M and I went to a second Teenage Brain talk this week. I had High Hopes for it after the last one, but as the talk got going and questions were asked of the audience about their child's behaviour and how it made them (the parents) feel, and people began to grow in confidence enough to offer up ever more dire examples of flat lining parent-child relationships, I sat there thinking: 'this is depressing', and 'we're at the wrong session', and then, finally: 'why have we come to this?'
The Person Leading The Session said: Right, I want you to tell each other what things your children do that drive you mad.
The Lady Next To Me turns to me and says: Well. Where shall I start? (which gave me a hint as to what was to come). The two older ones told their much younger sister before Christmas that Father Christmas doesn't exist, which really upset her. Then the middle one told the younger one she smelt. Then the older one told the middle one she was stupid and ugly, and the middle one told the older one she hated him. The two older ones swear at me all the time, they all slam doors, most of them refuse to do anything I ask them.We've just discovered that the older one's been looking at porn on the computer but he denied it when we questioned him. They used to confide in me and now they won't, which makes making sure they are OK hard.The middle one wants the latest of everything and throws a fit when she can't have it. The older one has ditched all his nice friends and started hanging out with a group of Undesirables, but when I try to talk to him about it he shuts me out, and both the older ones are busy teaching the younger one how to swear.
She looked at me expectantly.
I said: erm....he's not great at brushing his teeth in the morning without being reminded.
There was an expectant pause, so I added: and he's not great at coming off the computer when I ask him to either. She gave me a Disbelieving Look at this, so I cast around for something else to add to my list to show a bit of solidarity with the newly formed 'beleaguered and under siege parents front.'
I said: erm, he's pretty grumpy about coming out for a walk at weekends and he flatly refuses to come and check the sheep AT ALL.
He goes out on walks with you?
She stared at me as if I had no right to be at the session at all.
Now (said the Person Leading The Session) I want you to tell me how that behaviour makes you feel.
Well (said the lady beside me) it makes me mutter under my breath and then I phone my friends and have a Jolly Good Moan about my kids, even though I know they're in the next room and can hear every word. I shout at mine, said the lady infront. I tell mine they're behaving like juveniles, said the lady beside her. I mimic mine, said a dad at the back, you know? like 'me, me, me, me, me' in their kind of voice. I feel guilty when I lose my temper, said a lady on the other side of the room, but it doesn't stop me losing me temper. We argue all the time, said a dad near the front, we barely say a word to each other that isn't said as a shout. I tell mine to Go Away because I Can't Stand The Sight Of Them, said a dad behind us. It makes me cry when my kids ignore me or grunt at me, said another lady at the back.
The Person Leading The Session looked at me. Anything to add?
I shook my head. Nope.
The next-door lady was staring at me again.
How old is your son? She asked, almost accusingly.
Not far off 13, I said.
She looked relieved. Oh, she said, relieved confidence returning, along with a slight edge of something that could well have been superiority, mine's 15. You've got all this to come.
I decided not to tell her that we've also got a nearly 15 year old and an 18 year old and we didn't go through anything like that with of them either.
But it made me think. Why would you say something like that to someone you don't know? At the very least it's not a particularly kind or encouraging thing for one parent to say to another, and at worst it's pretty insulting. Perhaps she was just at that point where hair-tearing was an everyday occurrence for her and the memory of sharing a house peacefully with her children was a dim and distant thing she believed she'd never get back.
We left at half time and when I got back I told L about the session. It's a standing joke between us that these talks are aimed at teaching parents how to control their children- this stems from the time he hid the flyer school sent out inviting us to go along to the first one, because he thought we'd come back empowered to stop him doing the things he enjoys.
So when I walk back in he grins and says: what did they teach you tonight about ruining my life?
And I say: actually, we came home early because we didn't recognise the things all the other parents were saying. Our house isn't a conflict zone, we don't spend our days yelling at each other, or mimicking one another, or ignoring each other, or swearing at each other, and, far from disliking you, I actually think you're OK. I'd even go so far as to say I'm Really Rather Fond Of You, if you pushed me. And he smiled, and looked pleased, and went back to whatever it was he was doing on the computer.
Don't get me wrong, we have our share of tense and grumpy days. People are sentient beings, emotional creatures, and when you've got 5 individuals all with different needs and experiencing different moods sharing one space you're bound to get on each other's nerves from time to time. But we don't live in a daily battle zone and we don't actively dislike one another. Heck, we even chose from time to time to spend an evening or sometimes even a whole day together.
And it made me feel Quite Pleased that somewhere along the line we've got some things right. Every family is different, and I did feel for the parents at the session who sounded like they were at their wits' end. Surging teenage hormones aren't easy to cope with (and neither are adult hormones either come to that). Everyone needs a helping hand from time to time and practical advice like that offered at the brain development talk is invaluable, but I also think that much of family life is down to the way you handle it, to retaining a sense of humour and not expecting too much of it in the way of perfection.
I could be very strict and expect things to be done the second I ask them to be, but that's just not realistic because it isn't ever going to happen and if I insisted on it, I would end up frazzled and the kids would get entrenched. I ask myself, would I want my children doing everything everyone asked them the second they asked it, without first evaluating what it was? I don't think I would. Evaluation and questioning things is the key to their own personal safety, and they have to learn it at home first before they can take it out into the world with them. Rudeness is different and that we don't tolerate, but a little lee-way as to when non-urgent things get done saves everyone a deal of stress.
I reckoned my time was better used thinking of our children as individuals growing up and through their lives and giving them trust and respect and choice and hoping that rubbed off at some point and produced thoughtful individuals who knew the value of kindness and decency and behaved accordingly. They are never going to be replicas of me and M, and frankly why should they? They've earnt the right to be themselves by being born.
Broadly speaking, they get it and they repay the trust. Not perfectly of course, because that would make them into dull predictable thoughtless robots and I don't want that for my children. But just occasionally you get a teeny weeny bit of evidence that they're on the right path.
My bit of evidence came last week and it involved our 'not before 5pm on a school day' rule about the computer. I got home at 4.55, fully expecting to see L tucked up in the study chattering away with his mates on Skype. But he wasn't. He was reading in the sitting room with the dogs curled up at his feet.
I thought you might be on the computer, I said. To be honest, I probably would have been if I'd been you.
No, he said. I knew I wasn't meant to, and I wanted to read my book.
Bingo! I thought, which made up for all the non-bingo moments that had preceded it.
Parenting isn't an easy job. There is no manual and every single parent-child relationship is unique. My way of handling it is to inject as much humour as possible into our daily lives, to keep things light and simple, to make sure the kids know that they have voices and can use them and will be listened to, to know they can come to us when something's bothering them and we will help them find a way through it, to know that ultimately, while they are the age they are, the buck stops with us, and that means the final decisions over things are ours to make. I think that makes them feel safe, and they know that they can trust us to listen and be fair.
So far, it's working out. Check back in with me in two years' time and we'll see whether or not I've had to go to any more Teenage Angst lectures :-)
Wishing you all a peaceful evening,