There was a conversation I had once with my mother a few years ago. I don’t even remember it exactly. But, I still remember what it taught me.
In a lot of ways, it wasn’t unusual at all. Except that, for some reason, it led me to realize something very important about the relationship between a child and their parents that (I think) parents have such difficulty understanding – though it would help them tremendously in improving their relationship with their teens…
Like I said, I don’t even remember the specifics of the conversation, though I damn wish I could. I just remember my mother telling me about something that had to do with her mother (my grandmother, obviously). Maybe they had something they were supposed to do later and my mother kinda felt bad about cancelling. Maybe she was scolding me about my sometimes potty-mouth language and simply saying how she’d never do the same around her mother.
I dunno. I don’t remember. And it sucks that I don’t.
What I do remember, though, is that whatever it was she said about her and how she related to my grandmother, it made me pause and look at her like she had just said something very weird.
It wasn’t just what she said, I guess, but how she said it. The tone. The meaning. The relationship it implied.
It was like her mother was still the head of her house; like her mother was still the Law; like her mother was still…her Mother.
I know, I know. Of course she is.
But the thing is, I would say th at my mother’s best friend in the world is my grandmother. They do most everything together. They call each other all the time. They talk probably every day. And they hang out – really – as any best friends would.
They are – in every sense as I would understand it – best friends.
And that’s why whatever she said just seemed so weird to me. Awkward even.
There was nothing wrong with what she said, then. Just – in a way – something so strange about who had said it.
Because what she said regarding my grandmother was not spoken as if they were best friends. It wasn’t spoken even as a respect or seniority kind of thing. It was spoken as if my mother was still that little girl in my grandmother’s home in New York so many years ago – like someone who still looked to her and depended upon her.
It was spoken like a kid would speak – except, of course, that she’s no kid.
And seeing the reaction in my face at what she had said, my mother asked: “What?”
“She’s not your mom, Mom. She’s your friend.”
And my mother looked at me – with the same surprise at what I had said as I had felt at what she had said – and said:
“No. She’ll ALWAYS be my Mom.”
“Just like I’ll always be yours.”
And suddenly it made so much sense why kids struggle in their relationship with their parents when they reach adolescence, and why parents likewise struggle so much in understanding and dealing with their children when they reach that adolescence.
…I get what my mother was saying.
In the simplest biological sense, of course, she will always be her mother’s daughter, just as I will always be her son. Family trees can’t be altered. It won’t be changed come whatever may happen between them, or whatever things in life could possibly drive them apart. They will always be mother and daughter.
But, she wasn’t really talking about that.
Cause as a mother herself (and I’m pretty sure my Mom’s a mother), she was talking about that thing between them that’s both a bond and a separation; a link that connects them and a line that divides them.
The bond between a parent and child. But also the difference between a parent and child.
She was talking about the feeling that never leaves a mother – that concern for her child’s well-being that never sleeps; that fear for their present and concern for their future that never ends; that love for them that comes from caring for that child every moment of every day since their birth – since they were – in natural terms – completely incapable of doing so themselves.
You know…simply being a Mom.
But…she was also talking about something else.
She was talking about the difference that is inevitable – and natural – as a result of that same closeness; the kind of divide that forms from raising a child from birth to adulthood; from cleaning the vomit off their shirts, and the shit off their asses, and the tears from their eyes – from bearing witness to their every embarrassment and struggle, every success and piece of the world learned from their first day to this very day; from being the one who was there for them from the time when all they could do in this world was cry, sleep, swallow, and flail, to now, when they think they’re so mature and so adult.
She was talking about the dynamic that comes from simply being their parent at all – the one charged to raise them, the one with the power over them, and the responsibility for them – the kinda thing that you can’t just turn off, the profound sense of duty that never emotionally ends.
“Are they okay? Are they safe? Are they ready?”
She was talking about the fear, and concern, and total desire to see them well and do well that is no different when their child is 50 or 5, 10 years old or 10 months old – the mostly one-way street inherent in raising another that inevitably (in some way) puts you on a different plane from that child – in wisdom, knowledge, and care. A kind of separation that naturally comes – not just from age, or seniority, or respect – but from the simple fact that: “You may be an adult now. But I raised you.”
So is there anything weird about any of this?
I understand it. And I wouldn’t argue that my mother’s wrong in how she feels or what she believes. Cause of course that love never wanes. Of course that concern never fades. Of course that feeling of them as your child never changes. Nor should it, really.
But…(and a huge freaking but)…the child does.
