The first time your child slams the door and storms out yelling “I hate you!”, it feels as if you’ve booked to see Enchanted, but ended up watching Alien. Where’s your chubby little darling, who drew cards for “My best Mummy” and thought you knew everything?
As a culture we seem to believe in a kind of reverse creation myth where, after about 12 years of “normality” comes a catastrophe like the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs: your hitherto adorable children metamorphose into Terrible Teenagers, whose sole purpose is to ruin your lives. I believe the reality is slightly different. My children are now grown, but this is what my husband, Peter, and I have learned over the past 20 years.
‘Teenage’ behaviour can start before puberty
A hideous monster has burst out of what was your child, slithering across the floor spitting acid – to be found later in its room, still spitting, curled round its phone. But here’s the thing: the xenomorph has been on the ship all along.
When our daughter Lydia was seven, we went to buy a bridesmaid’s dress, sparking a meltdown in BHS that was clearly not provoked by a sudden allergy to mauve tulle. Her brother Lawrence went the same way at eight: “Put your plate in the sink please,” I said one night.
“Why should I? You left it here.”
“Why?” I said. “Why? I just made and served your bloody dinner. Put your plate in now!”
“Ah, testing the boundaries,” said my mother.
That night, at bedtime, amid Lawrence’s claims that he wasn’t tired (the classic sign of fatigue), Peter suggested we let him read till later than usual and turn his own light off – a tiny concession which now sounds positively Victorian. But this strategy turned out to be far less exhausting than the traditional one of bargaining and withheld privileges. If I wanted to spend my life haggling, I’d give this up and sell cars.
Constant monitoring imprisons both sides
Being a parent was always hard and it seems to be getting harder – at least, I think it’s more dfficult now than when we had our two in the late 90s. Back then, celebrity mothers were beginning to be endlessly “fulfilled” and strangely unstressed, while their unseen nannies, assistants and cleaners did all the work. Normal post-partum women were blaming themselves for being lonely and exhausted instead of slim and gorgeous.
But we still left the baby monitors in the corner of the room, where they didn’t command our attention 24/7. We had friends who unplugged theirs to install a cappuccino machine. Now, mattress sensors keep us linked to our babies through the night, and apps record their feeds and nappy “events”.
Then we end up tracking our teenagers through their phones. The age of surveillance is making us more anxious and less free. And treating our young people like miscreants is corroding trust and intimacy, with no measurable impact on safety.
About two years ago, we had some people round who recalled their own childhoods. “I used to walk to school,” said one. “Now, people won’t let their kids go anywhere.”
“I blame social media – it’s too easy to be in touch all the time.”
“My friend was tracked by his parents via an app,” said another.
Why? “I think it was to stop him buying dope.”
These were not our friends but Lawrence’s, aged 19.
Why, indeed? The pulsing white dot of the tracker in Alien shows us only where the monster is; it doesn’t save the crew.
We want to help – but to them it’s micromanaging
Lawrence got his first phone at 14 and sent me this from school: “Staying late to have unprotected sex and accept sweets from strangers.”
Teenagers are natural satirists. They know that people in authority are often venal and ridiculous, and that can include their parents. Yet we tend to see them as empty vessels who have to be filled with knowledge and insights – by us.
“Can we just hug without having a Talk About Life?” he said one day, around year 10.
So I simply carried on with Lydia, who complained: “God, not another DMC…”
The Deep and Meaningful Conversation is their bete noire. Give us a departure at an airport or station or, God forbid, a major birthday and we just can’t help ourselves.
“I just want you to know that I love you. And in future, if ever… ”
“Yeah, OK, whatever. Can I go now?”
The process of growing up is hindered by these constant attempts to “improve” them. You don’t put 10 spoons of baking powder into a cake because it has to be better than one.
‘Fails’ are not just survivable but essential
When I was a teenager, parents rarely came to school and didn’t look to us to boost their self-esteem. Now the generations are closer and talk to each other more, but the expectations are off the scale. When we were teens, we didn’t have to be good at everything and thin, beautiful and popular, with a boyfriend and a play at the Edinburgh fringe, as well. Even the cleverest girls were rubbish at PE or had gappy teeth.
Peter and I tried not to fixate on success. We told the kids they didn’t have to get A-stars and not to be too hard on themselves. Yet, in her gap year, Lydia told me: “You can be quite negative.”
Then, like the worst sort of film flashback, it came back to me: “If you just sit there watching Friends all day, you won’t get into art school, will you?”
On the phone one night, during his third year at university, Lawrence suggested two reasons why his generation feels more stressed than mine did. “We have 24-hour access to all the awful things happening in the world – and, also, 24-hour access to other people’s apparently perfect lives.” I also wonder if the everyday naughtiness my generation got up to has been replaced by drinking and drug-taking, partly to try to alleviate that pressure.
Years before we had kids, we met a woman whose husband had died. Anxious to be the best possible parent to her two young teenagers, she constantly evaluated herself and fretted over their progress. Eventually she let up when, while she was away on a parenting course, the teens got bored and dug up the local bowling green. (Her son is now a magazine editor, and her daughter a rising star in the US Democratic party.)
I’d say this generation is conditioned to be risk‑averse, and not in a good way. It’s possible that by preventing them from taking small risks at an early age we are setting them up to test more significant boundaries later on – the supreme irony being how much more dangerous that can be. Our motive is safety, but the effect is mistrust. When you add the relentless academic pressure, who wouldn’t want to get wasted now and then?
There is, however, some good news.
They will develop life skills anyway
I found that, while we obsess over trivialities, such as whether they are top in chemistry or have the lead in the school play, they are developing the important stuff, such as compassion and leadership skills – mostly by supporting each other. In 2016, when my mother was dying, my attempts to seem grown up and capable in the face of disaster were undone by the visits to her awful hospital, which left me distraught. One day, I brought Lawrence with me and afterwards we went to a country pub, where he put his arm around me and said: “It’ll be all right.”
I knew it wouldn’t be, but hearing him say this felt transformative. “I don’t want you to see me going to pieces,” I said, thinking of my own, emotionally troubled parents years ago.
He said: “Showing emotion isn’t going to pieces.”
On my mother’s last day, when I had to find an undertaker, Lydia, seeing me in pieces, quietly moved in and sorted it out for me, a small gesture which made me feel less bleak. Looking back, it felt less like the end of something than a beginning.
When you waddle into the delivery suite or home-birthing spa or wherever, it turns out that you are not having a baby: you’re having someone to comfort you, who knows what to do when your own parent is dying.
• Confessions Of A Bad Mother: The Teenage Years, by Stephanie Calman, is published on 16 May by Picador, £12.99. To order a copy for £11.43, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.
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