When our kids are small, it's easy to impose limits and set rules because, well, they're physically smaller than us and we can pretty much inflict our desire at will. If I can pick you up and have the power to rock you to sleep, things are easy. Meal times, food choices, play date partners, all of these things are almost completely within parental control. I put the food down, you eat it, I tuck you in, you sleep, I drive you to Sarah's house to play because her mom feeds you a healthy lunch as opposed to simply leaving an econo-size tub of Nutella within reach. It's understood that all the things we did (and will do) are in our children's best interest. Sure, there are struggles and complications sometimes but generally speaking between the ages of 0-12 most kids are ultimately under our control.
Listen up, parents of babies and toddlers: These early years are special times, but don't get used to it. By the time my daughter was 13 there was just no way I could keep up the good fight, and believe me, I tried. Starting high school means less parental control and no freshmen are going to welcome their parents on a school field trip or as a classroom volunteer as willingly as their elementary school counterpart. I didn’t win any points offering to chaperone the grade nine welcome dance and when I expressed interest in joining the parent council at high school...well, if looks could kill and all that. It’s hard being cut-off at the knees like this, because class trips and functions were where I would normally do my "scouting" missions to observe the inter-personal relational ships between students. This method worked well for ten years and I swear by it: from JK to grade 8 I knew the name, general background and Myers Briggs personality type of every kid who spent more than an hour a day with my daughter.
Now in high school, she comes home and talks at length to kids who I've never heard of, let alone seen. Jess, Brittany, Valerie... Who ARE these people? My requests to see their Facebook profiles or Twitter accounts go unheeded and any questions about what their parents do for a living are met with a hearty eye-roll and a door slam. I swear I even once heard a muffled "Jeeeesus Christ, Mother..." from inside her bedroom after I asked if she knew who Kara’s mother voted for in the last federal election.
It's hard when this stuff is "none of your business" anymore. She still has friends she's made and kept for the last 10 years, but with so many new ones in the mix I’m having some trouble keeping them straight. My teen won’t review the “New Friends” flow chart I pieced together and until I meet them personally they’re all potential murders/arsonists as far as I'm concerned. Former "dates" like walks to the ice cream store with a friend I’ve known for years — had sleep in my house, even — are now day-long visits to out of town shopping malls with surly teenagers I’ve met once and still don’t know a thing about. But she’s 15 years old and when I think back to what I did at 15 I should probably be more thankful she’s not climbing out windows and rolling her own cigarettes.
But still. How do you get to know the people your children are spending their day with when you’re trying desperately to retain control while loosening the tethers that hold them to childhood?
This teenager shit is hard, you guys.
There are consequences to everything in life. What was it they taught us in physics class? Every action has a reaction? Something like that. I can't be sure because during physics class I was cutting class at home making grilled cheese sandwiches and watching "The Flintstones."
Sometimes consequences are awesome—like when you buckle down and work hard at something and then reap the rewards from that hard work. Sometimes the consequences are not so fun; maybe like when you spend your afternoons eating grilled cheese sandwiches and watching cartoons when you should be in physics class and so then you don't graduate high school until you're thirty-four-years-old and have a nursing toddler attached to your hip at your graduation ceremony. So it goes; we make choices in life and then we pay for them.
When our children are young, we look out for them in all sorts of ways. We make sure their clothing is seasonally appropriate, we shield them from the sun, we fill their bellies and their minds, and we hold their hands when they cross the street. We do this because we are parents—good ones, most of us—and because in general children are helpless in many ways. My son at nine-years-old can make his own sandwich if driven to do so by hunger, but it's more likely he'd head straight for the sugar cereal if I left the choice to him when hunger strikes in my absence. Sure, he'd learn soon enough that a sore belly is the only consequence for eating a box of Super Sugar Glucose Insulin Blasters, but he'd have to get that far to do it in the first place, which he won't because I am here to prevent it.
But what of our teenagers? They are growing up and becoming adults. They are learning to forge their way in a world we cannot shield them from forever. They must learn to navigate the way on their own, they will have successes and failures and crisis and, yes, good things will happen. But so will bad things and maybe even terrible, horrible, really super shitty things. What can we do to prevent this? Sweet diddly-squat. Letting go is hard and from what I hear it only gets harder as they veer into adulthood. It sucks, but that’s life, and no one promised you grilled cheese sandwiches and cartoons forever.
