When You’re Not Sure You Want Your Kid to Do What You Did: On the Cognitive Dissonance of Parenting an Adolescent
Posted on October 18, 2014
Lately my eldest, Miss. 11.5, has been getting increasingly monosyllabic. “Ya”, “No”, “k”, “Huh?”, etc. She’s as reliable, independent, and wonderful as ever, but I’m not getting as much of the “oh man, will you just get to the point after all your rambling” stuff that preceded impending adolescence. Perhaps it’s because her two younger siblings are gladly taking on that role. Generally, I’m ok with the fact that she’s moving on from telling her parents everything that’s on her mind.
Maybe it’s time for her to have a break from me. I know I can be a bit preachy at times, so I don’t blame her for regarding my questions as threats. Goodness, compared to the way I treated my own parents, she has to be the least teenagery child of all time.
Pre-adolescence is a strange time to be a parent because I find it’s when the decisions and approaches of the parents in your circle of friends and family start to diverge. Up until now, everyone generally went by fairly standardized approaches based on developmental milestones, while differences seem to revolve mostly around bedtimes or to what extent one was going to fight about broccoli going down their child’s esophagus.
But now we have the possibility of cell phones (aka super pocket computers able to connect with anyone anywhere), midnight sleepovers, risqué Halloween costumes. You start to hear more of: “OMG WHAT are they allowing their daughter to do?!?!” “I would never let my daughter do that” and “Over my dead body”. We start to focus much more on the no examples in our mind, where the 0-10 years were indicative of far more yes examples, as in “Yes, please, I wish my child would learn to do that already.”
Growing up, I didn’t have many limitations put on me. My parents were nurturing but fairly permissive, and I thus had a lot of freedom to mess up and figure things out on my own. This was mostly due to the fact that my parents were always just trying to get by, struggling as the ones for whom the American Dream was seemingly always out of reach. Many people tell me that some of my strengths as an adult include my ability to learn and adapt to new contexts and situations, and I trace much of it back to my relatively dysfunctional upbringing.
As a teen I engaged in plenty of risk-taking behaviours that, in some cases, are the kind which show up in a conservative parent’s worst nightmares. I experienced great joy, failure, and learned valuable lessons from every single one of them. As I got older, I learned how to channel my desire for the new and unknown into positive, professional and personal avenues. I reflect on it very much as a natural evolution, and I look at many of those experiences as abstract, inanimate teachers from my past. I also notice that my middle-aged peers who did not tray very far in their teens and twenties often reach a stage of ‘what if’ disillusionment about aspects of their past, whereas my wife and I generally are confident we know what happens if.
So now we are the fortunate parents of three remarkable and healthy young chicks, all of them learning to fly. Both of us are well established and successful in our careers. We’ve got a mortgage, credit cards, and a mini van. I find myself thinking about odd things such as, “Would my neighbour like the shade of brown I want to paint my garage door with?” It’s all very boring and significantly ticky-tacky.
I start thinking about how messy and experimental I want my kids to get in adolescence. I believe people are made through adversity, but is it possible to contrive it? I had moments as a teen which I would call miserable without fear of being over-dramatic. Those experiences helped mould who I am. Do I let my own kids be miserable? Is that even possible?
Perhaps parenting has forever been this way, a constant state of irresolution, a perpetual cognitive dissonance. I wonder if, in fact, like a beautiful math or physics problem, this is the beauty of parenting. I know that risk taking and experimentation made the strong, confident, growth-oriented adult that looks back at me in the mirror each day. To what extent will I intervene if and when my own kids want to stray?
This post can also be read on my Medium parenting blog Daddygogy.