Articles about parenting teens and tweens usually read like survival guides: How do we get through this without falling apart? How do we minimize the damage inflicted on family life by adolescence?
I wrote one of these last year, “Reliving Middle School in Middle Age,” about how quickly parents can tumble down the rabbit hole of middle-school social Darwinism. Let’s just say that the Texas Cheerleader Mom starts to seem a touch less fanatical when your kid is at the mercy of the popularity pecking order. Adolescents are hard-wired to form “tribes,” as Lisa Damour calls friend groups in her brilliant book “Untangled,” and tribes don’t get formed by broad empathy and inclusiveness.
But there’s another side to this story. Like all stages I’ve been through with my two daughters, I’m astonished by what adolescence is teaching me. As William Wordsworth wrote, “The child is father of the man.” When you have children in your life, you see the world through their eyes, and it can be more profound than simply re-living your childhood. A baby’s spontaneous laughter, the wonder a child finds in the simplest things, even the tears only a parent can soothe; there’s no doubt these experiences teach us how to live our lives differently and better.
Because it’s currently fashionable — and often helpful — to discuss the difficult parts of parenting, pointing out its positive lessons can feel corny. And while we can all agree that the cuteness of babies and toddlers is joy-inducing, I haven’t read much in a similar vein about parenting teens. Yet there is so much to learn from our adolescents, even when they are challenging.
Teens and tweens are biologically programmed to challenge us, to push boundaries and, apparently, to roll their eyes. It’s behavior that drives us crazy at the best of times, and makes us profoundly worried at the worst. Adolescents can be so volatile and unreasonable that we have no choice but to be the adults in the room. Yet so often, we are quietly suffering right alongside them. We’re subjected to the emotional distress of growing up all over again, while biting our tongues and pretending to be above all that. The magic kisses and special bandages we once applied to their skinned knees don’t work on bruised feelings, and when we try to empathize we are sometimes rudely rebuffed.
Even so, I’ve felt lately that even at this stage, an ability to see the world through my children’s eyes helps me negotiate my own path better. These lessons may differ from the simple shared joy of finding a shiny penny on the sidewalk or building a snowman, but they are deeper and more complex things that I suddenly see I am not too jaded to learn or relearn.
“Resilience” is the “self-esteem” of this child-rearing moment. It may have reached a tipping point already. In some places, it’s already being institutionalized and over-emphasized (and boy, did that happen quickly — thanks, Internet). No doubt it’s only minutes before we’re deluged by a wave of opposition research disputing the value of resilience, but I’m going to risk irrelevance by revealing how much my tween daughters are teaching me about this quality.
In sixth and seventh grade, popularity becomes a Thing, and whether or not you’re emotionally prepared for it, you’re going to have to deal with it (again). This is a shocking realization for many parents, who count among our blessings that we haven’t had to reckon head-on with popularity for several blissful decades. To be unwillingly returned to a land where popularity reigns is dismaying. Watching my children navigate the early days of middle-school popularity, however, has been surprisingly edifying.
One of my daughters was recently the object of a classic middle-school trick when she was ejected from a group of peers. She came home upset; needless to say, I was upset too. The way it happened felt sneaky and mean, especially coming from kids she’s known for years. But even on that first day, I noticed she was as angry as she was hurt. In the days that followed, although I suggested various ways to handle the aftermath, she picked her own path and stuck to it. She confronted the people by whom she felt betrayed and told them she’d never return to the group, even if asked. Several weeks later, she had moved on, having absorbed some valuable, if painful, experience from the whole episode. I had to force myself to move on as well, albeit with a lot of mental creakiness and groaning. Her eyes were opened to the kind of mean behavior she will see more of as she moves through school, but she felt she could overcome it. I was impressed with her ability to respond and rally, which frankly outstripped my own. I’m out of practice with rolling with the punches; I have to get my own resilience oiled up and working again.
Another lesson, courtesy of my children, concerns the limits of my influence. I don’t mean the times they won’t listen to my advice; I’m talking about the times when they shouldn’t. Occasionally, I’d hear of a kid feeling down and out and I might subtly suggest to my daughter that she include this classmate more in her group of friends. My motives were a mixture of wishing someone had rescued me in middle school and hoping my children would be the rescuing type. I was, or so I imagined, extremely vague in my insinuations. Yet one night, as I bent over one daughter’s head to kiss her good night, she whispered in my ear, “Mommy, you can’t choose my friends.” Of course she was right. While she should be empathetic to a classmate’s plight, reverse-engineering a friendship doesn’t work, and it isn’t my call to make. The days when I could pick my children’s playmates are over; now it’s up to them to find their tribes, and woe to the mama who tries to custom-fit a tribe around her child.
I’m trying to follow my tweens’ examples and bend to the breezes around me, even when they feel like gale-force winds. This is surprisingly difficult, partly because I haven’t had to do that for a long time, but even more because I feel the slings and arrows slung my children’s way so much more painfully than those thrown at me. I may have developed a (slightly) thicker skin over the years for myself, but I still want to leap in and protect my children from any hurt. By letting me know that they need to navigate their own way through this often turbulent time, my daughters are also reminding me how essential a strong sense of self can be. When you know who you are, and who your real friends are, you can face down an awful lot.
Although there are a million ways I’m stronger and more capable than an 11-year-old, one unexpected gift of this second trip through adolescence is relearning how much my values, and my sense of who I am, can be both my shield and my guiding light. Now I need to work on improving my own resilience before it falls out of fashion.
Zanthe Taylor is a mother, reader and lapsed dramaturg who writes about parenting and food.
You might also be interested in: