This article was originally published in the Winter 2004 issue of Best Life magazine.
My son’s relationship with me is almost like an illicit affair. He wouldn’t mind meeting me for pizza, but not in the town where we live, where people might see us. If we shoot baskets on a public court, it has to be across town, out of his school district. When I drop him off at school, it must look like an old-time Chicago mob hit, where the car keeps rolling as the body gets dumped onto the street. That’s the way 13 is. I’ve lost count of the number of times he has simply turned to me and told me to walk farther away from him. Or 10 paces behind him. Somewhere along the way, I went from being a heroic Eliot Ness figure to being the other kind of Untouchable. Unclean, unclean, unclean.
I’ve talked to other parents and searched my heart and the ancient texts. Buddhism and the 12-step movement are good sources of serenity and solace, particularly about accepting things you can’t change. As the father of a new teenager, I have developed these rules of thumb, none of which I am following with any success right now. And for more parenting hacks, see the 10 Parenting Secrets from an All-Star Dad.
Accept that your accomplishments might be intimidating.
You want you kid to be proud of you, and they are, at some deep, unknowable level. On the surface, though, they’re trying to carve out their own little space in the world, and the fact that you still play a mean game of tennis or were recently named Man of the Year by the Loyal Order of Yaks is far from impressive. In fact, it may represent some new bar they’re not sure they can clear.
Let them achieve and demonstrate mastery in areas where their gifts exceed yours.
This is the flip side of that last point. It doesn’t have to be particle physics or giant slalom, either. My kid really knows clothes, for instance. He just happens to have great taste, and he pays attention to how things are made and marketed, although his overall look is basically P. Diddy’s Bodyguard.
I, meanwhile, have kind of perfected a look that is basically Bowling Alley Inspector with Good-Size Star Trek Collection. One day last August, we’re out in L.A., wandering up and down Melrose, a kind of elysian fields of hipness for my hypothetical son. After we have more or less thrown the contents of my 401(k) at his wardrobe, we decide to pick something out for me.
Pretty soon, we’re in a boutique where he and a very fly Asian salesclerk are trying out various silk shirts on me, with Joey pushing for the mustard color and showing me how to wear it (open and loose, with a black tee underneath). I pay a mildly outrageous sum and we leave.
“Thank you,” I tell him. “Maybe I’ll wear this to my big book signing.”
He wrinkles his nose, as we’re walking into the early L.A. evening.
“You’re not going to wear those crummy sandals, are you? You have to wear black shoes. Do you even have black shoes?”
Get out of town. (This kind of makes sense in terms of numbers.)
Travel is the great equalizer. If neither one of you has ever been to Brussels or Oaxaca or Cleveland, you’re on a closer-to-equal footing there. Your kid can see you get lost. You can ask then to look at the map while you drive. And best of all, he can set aside one of his greatest primal fears: being seen with a loser like you. What are the chances they’re going to bump into Noah Hofstadter from fourth-period math in West Helsinki?
You must be prepared, however, for one of the weird paradoxes of teenage life-forms. They are surging with hormones, with vital energies, with procreative force. But their idea of a vacation often involves an extended impersonation of Sunny von Bülow. They will sleep for 16 hours, trudge and stumble through the “morning” (2 to 6 p.m.), blossom into 4.5 hours of semi-productive motility, and then gradually lapse into the coma from whence they came. You start to feel like Oliver Sacks after a while.
No matter how good you are at something, accept that your teenager will more readily learn it from someone else. When Ted Williams’s kid was a teen, I’m sure he rejected anything the Splendid Splinter tried to impart about hitting or fishing. Marv Throneberry had a better chance of teaching Ted’s kid.
Drag them out onto the tennis court. Hit him a few balls. Let them know that you’re available to hit whenever, at a moment’s notice. And then pay somebody else to teach them—or they’ll get stuck in the exact place where their resentment of you and their desire to impress you form mesmerizing crosshairs, and there won’t be much progress from there.
Positive reinforcement is the key.
Everybody knows this. Any kid will respond much better to those moments when you praise something he has done well. Sometimes, though, with a teenager, you really have to search. (“It was great how you didn’t rob that convenience store.”)
I get up every day planning to use positive reinforcement as my main fathering tool, but in the words of the philosopher Mike Tyson, “Everybody has a plan, until they get hit.” Some days, it’s like trying to obedience-train a wolverine. You’re looking for an opportunity to toss the wolverine a liver snap, but it never does anything nice.
“Thank you for making your bed. That was helpful.”
“I didn’t make my bed! What are you doing in my room? You’re too controlling!”
“Well, no, you didn’t exactly make your bed, but you kind of pulled the covers up in a semineat fashion, and that’s more than you usually do. I just want to give you some props and say it’s a great start. . . .”
“What do you mean ‘more than I usually do’? What’s that supposed to mean? Leave me alone!”
And for tricks of the trade, don’t miss the 35 Lies Every Parent Needs to Master.
Be prepared to fail.
We boomers learned a gospel that prepared us to do almost anything but fail. We grew up climbing ladders of success that could be scaled if we put in the effort and kept our wits about us. Being the father of a teenager is not like that, and pretending otherwise is like bringing a slide rule to a Fellini movie. Your old tools don’t fit the new situation, and you have to accept the fact that at the end of many days, the homework won’t be done or the healthy snacks won’t have been eaten or the car bumper won’t have missed the guardrail.
What you must tell your kid in those worst of times is this (in so many words): “You cannot lose me. I am your partner forever. We may hew and hack at each other like Beowulf and Grendel. I may not always like or condone your behavior, but you cannot lose me. There is not a force on earth that can sever this connection. P.S.—You’re grounded until the dead rise from their graves.”
They’ll be listening somewhere under that bristling, defensive wild-boar hide. Their drama is as old as a Greek tragedy: They needs to destroy you without killing you. They’re worried they’ll destroy you. They’re worried they won’t. They love you. They hate you. They love you. In other words, they’re crazy.
Just like you.
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