As a bona fide member of Parents of Teen-agers Anonymous (PTA), I am as eager as anyone else for advice on how to run my halfway- to-adulthood house. So I was a natural reader for the article in the paper entitled: "How to Avoid Embarrassing Your Teen-ager."
The how-to research relayed in the article was nothing if not thorough. After surveying about 160,000 teen-agers, the authors reported that high on their roster of complaints about parents is that we embarrass them in front of their friends. There followed a list of several things they wish we wouldn't do. Among them were: (1) Don't reprimand them in front of friends, (2) Don't treat them like babies, (3) Don't make scenes in public places, (4) Don't act inappropriately.
All this sounded, at first, completely reasonable. Here at PTA, we learned that parents should be sensitive to their teen-age children. After all, they are as big as we are.
For example, one should not remark as your daughter comes downstairs to greet her date: "Susie, did you squeeze the pimple on the end of your nose?" Nor is it useful to tell your son's teammates that he still has his teddy bear in the closet.
Nevertheless, I found some disappointing kinks in the no-nos. Consider the first admonition: "Don't reprimand them in front of their friends." As any member of the PTA knows, this is the only place you can conceivably reprimand your teens, because this is the only place they are. Granted, your teen-ager is, on average, both alone and awake for approximately one hour a day. But that hour is spent in front of a mirror, and the door is locked.
Now consider the second piece of advice: "Don't treat them like babies." It is undoubtedly a good idea not to reach over and wipe your son's mustache at his college admissions interview. But a teen-ager's definition of being treated like a baby may differ from a PTA's. In my own observation, a 15-year-old who is not given permission to follow a six-city tour of the Grateful Dead on the back of a motorcycle will plead, "For gawdsakes, I'm not a baby anymore!"
But those are the easy ones. It's the last two "don'ts" that are apt to prove the most difficult for the PTAs: "Don't make scenes in public places. Don't act inappropriately." Both of these commands address the central problem here. In real life, we PTAs embarrass our teen-agers simply by our existence.
The typical teen-ager is an accomplished civil liberties advocate. He or she will defend the right to wear an orange Mohawk hairdo and a safety pin in the earlobe when visiting grandma. Heaven help the parent who notices something different.
Parents, on the other hand, must be on guard lest we utterly humiliate and rupture the self-esteem of our adolescents by being noticed. Here are the ways we can "make a scene":
(1) Laughing out loud.
(2) Talking out loud.
(3) Correcting the cashier, sniffing a cantaloupe at the supermarket, asking for a larger size.
It is even simpler to behave "inappropriately," since the teen-ager stakes out a territory that is his or hers, and any time an adult treads on it, it's "embarrassing." Therefore we are acting "inappropriately" if we:
(1) Listen to punk rock.
(2) Fall in love.
(3) Wear any article of clothing that can be found in Seventeen magazine.
What is going on here? you ask. The way the folks at PTA figure it, the same kids who once thought their parents were perfect now are convinced that their parents are hopeless. They are almost as critical of us as they are of themselves.
In the midst of that mental health crisis known as adolescence, they still identify with us. Anything weird we do reflects on them. They have not only inherited our complexion, nose or hair -- mea culpa! -- but perhaps could come down with congenital weirdness.
The True and Only Way Not to Embarrass Your Teen-Ager, short of foster care, is to sit quietly in the living room in an outfit that resembles the wall, turning the pages of Reader's Digest and responding to questions by quietly saying, "Yes dear, no dear." At worst, they'll think we're going through a stage.