Luckily, teenagers give us lots of opportunities to practice standing back and letting consequences take place. When you're 6'1 and 50 pounds heavier than me, I can't force you to wear a hat, and if you leave your lunch money on the counter (AGAIN!) then you are going to learn that a.) being cold sucks; and b.) so does being hungry. We can give them a hat and we can give them money for a hot lunch but ultimately we cannot force them to take it.
We can't chase them forever. It’s up to us to provide the materials and opportunities for learning and then we need to stand back and let the cold heads and hungry bellies fall where they may. There’s no magical number for the amount of times a mistake must be made and all teenagers are different in how quickly they learn. But I will tell you, when it comes to someone forgetting their lunch money and having several requests to deliver it go unheeded, the answer is two.
My teenage daughter doesn’t work. Okay, she empties the dishwasher (sometimes) and she’ll blow dry her brother’s hair (he’s high maintenance), but beyond school and homework she doesn’t “work” for any financial gain. She’s never been a fan of babysitting as she’s not a fan of children in general and she’s found that responding “Ugh!” to “How do you feel about toddlers?” doesn’t secure much repeat employment in that realm.
But the girl needs money. I need her to have money. I can’t talk to her for more than 15 minutes without it costing me $400 and that’s before you factor in food or seasonally appropriate footwear. With the holidays approaching, I’d like her to have some pocket money because quite frankly I have earned a gift this year. I’m perfectly content if they’re handmade gifts, so long as she puts some time into their creation and doesn’t merely act as gift-giving sub-contractor and simply coerce her brother into gluing macaroni onto a refrigerator magnet. One year I gave her money and sent her to the mall with a list of who to buy for, and she came home with a dollar store candle (it exploded) and beautiful sweater — for herself. She assured me that it was on “super sale” and by buying such a marked down piece of clothing she was actually saving me money, and that was a gift in itself, no? The pull of the suburban shopping mall is strong, friends, and a young teen can do little to combat it.
So the hunt for a part-time job is on. But how can you tell if your teenager is ready for the workplace? Is my daughter ready for the paper-hat brigade? I worked as a teenager, but that was before people cared about things like “labour laws” and “self-esteem” and “doing well at school,” so it is with some degree of trepidation that I see my daughter enter this realm. I had my share of bosses yell in my face over chopped incorrectly onions in the garnish bar, so I know the trenches is what I’m saying. My daughter is a good student and that should be her priority, but a few hours a week working for the man can only be beneficial, right? If a teen’s grades are less than optimal or if they’re struggling with their workload, I think it’s probably best to hesitate before giving the go-ahead for work, or at very least limit work hours to weekends only.
While we may complain about our kids having active social schedules, they are an important aspect of life from 13-20. But balance is key and spending 25 hours a week folding jeans left on a change room floor or pushing a broom on top of school and homework isn’t a good idea either. I’m fine with some downtime being sacrificed but all work and no play makes a teenager a dangerously bored and smelly entity. If work is simply adding another stressor to a full school load then it’s not worth it. Maybe seasonal work and summer only jobs are the best in this situation.
Another thing you need to consider is transportation. Is work on a bus route? Can a teen walk safely to and from work? How late is too late to stay for a shift? I don’t like the idea of my daughter working later than 9pm and hell will freeze over and FOX will make a decent sitcom before she walks home alone at that time of night. This is going to require some planning on my part, because we live in a pretty sprawled area so my daughter having a job may actually cost me $50 a week in additional gas costs.
Yet outside work is worth it in many cases, as they help kids learn to navigate professional relationships. I want my daughter to understand that I am not the only irrational arbitrary rule setter in her life, and that high school doesn’t hold exclusive rights to the jerk population – because she’ll possibly be dealing with those in the workplace forever. What better place to get used to them than somewhere that poutine is featured heavily on the menu? Provided her brutal honesty and low bullshit tolerance get her past the interview process, it will be interesting to watch her become accountable to a boss, and I’m anxious to see her develop coping mechanisms for red-tape that go beyond her signature eye-roll because chances are her co-workers will not be as easily frightened into submission as her nine year-old brother. And so begins another adventure parenting a teenager. Hopefully it also means a monthly monetary contribution towards her cell phone bill.