The child does change.
And relationships, by their nature, consist of two ends. And though she may feel as she feels and believe as she believes and be right to feel and do so, her experience of that relationship is but one half of the whole – no matter how lopsided that half may seem and – in fact – be as a result of what she has given for her child and done to raise that child.
Because there lies a difference…
…between kids and teens that can’t be understated, though it’s so difficult for parents to accept, and even for me (admittedly) to articulate here.
And it has everything to do with how our needs are met as we grow and mature, and who it is that meets these needs as we do grow and mature. And from our first days to our last days these needs change dramatically. But, more importantly, to who we turn to meet these needs does as well.
Because the younger a child is, the more that child’s life and world is the result and design of their parent or guardian; the more their reality is a construct of the care, desires, beliefs, and instruction of those who raise them.
For the youngest children, then – for babies – their world is their parents’ creation.
Their world is their parents.
And because they can’t move, or speak, or care for themselves, there is no choice for them, or desire, even, for choice. Their needs are simple, and few. And so they are met entirely and solely by those who care for them. Nothing else matters to them, and therefore no one else matters.
Their parents are the only people in their life, though they may be surrounded by others, and their only concern, though the world could in fact be crumbling around them.
They care only that they’re fed, and rested. Warm, and safe.
And so it’s from this time, this period, in which the mother and father provide every physical and biological need, that the bond of which we spoke earlier becomes the innate feeling in the hearts and minds of parents that we perceive as “parenting” – that constant desire to protect and guide their child, to teach and control; that belief that their plan for them is the best plan for them, and their way is the way.
Because it’s in this time, and in this period, in every way, they become “parents” – a steward of a life; someone solely responsible for another human being. They are everything to their child. They are everything.
And in all they do, and everything they plan, they are “parenting” not only for the benefit of the child, but – in a way – on behalf of them. They are doing what it is that the child cannot do themselves. They are taking on the responsibility the child cannot shoulder. They are essentially living the life the baby cannot live.
And as the baby grows…
…as that child becomes a kid – that need for their parents remains mostly. Nearly entirely, even. While the parents’ desire to fulfill that need remains as well. Entirely unchanged.
Because although it makes logical sense that a child’s need of their parents lessens bit-by-bit, day-by-day, year-by-year linearly (and though that may be valid), in reality – and for the great majority of most childhoods – that dynamic of the parent as the parent, the child as the child, and the parents’ Law as the Law does not change but by the slightest amounts, or not at all in some cases.
They remain parent and child, Mother and daughter, Father and son.
The imbalance of power remains. The control of their lives remains. The idea that their parents know best, that their beliefs are the right beliefs, and their wishes are – whether they like them or not – for the kid’s own unseen good are no different at age 10 as age 1.
And so even though the kid is now not only walking and talking, but learning history and math, riding bikes and playing sports, and at last making their own friends at school, their parents remain the great percentage of their world.
Because though a 10 year-old boy may now have friends; though he may have hobbies, and interests, and pleasures of his own even, those things are still but a small part of everything that is truly his life – as his parents remain the Sun by which his world revolves. They remain the great filter through which his life is lived. They remain the controlling force of his life. And he does not build a life – his life – but by the pieces his parents bless. He does not live but by the schedule, and routines, and rules they establish.
His diet, his entertainment, the activities he’s involved with, the friends he’s allowed – all still determined by his parents. All a part or portion of his life only as a result of his parents’ consent.
And though his frustration may be growing, and for the first time truly showing – the kid accepts it anyway. As all young kids mostly do.
Because for them – as we’ve said – their parents are all they know. Their law is all they’ve ever known.
And though young kids may at last rebel at times – though they may hate the rules they’re given and the way they’re applied – the great majority of their childhood is spent obeying them anyway. And they do so mostly without fuss, and mostly unconsciously.
It’s amazing, really.
It’s amazing how well that original dynamic holds.
It’s amazing how long the frame through which the parents see their relationship with their child is accepted as the frame through which they will both live that relationship.
…there comes a time when parenting is no longer possible in the sense in which parents have known it, and in the way in which they’ve defined it.
There comes an inverse point where a parent no longer holds dominion over their child; where their word is no longer Law, and their home is no longer the greater part of their child’s world and reality; where it becomes weird to say or believe that their child – at that age – is “mine”, as parents so often say.
Because they’re not.
They’re not “theirs” any longer.
Because at a certain age they become their own property and their own responsibility – despite how young they may still seem, or how immature they may, in fact, be.
