In support of arguing

My friend said something about fighting couples ages ago that served as the seed for this article. We were talking about elderly couples who balk at doing stuff for each other– particularly women. Caring for husbands during illness, that sort of thing. He said that a couple should fight all the way and iron out differences so that by the time you reach seventy or whatever, your angst about each others’ flaws is ironed out. Been thinking about this and this is a tangential take.

He who shouts loudest is just a teen trying to make his point
Shoba Narayan

Sep 24, 2013 Updated: Sep 24, 2013 09:24:00
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There are 15 teenagers in the building community that I live in. Every now and then, us parents of these teenagers will get together for what we euphemistically term “tea” but what is really therapy.

We talk about exams, SAT scores and the race to get into the right colleges. And then we talk about arguments and how our households seem rife with them.

“I didn’t grow up like this,” a mother will say. “I listened to my parents; didn’t argue so much about everything.”

“Times have changed,” we will admit ruefully. “The world has changed.”

“Sometimes it seems like my son argues just for the sake of it,” a parent will confess.

“No matter what I say, he takes the opposite view to the point where I have now started to instruct him on the opposite of what I want. But he is smart. He has guessed my game and is beating me at it.”

“It gets my blood pressure up,” a father will mutter. “When will it end?”

At our last meetings, someone shared two heartening studies. One was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

In it, researchers used a sample of 1,842 adults between the ages of 33 to 84. Over the course of eight days, these researchers asked the subjects whether they encountered situations where they might have argued and what was their reaction to such situations. The subjects also had to give saliva samples.

Sixty two per cent of the subjects reported that when they encountered a tense situation, they did not argue; instead they walked away or kept their thoughts to themselves. The remaining subjects argued. They had it out with their opponent as it were.

Researchers discovered that while all their subjects had feelings of disquiet about the tense environment, only those that did not argue experienced elevated levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – for one extra day. Those that argued felt unpleasant and uneasy, but these symptoms were erased from their bodies through the argument as it were. Those that stewed in their thoughts and kept quiet had cortisol coursing through their blood the following day.

Household arguments are unnerving and enervating. But they do serve a biological purpose, it seems. They get rid of the accumulated stress that caused the argument in the first place.

The second study was recently conducted by the University of Virginia and it supports what numerous other studies have said.

Teenagers argue not merely to rebel or to prove a point. They argue for a deeper developmental reason. Arguing is a way for them to “separate” from their nest; from their parents.

It is his way of cutting off the umbilical cord and venturing forth into a brave, new and often terrifying world.

The good news is this: teenagers who argue at home often turn out to be well-adjusted adults in college. They eschew risky behaviours and turn down objectionable substances.

Arguing at home helps them formulate their own point of view about the values that they will take with them. It builds up their brain muscles and allows them to put choices in perspective.

While they may mock a parent for refusing to allow them to attend parties, such arguments also help crystallise the parental point of view to them.

My grandmother used to say that those kids who are rash while young will turn out to be model citizens in adulthood. She said that to comfort my mother while I was growing up. She insisted that the continual arguments that I had with my parents was a sign of respect.

At least your daughter is “engaging” with you, she would say. At least she is not deceitful and closed. The same could be said of today’s teenagers who have verbal battles with their parents, but will hopefully become model citizens of the future.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

The trouble with teenagers

I hope my daughter doesn’t read this. For The National.

My life: The trouble with teenagers
Shoba Narayan
May 18, 2011 Updated May 18, 2011 5.12pm

At a party recently, I asked a close friend what I considered an innocuous question. “How is Vivek?” I asked, referring to her son who had just graduated from Brown University and had returned home.

“I don’t know how to talk to him anymore,” my friend replied forcefully. “He is 22 years old and still hasn’t decided what to do with his life. He wants to take a year off to figure it out. What’s there to figure out? I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was eight years old.”

“Things are different these days,” I murmured sympathetically. “Kids have choices. Not like how it was when we were growing up.”

“But he should at least tell me what’s on his mind,” my friend continued, barely registering what I had said. “He should tell me his plans, instead of floating about the house in limbo, answering in monosyllables.”

The teenage years are tough. Everyone tells me that. But as a parent whose first child has just become a teenager, I can tell you that the toughest thing is the silence that suddenly emerges like a chasm between you and the child who was once a part of you, who was once almost an appendage.

I used to be able to tell my daughter anything, and usually did once every few minutes from dawn to dusk. “Brush your teeth. Don’t forget your lunch box. Remember the library book. Did you finish your homework? Eat your vegetables. No TV if you don’t finish music practice. Clean up your room, young lady, or else… That’s it, you are grounded.”

And so it went.

My daughter’s moods were simple and transparent. I knew exactly what was on her mind, whether it was the oft-repeated “I don’t want to” or the resigned “Yes, Mom, I did my homework” to the querulous “I didn’t make the mess. Why should I clean up?”

The point was that I felt connected to her – until she became a teenager, until the wall of silence descended.

Nowadays I find myself holding back, figuring out just what to say to her, when to bring up issues and how to discipline her without having her pull back from me.

On the other hand, when my nine-year-old spills “ghost medicine” – a mix of shampoo, moisturiser, mouthwash and anything else she can find – all over her bed, I yell at her: “How many times have I told you not to mix ghost medicine on my bed?”

Young children are physically draining, especially if you don’t have household help. However, now that I have a teenager, what I appreciate is that young children offer parents a certain mental and emotional liberty that goes down as the years go by.

When my teenager comes home late from a party that I didn’t want her to go to in the first place, I cannot yell the first thing that comes to mind, because I need information from her. I need to find out who was there at the party and what they were up to. I need her to trust me enough to reveal her thoughts and actions. Yelling is the quickest way to shut her up and close her down.

I have to follow the parental version of Aristotle’s decree: “Anyone can get angry – that is easy. But to get angry with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way – that is not easy.”

Even more so when the person in question is your teenage child.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.