“Are you going to the party like that?” I ask my 17-year-old daughter as she walks into the kitchen on a Saturday evening. Her long, coarse, unwashed curls sit atop her head like a tangle of office charging cords. She wears Birkenstocks with socks, nylon running shorts and her robotics team T-shirt. She has worn this shirt on and off for five days. Maybe four — I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t know. You had mentioned a group chat invitation?”
“Oh. I’m not going.”
“’There’s going to be drinking and drugs, and I’m not into it.”
“But your friends wanted you to go with them?”
“They can go if they want to.”
“Go. I’ll drive you.”
“I already told you I’m not.”
I never thought I’d be urging my daughter to attend parties with drinking, drugs and who knows what else, but if she doesn’t experiment now, in the safe space of a nurturing high school and a loving home, won’t she be awkwardly out of step with her peers when she starts college next year?
She is not the daughter I expected would develop from the 5-year-old version of herself who wore coordinated pastel outfits and danced with abandon while mariachis played on Olvera Street, or the 11-year-old version who created a birthday-party business with friends and spent weekends shuttling from one friend’s house to another’s. The current teenage version of my child is a homebody and self-declared nerd. Her fascination with geometric principles in math and nature leads her to late nights and weekends reading Wikipedia as if it were a thriller, and making origami triambic icosahedrons out of multicolored sticky notes instead of partying.
It’s not for lack of opportunities. She’s frequently invited to parties but prefers smaller “kickbacks” with her inner circle. She ignores group-text invitations in which conversations circulate the week beforehand about who will bring what types of alcohol and pot and how much. She likes Saturday nights in, setting herself up with ear buds, a Spotify playlist, Cheez-Its and the ever-alluring Wikipedia, happily hosting a party of one.
At the annual robotics competition, she quietly boasts to me that her team is the school’s only extracurricular team of any kind that doesn’t get “the lecture” from the principal about curfew, proper decorum in hotels and keeping their hands to themselves.
My daughter’s hands are so occupied with computer keyboards, pencils, power tools and robotic parts that she is completely disinterested in human body parts, crushes, dating, kissing or anything beyond. She turns down dates because, “Why would I want to go to the movies with him? We already spend three hours together every day in the robotics lab. Why do we need to spend more time together outside of school? I’d rather see my other friends if I have free time, which, by the way, I don’t.”
I explain to my book-smart baby that when someone likes you, and you like him, there is more to do than just talk.
“I know, Mom! But I don’t want things getting weird. We need to focus on the robot.”
Not able to leave the topic alone, I venture into her room and again beg her to attend the party. I offer to pay for an Uber and I encourage her fashionable younger sister to help her put an outfit together.
“Mom! What is up with you? All my friends’ parents are freaked out about their kids going and are putting curfews and all kinds of things to discourage them, and here you are pushing me to go.”
What is up with me? Are her choices that unsound? Today’s teens differ from when I was a teen in the 1980s. I’ve read the articles and experienced it firsthand with my children and their friends. They prefer texting to talking, Uber to driver’s licenses, and video games to board games. I celebrate the declining rates at which teens are having sex; nevertheless, I want my daughter to get herself out there, date, have her heart broken or break someone else’s.
Is she isolating herself to her own detriment? The truth is that although she isn’t the life-of-the-party teenager I expected, she is hauntingly familiar.
When I was her age, I hung out mainly with one close friend, color-coded my class notes and never partied or touched trouble. On Saturday nights, you would find me alone in my room making mix tapes. My parents never seemed to notice or care what that might have indicated about me: that I did not have the confidence or opportunities to get out of the house.
College was an awkward awakening. The first frat party I was lured to, just a few days into freshman year, turned me off from ever attending another one. Nothing bad happened, I just hated the whole scene: people pressed against each other, cheap alcohol in red plastic cups, sour frat-house odors, overly confident frat boys with chests protruding, self-conscious freshwomen trying to impress them, deafening music. What was the point? If I was electing to put myself in uncomfortable situations, why not choose more beneficial ones: sign myself up for six classes instead of five, run three miles instead of two, visit a professor one-on-one in office hours instead of hiding in the back of the lecture hall? I persuaded my roommates to leave the frat house soon after we arrived. Eventually I settled in with a social group similar to the one I had in high school, and I remained comfortably oblivious to party life. If college was about breaking bounds, discovering new parts of oneself and experimenting, I wasn’t doing it right.
Further considering my daughter’s question, I check in with my husband. He reassures me that wanting her to get out there doesn’t mean I want her to smoke weed, sleep around or get wasted. So here we are, two former high school nerds — did I mention that my husband was president of his high school math club? — trying to get our eldest to stop copycatting us.
The hidden, unspoken similarity between mother and child unnerves me. Why does she delay drinking, drugs and romantic encounters when she has opportunities to engage? No one guided her to this slow path, and no one is holding her there, at least not that I’m aware of.
I enjoy the odd mix of habits and passions we share: an adoration for bookstores, salty capers straight out of the jar, water hikes and post-midnight productivity. But there are parts of myself I wish not to see survive another generation: the nerdiness, social anxiety and insularity. Perhaps they won’t.
This summer I watched my daughter walk alone through airport security on her way to a backwoods backpacking trip. She was going off-the-grid with a group of complete strangers whom she would meet at the airport on the other end of her flight. She smiled and waved before turning her back with self-assurance and disappearing from my view.
She has something I never had at her age: confidence. She has developed an immunity to peer pressure, established a strong and unwavering sense of self, and cultivated passions that are not threatened by the whims of young lust or social experimentation.
Or by the weighty worries of a mother looking in the mirror.
Debby Berman is a public school teacher and a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Los Angeles.