Cause parenthood ends when childhood ends.
And, I know…it seems weird to say; blasphemous even to someone still raising a teen or young adult.
“They’re as in need of my parenting now as they ever were,” one might say.
And, yes. The kid may still need their parent’s money to live, and their roof to stay warm. They may still need their help and support to survive. They may still need their guidance and rules to prevent them from completely ruining their lives.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? That now they have the ability to ruin their lives – in a fundamental way they did not when they were drawing on walls, or eating glue.
Now they control their lives. Because now they make their decisions.
They hold the power now.
It’s no longer you.
It’s no longer yours.
And so a parent ceases to be a parent – in the sense the parent would know it – because they cease to be the controlling force in their child’s life. They cease to hold true sway or true power as they once did. They cease to be the Law. Because now the child has the ability, and opportunity, and power to choose differently.
They can no longer truly be told what to do, or forced to do anything in the way they were when they were but children. And in any and every way they continue to obey and be that person their parents want them to be, and to follow that plan they’d like them to follow, they do so through their own choice only. By their own consent at some level.
And yet, when a teen begins to finally act out, as all eventually do, or to finally begin questioning the authority under which they’ve lived their whole lives, as all will as well – to rebel in that way most teenagers rebel – the parent (knowing no other way than the old way) “parents” as they’ve always parented. They try to exert that old reality – their reality – that frame of “I’m the parent and you’re the child” – back onto the teen. Because it’s always worked. Because it’s all they’ve known as well.
Except now it just results in yelling back and forth, and words said that can’t be unsaid, doors slammed in anger, and tears shed in helplessness. It results in the kind of purposeful defiance that drives parents mad, and the blatant disrespect that breaks their hearts.
And – much more than they’d ever admit, as they watch their kid slip farther and farther away – it just doesn’t work at all…
Because things have changed. Because the child has changed. Because they’re no longer the helpless, defenseless, baby they once were. They’re no longer the innocent thing that needed their parents’ complete protection and undivided attention.
They’re not a kid anymore.
But, more importantly, they’re not “your” kid. They’re not the property or possession we in some weird way come to think of children as in society.
They’re grown – though their parents may deny it.
They’re grown – though their parents may not like it.
And it’s all a matter of need.
It’s their needs, really, that have changed.
Because as they’ve reached adolescence they’ve become like any adult – complex. And what they perceive as their wants and desires are much greater now than the simple nourishment, warmth, and safety of their infancy, or the entertainment, encouragement, and attention of their young childhood.
And as their world has grown, not only has their need of their parents diminished, but the parents’ ability to meet those needs has lessened as well.
Because all they once got, and all they once received, and all they still receive from their parents is all they don’t care about now – that is, so long as they still have them.
They don’t care about food anymore, or naps anymore, or their favorite TV shows anymore. They don’t care about playtimes, or sleepovers, or even their freaking video games either. They don’t care about those things that their parents once provided or still provide.
Their very ability to survive at all.
Because though they’re important to their health and safety, and vital to their survival, those things aren’t the things teens are thinking about day and night. They aren’t the things that worry them or scare them. They aren’t the things they care about at all.
And because their needs have changed – because they have changed – their parents can no longer be everything to them, as they once were. They can no longer be the providers they once were.
They can no longer be “parents”.
And this is the disconnect between parent and teen…
…that starts unseen as they maneuver their grade school years, and grows so fast and so large as they reach their late teenage years – that though the teen remains, to their parents, the most important thing in the world, their parents are, to them, an ever decreasing part of it.
Because suddenly Mom’s love and attention means far less to them than that of the cute girl in class. Suddenly winning Dad’s approval takes a distant second to winning that of their friends. Suddenly the coolest toys and the latest video games, the highest achievements in sports and the best grades – the things that once constituted all they would have ever wanted when they were 5, or 10 – do nothing to fill the ever-widening hole in their self-confidence that school causes, or the void in their self-image that their bodies create, or simply the struggle they endure every day simply being a teenager.
That old shit does nothing to make them happy. It does nothing to make them feel normal. It does nothing to make them feel wanted.
And it’s these things they want in life now. No different than any adult. No different than their parents even.
And yet it’s these things that are exactly what their parents cannot provide.
And though the teen wants help and needs help – no less so than when they were young – they search and look for that support elsewhere, so long as their parents remain “parents” – someone different, someone controlling, someone judging.
It won’t be Mommy, then, they cry for when they’re sad or hurt, like they once did. It won’t be Daddy they run to when they’re threatened or bullied. It won’t be them they go to when they have a question about life, and it won’t be them they seek when they need someone to confide in or a shoulder to cry on.
