teenager" by Angela Barron McBride, PhD.

This is a loving book written by a woman who has chosen to be a channel of understanding and tolerance, and it doesn't have any lists or rules or checkpoints. There are no graphics, no visual aids, no "danger signals," no hotline telephone numbers, and, of course, no easy way out. The only way out of the teen years, it turns out, is through them.

Did you ever think of that?

I just want to laugh myself sick when I recall the years I spent worrying about my children's future teen-age years, and then the years I went through those years with them wondering from day to day when it was that all the awful things

I'd read and heard about would happen, and then one day realizing that those things hadn't happened and wouldn't now.

In passing, let me be quick to tell you, McBride lays to rest many of the conventional horror stories about teen-agers by reminding us that the kids of the baby boom magnified, through sheer numbers, the conflicts and tensions of one generation apparently pitted against another. Take away the numbers, she says, and the problems automatically reduce to no-larger-than-life proportions.

The Elizabethan dramatists considered children to be, well, small adults; people, except little ones. And that seems to be the trouble modern adults have with the second decade of parenthood: Teen-agers are neither small adults, with the responses and actions of the mature, in somewhat miniaturized form, nor large babies, who have to be told when to tie their shoes, when to blow their noses, when to go out and when to come in. They are, instead, human beings in the process of becoming.

And McBride tells you in this beautifully written book that you are going to have to accept that you have a child who is growing into adulthood, and that you will have to take this transformation not only a day at a time, but on a case-by-case basis, with no easy answers, no rules and no real generalities. In short, you will be getting a large dose of reality in "The Secret of a Good Life With Your Teenager."

Rather than giving you a stock response when your teen-ager goes snotty on you, McBride gives an example of such sassiness, and then an example of how one parent reacted, as a way of showing not a "proper" reaction but of opening up the possibility that there is a response other than one of hopelessness, hand-wringing and/or fear. The answer seems to lie in letting go of the child rather than trying to continue to control him in ever tighter circles.

"The central dilemma of parenting {that word again} during these years," McBride writes, "is that you have to transfer power over to your child during a time when you remain constantly reminded that you are ultimately responsible for anything that may go wrong. If you do not gradually empower the child to make her own decisions, she will not have learned how to do so when she reaches her majority. It is irresponsible to prevent her from growing up, but you want to postpone it until she is more responsible. But she will never act more responsibly until she is expected to be responsible . . . The key is to link increments in power with proof of increased responsibility."

Now this is nothing new; what is vital in this book is that in the transfer of this power from parent to emerging adult, McBride brings to her pages the joy of watching -- and being a part of -- the process of maturation, and coming to the gifts of unconditional love, true tolerance and a strong understanding of another human.