This past week, I hit a wall. I’m calling it the “teen wall”!
You see, I can no longer deny it. I do indeed have a teenager living under my roof now. And to top it all off, it’s of the male persuasion too!
A double whammy for me.
I still remember a time when I had wanted a daughter. Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, I believed I would actually be the right kind of dad to take a girl through puberty. And we would emerge from the whole experience relatively unscathed.
After all, I am more in touch with my feelings (and expressive with them) than most dads I know, so surely I can better connect with my daughter as she goes through the growing pains of adolescence, right?
I’m also more sensing and intuitive, less task and logic-driven than my wife, making me a good parent to turn to when those Kleenex moments come, no?
The reality is that I will never, in this lifetime, be able to test out any of the above assertions since both my kids are…
Boys Boys Boys!
So what I end up with is parenting sons.
Now don’t get me wrong. When each of them was born (actually it probably already happened when they were conceived), my connection with them was already very palpable and strong. The only other times I’ve felt that way was when I fell in love with Jesus and my wife.
I still remember at the hospital when I first laid eyes on J, then two years later C. When the nurses passed them from my exhausted wife into my arms, my heart felt each time like it was about to burst out of my chest and soar to the highest heights of euphoria.
In those moments, I knew I’d embarked on a journey I could never backtrack from. Nor would I want to. Even though now the world has so many (more) “ways to hurt me” (as said by new dad Constantin in Anna Karenina), I wouldn’t trade these precious lives for anything.
But oh there are days when I wish I could simply ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, and not feel a thing!
(Oh please don’t recoil in horror from that last statement, alright? Cos that can only mean one of three things: you’re not a parent; you’re a parent with amnesia; or you’re faking a moral high ground!)
Those ‘bathwater’ days don’t usually come with any prior warnings. They just, you know, happen.
Like the “teen wall” I ran right into earlier this week!
Too Many “Tolds”
One minute I was sitting on my study chair marking scripts; the next minute J, my sullen 12 year old, slinks into the room to plug back into his laptop world, seemingly with much relief.
Me: “I thought you were accompanying your mom and brother out to collect his new pair of glasses?”
J: “Mommy told me to return home.”
Me: “Why? What happened?”
J: “She said I was walking too slow and holding them back.”
Me: “Meaning you were dragging your reluctant feet cos you never wanted to go in the first place. Right?“
What followed was an irate father’s careless tirade against an increasingly sulky-face boy as I let fly with what, on hindsight, now looked like four “tolds” too many! [Spoiler alert: Not pretty!]
— daily outdoor time is no longer negotiable, especially in light of our recent discovery of C’s rapid eyesight deterioration!
— his refusal to keep his mommy and brother company was simply not cool, especially since it wasn’t the first time he’s ditched them.
— he had no good reason at all to be so anti-social.
— to reflect on just how much he prioritises family over fun.
You should have seen his face! It oscillated between blase and open defiance. “There my daddy goes again, blah blah blah blah blah…” I can almost see those words sweep over his face like a windscreen wiper.
And for me, it was like…it was like…bam! Walking right into a dead end, or as I call it, a “teen wall”!
When did he “turn the teen corner”?
Yep. I know right? Hard to believe that once upon a time, I too was an angsty teen.
Seeing my son’s cynical behaviour this week, I can’t help but grimace at the thought that I too probably looked that way to the adults around me when I was his age.
It seems almost to be an inevitable rite of passage as one transits from childhood to teen-hood. You become more opinionated, argumentative, reticent, cloistered, anti-social, deviant, resistant, anti-estab.
In short, a hardened cynic!
My only question now is: When did my son “turn the teen corner”?
Him onto whom I pin my hopes of growing up to treat others kindly, offer grace readily, and thinking before speaking.
Instead, I’m now increasingly met with defiance, obstinacy, nonchalance, scepticism and the whole “whatever” movement!
Parenting Gen Z
In 2015, leadership and next gen expert Tim Elmore made ten observations about the Gen Z cohort (those born after 1996). Though specific to the United States, I can certainly see many of his observations in the Gen Z’s at my neck of the woods.
Especially when it comes to my newly-minted teenager!
For one thing, J is clearly more unhappy with the world we now live in. He’s more aware of history and current affairs, wars, pandemics, environmental degradation, and the overall global malaise of our time. Well at least he’s building up some social awareness and consciousness. No longer just a Star Wars Lego-obsessed kid (though he’s still seen most times holding one or more stormtrooper pieces in his hand!)
Unfortunately, this newfound “woke” of his is still unfolding like a complicated origami, so my dear teen is still at the “I-resent-what-I-see” phase.
For another thing, he seems in a hurry to grow up, yet his beliefs and values seem increasingly at odds with each other.
A case in point. Yesterday over dinner he remarked about how childish his classmates were in school that day. They were drawing penises on paper and passing them round the class. Then the next minute he told us gleefully about taping his friend’s calculator to the desk while the friend’s back was turned.
So how do I intervene now to stem this “flow” before it turns into a “flood”?! How do I engage him for empathy?
Show, don’t tell
I think the answer might lie in the solid journalistic tradition of good writing skills and story-telling: Show, don’t tell!
The writer, a most aptly-named M. Janine Wise, titled her piece “A Cure for Teen Cynicism: Involvement“.
In it she described a lazy Saturday morning when she dragged her cynical 16-year old son to join a large crowd on the streets. These folks were up early to participate in a walk to raise awareness and funding for diabetes research. Not an unusual sight, except this time the significance wasn’t lost on her son. You see, his sister just found out she was diabetic.
Which explained why a strange smile appeared on the young man’s usually sullen face when he saw the enthusiasm and commitment of all those strangers to a worthy cause. And why he willingly stayed on with his mom to participate.
Wise wisely surmised that “Teaching him to care, to not lose all faith in the goodness of people, is a whole lot like what is supposed to be the maxim of a good screenplay: Show, don’t tell. I need to get my son out more to see people practicing what they believe, working for what touches their hearts.”
She then concluded with this parting shot that I’m taking to heart as I navigate my own new journey into parenting teenage boys. May it (especially the last statement, or should I say indictment) propel me out of my chair into motion, not resignation!
“Every kid has a soft spot, however battle-weary they’ve become, something they care about beneath the layers calloused by modern living….Kids can be nudged toward many areas of service…but kids need someone to show them how to start.
Then again, teenagers aren’t the only cynics around.”