I once heard that a famous wit had said that “parenting teens is like nailing Jello to a tree.” I disagree. I understand that the idea they were conveying was that it was impossible. However, nailing Jello to a tree, or even trying, implies that you are trying to put something semi-fluid in a fixed position. Teenagers may have fluid moods and personalities and wishes, but I don’t think nailing them to a tree, even figuratively, is the right response. There are days, though, when just thinking of it helps.
Spawn is 18. He has, to date, been my most challenging child. When he was tiny, he had a raging desire to walk early (and badly) which led to many anxious moments of my running after him, bent over, hurdling toys, and calling out, “Mind the table! Look out, don’t step on the dog’s tail! Hold on, those are STAIRS! Let me hold your hand.” He would look back over his shoulder, toothlessly grinning, run smack into something full force just as he turned his face back around, fall back on his diapered behind, and wail for Mommy. As soon as I picked him up and checked him for injury, wiped snot or blood off of him, he couldn’t wait to get back to lurching heedlessly forward, full tilt, once again.
It’s kind of been like that ever since. He barreled brilliantly through grammar school, becoming a bit of a sarcastic backtalker to teachers, as he was often bored out of his skull in classes that moved too slowly for his bright and eager mind. I spent a lot of time in parent conferences trying to explain the concept of giftedness as opposed to being academically inclined and a teacher suck-up. I was pretty unsuccessful, as the paradigm for the education community seems to be “we know what we’re doing, even if we don’t, and you are a moron for having children.” The only people who knew what I meant were the school psychologists who tested him, and, with consistent regularity, would emerge from his IQ tests looking dazed and seriously outgunned. It didn’t help. It just made the education community more stodgy and obnoxious.
Spawn learned to cope by focusing his efforts on socializing. He tried the class clown role and convinced one middle school teacher that he thought he was a dog. She believes, to this very day, poor guillible thing, that my oldest child believes himself to be a mutated Springer Spaniel. I have a nasty, low, sneaking urge to send her rawhide chew bones anonymously from time to time.
Being a goth, dressed in black and offensive pseudo-devil-worship clothing, drawing pentagrams and snarling a lot didn’t work either. He has too kind a heart and too broad a sense of humor for it to be believable to those of us who live with him and see him petting the dog and teaching the bird to say “BEHOLD! The Chirpmasta speaks!” But, goth-ness did lead to some interesting parent-teacher conferences and a couple of emergency sessions with the high school administration and police.
It would appear that if one is wearing happy-ducky-bunny-clothing and a pert smile in school, one can say damned near anything. If one is wearing black and a snarly face, however, one dast not write a report for honors English on the black plague, even if it is an approved topic. The note cards were a complete surprise to the principal. I particularly enjoyed the look on the assistant principal’s face when he read the following entry from Spawn’s assignment notebook, “May 6th, Cat Gilding in the Grotto,” followed by “February 19th, contemplate the uses of binder clips as fashion accessories.” When I informed him that I had written those darling little notes, which I did in each child’s assignment notebook as a way of giving them something to laugh about when they were soberly recording their homework, he was not nearly as amused as he could have been. I suppose he found my warped sense of humor inconsistent and disorienting when contrasted with my entirely normal, middle-aged, maternal, cookie-baking appearance. He also didn’t seem to appreciate it when I asked him why he did not find “name your teeth” equally disturbing as an entry.
Spawn found being the Master of Darkness unrewarding in the long run and went back to being more himself. He wore the gym sock winter hat to school, gave gifts to his friends on their birthdays, joked a lot, sewed himself a truly wonderful “man purse” during boring classes (with flame patterned fabric fused to hovercraft skirt material), grew a goatee and tied a jingle bell in it for the last day of school before Christmas. He aced many of his classes and slouched through others, made friends, got in a couple of parking lot fights, went to dances with nice girls, and stayed on the honor roll. He was, I think, unclassifiable to his high school administrators and many of his teachers. To me, he was just Spawn, lurching hell-fer-leather forward towards yet another hazard, happy as a clam, and completely loveable.
It is hard to let go. It's hard for me to learn to avoid picking him up and wiping off the current version of snot or blood. I have to wait to be asked. Biting my tongue after so many years of speaking up for him and doing my damnedest to keep him safe is MY portion of his growing up. It’s what he needs – to make his own mistakes and to learn to ask for help or be self-reliant or ask someone else for help. He needs to learn confidence and prudence at a new level, an adult level, that he can own himself, that he can refine and adjust and create for himself. The choices that he makes must be his own, more and more, every day.
So, when I see him getting ready to date a girl on whom I can smell trouble, I shut up and smile. When I see him taking a job that is going to wear him down just from the sheer monotony of it, I bake. When I hear him complain about the cost of gasoline or how a friend is so lucky and able to move out and work full time in a mind-killing production line job, I knit and smile and ask for the newspaper when he’s done with it.
I know he’s going to college. I know he’s testing his own limits by testing mine, too. It is no longer time to hold forth, to parent overtly or assertively . It is not time to nail that Jello to the tree. It’s time to let the Jello choose where it wants to be instead, and to let him know that, whatever his choices, I love him and approve of him, and he always, always, has the right to be himself.
But there are some days when I would really, really like a nice big nail, and I have the perfect tree picked out, too.