I hope my daughter doesn’t read this. For The National.
My life: The trouble with teenagers
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.