Because what they want now more than anything is simply someone who understands, someone who gets it, someone who sees them not only as they see themselves, but as they themselves would like to be seen. And though so many parents out there would gladly be that person to their child, for their child, for whatever reason that person is almost never them. Not because it’s simply so, but because the parents have – in some sense – helped to make it so.
Because they refuse to be anything but “The Parent”
Because as the parent continues to force, and force, and force upon their teen the old and obsolete frame of them as The Law, The Responsible, The Parent – the one who knows best and knows all, the one who’s rules must be obeyed without question, without doubt, without conversation, the feeling in them that their parent doesn’t get it, doesn’t listen, doesn’t see them, doesn’t understand them only grows stronger.
Because they don’t.
And the teen grows to resent it, and to resent them. And their anger at the world rises. And the quiet or obvious depression they and so many feel within takes hold.
And it’s in no small part because their parents refuse to see the adults before them, and meet them as such. They refuse to see them as anything but that little kid they fed and played with, the baby they rocked to sleep, the child who’d smile and jump into their arms whenever they entered the home.
But that person has grown.
That person has grown up.
And though to the parent they may not be ready, may not be mature, may not be adult, in fact they are. They are conscious and capable people – able to make their own decisions and make their own lives. And if they were anything but human they’d have long been gone from the home, as – for any other animal – it would be a complete waste of resources to continue caring for an offspring long since capable of eating, shitting, sleeping, and running.
And yet we do.
And in a lot of ways this is the friction we see between parent and teen. This is the separation we feel. This is the growing-apart experienced in so many homes.
And as their parents continue to push that frame upon them, though it no longer applies, and though it no longer benefits either, teens will continue to look elsewhere for the support they truly need – from friends they sometimes needn’t, and places they often shouldn’t.
Not because they need to, not because they even want to, but because they have nowhere else to.
Because the parent continues to be The Parent when their teen needs someone to look up to. Because the parent continues to be The Parent when their teen needs someone to talk to. Because the parent continues to be The Law, when their teen decreasingly gives a shit.
But no one confides in the Law. No one befriends the Law. No one runs to the police for confessionals, and no one seeks them out when they could otherwise avoid the trouble and consequence of being honest.
And yet so often when “Parenting” is no longer possible, parents continue to “Parent”. When the rules no longer apply in that same way, and the relationship of their child’s infancy proves insufficient for their adolescence, parents double-down. When the child needs a friend the most, parents only become more and more The Parents – because they think they’re losing them and so they grasp harder and harder at holding on.
Yet, they are losing them. But not for the reasons they believe.
Teens, though, would turn to their parents…
…if they knew that when they did they were not speaking with judge and jury, but with someone who would understand and forgive. They would turn to them if they could do so without the guilt and shame of their disappointment and judgment. They would do so if their parent would simply be someone – anyone – other than their “Parent” for just a moment.
Because parenthood ends when childhood ends.
That relationship ends.
And any that arises after it is different in a fundamental way because the child is different. They’re changed. So too, then, must the parent.
And this doesn’t mean that they try to become their “friend” in the sense that they’re suddenly lenient or suddenly hip or whatever. It doesn’t mean that rules need not be laid or discipline need not be applied.
No. It’s more subtle than that.
It’s simply the realization that the child before them is no child. And that the problems they face are – to them – more important than any single grade on an exam or curfew broken, and that all they face and all they struggle with affect them far more than any punishment threatened or incentive given; that though they once controlled their life, and were once responsible for their life, they as parents can no longer be to them what they once were, and must give to them what this difference demands.
And so parents can keep doing as they’ve always done. They can keep pushing that frame and forcing that old reality. But they do so at the cost of not only that relationship (which is already ended by fact of their child’s growing up), but of any relationship at all.
Because although a parents’ plan for their teen may be best, and may be right, their pursuit of that plan at the expense of their sympathy for their child’s situation will only push them further away. Their force will cost them their relationship. It will cost them those years with their child. For now. For ever maybe.
And that’s the difference between childhood and adolescence.
That’s why teens and their parents so often struggle to get along, when once they were so happy.
That’s why more and more young adults consider family-time to be little more than a 10-minute call home – once a month, once a year, or in fact never at all.
Because parents refuse to be anything but Parents when the teen needs something else.
Because parents are still Parents when Parenting – as they have known it – is no longer the best way, no longer the way, no longer possible at all…
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