Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Where's That Rod Again?

Ah, teenagers. The bane of our existences. Parents love to complain about them, while they glare sullenly beneath overgrown hair as they mysteriously "come of age," or something. 
Personally, I don't recall my teen years as being combative and cranky (except for my frustrations with high school teachers and classmates), so I can't relate. What's so incredibly difficult and complex about adolescence that gives youngsters a pass to constantly mope and snap?

In an article about the rise of dating websites in India, this quote jumped out at me: 
“Intergenerational relationships in India aren’t hostile. Our teenagers don’t have angst. They don’t rebel or misbehave with their parents,” said Madhu Kishwar, a prominent feminist author and a professor at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. “And the reason marriages in India are more stable than those in the West is because families are actively involved.”
Shortly thereafter, I read Rachel Cusks' "Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems" and found her tentativeness around her own bratty offspring to be quite tiresome. It seems to be an American thing.
When people asked me how old my daughters were, they would grimace at my reply. Poor you, they’d say, or, Good luck, or, at best, Don’t worry, it’ll pass, you’ll get them back eventually. Stories began to emerge in my circle of acquaintances of shouting and slammed doors and verbal abuse, of academic failure, of secrecy and dishonesty; and of darker things, of eating disorders, self-harm, sexual precocity and depression. They used to be so sweet, a friend of mine said of his daughter and son, shaking his head. I don’t know what happened. It’s like a nightmare. Another friend says, It’s as if they hate me. I walk into a room and they wince; I speak and they ball up with irritation. 
Considering how Indian parents don't have these issues, it's not a given that one's teenaged offspring will go berserk. 
So why do they do so on this side of the pond?
It is possible, I have discovered, to attribute an inordinate power to your children. . . I don’t doubt that my parents saw themselves as my hapless victims, as many parents of adolescents do (“You have this lovely child,” a friend of mine said, “and then one day God replaces it with a monster”) . . .
Hold up. Why should a teenager have any power? Do they support themselves? Do they contribute to the household? And even if they did—say, by helping out with younger siblings, fetching some groceries, doing an occasional chore—does that give them any management rights? I don't think so. 
And indeed, at meal’s end, it is I who rises and clears the plates, just as I always have. . . The traditional complaint about teenagers — that they treat the place like a hotel — has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.
One thing that I have definitely learned, as an aunt and as an adult: Unless incredibly self-aware, there isn't a magical day when someone realizes that something is not a given, but a gift, unless it is pointed out to them.

I used to scurry about at the kinfauna's demands, but I comprehended that, in the long run, I am not doing them any favors. I've started demanding little efforts: put your plate in the sink when you're done; if you want the bowl of sliced apples, come to the top of the basement steps to get them; pack away most of the toys when you're done playing (all toys would be too much to expect). 
The surprise on their faces when they have aged out of helpless-baby status is priceless. Especially when they see me not as an indentured servant—that it is not my sole purpose on earth to serve them. "You teach people how to treat you" goes with children as well, most definitely. They have to be told, quite boldly, that clean underwear does not magically appear at the behest of woodland elves.  
. . . now my daughter’s friends encounter me in the kitchen, in the hall, with barely a word of greeting. They are silent; they look shiftily to the side. They move on fast, up to my daughter’s room, where the sound of talking and shrieking and giggling resumes the instant the door is closed. Quickly they forget I am there; when occasionally they emerge for reinforcements and supplies, they talk in front of me as though I am invisible. 
Same thing with these obnoxious friends. I remember the childish awkwardness of attempting to interact with adults (I still have some lingering symptoms). But to ignore a human being because she is this tedious, oppressive entity called "mother"? Nuh-uh. 
Among her friends, there are some in serious conflict with parents who continue to insist on the family story. She admits now that her greatest anger at her parents has come from their failure to correspond to the image she has in her head of what a parent should be. . . 
Strange as it may seem, they are still children, still having to operate bodies and minds that are like new, complex pieces of machinery. . .
For an instant I see something in her eyes, a spark of childlike, innocent fear; and she is still, after all, a child. In some respects she always will be.
Teenagers like to swagger about that they are grown-ups in training, perhaps because they can do a lot of things that were forbidden until now, like driving. But here's the thing: most of them are still, mentally, kids, still harboring childhood fears. Like lack of control and worry over security.

To (loosely) quote Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, a parent always has the requirement to scream at and guide their child (in-laws are another story). I think that what a teenager craves is the same thing it sought as a five-year-old: consistency. That comes from a parent who has reasonable expectations for proper behavior. I'm guessing that's what India is doing right.
Parents are supposed to be rendered obsolete, by their own design. Allowing slamming doors, eye rolls, and back-talk isn't ensuring a future adult; it permits children to wallow in selfishness and myopia. It is up to the parents to educate, because chances are, no one else has the position or the influence to do it so well. 

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