Simcha Fisher: What it’s really like raising teenagers

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Teenager grimacing
Previously sweet children can become ‘allergic’ to their parents in teenagerhood. PHOTO: Freepik

A lot of digital ink gets spilled over what it’s really like to raise older kids. I mean really, truly, no jokes, just the unvarnished truth.

We currently have four teenagers, and I’ve tried, myself, to put down some useful words on the topic, but the truth is, nothing scrambles your brain or flattens your ability to function like raising kids this age, these days. And yet it must be done. So here’s my contribution:

Writing about teenagers tends to fall into two categories.

The first comes across like a final report discovered decades later from deep inside a sealed bunker. You know the kind : “They have taken the bridge and the Second Hall. We have barred the gates but cannot hold them for long. We cannot get out. They are coming” kind of thing.

Poor miserable souls these parents are, for so many years they clung to the illusion that their own children would be different, and that they alone would maintain discipline and order and even an amicable relationship with their offspring.

Poor miserable souls these parents are, for so many years they clung to the illusion that their own children would be different…

But they suffer the same fate as everyone else. Their kids are absolute sociopaths, and the parents can’t wait to warn their peers about the fate that awaits them. They hang around at maternity wards just to gloat. They turn up at kindergarten graduations of strangers and throw tomatoes at the stage, because these kids may look adorable now, but they know what’s coming as soon as puberty sets in.

So that’s one kind of advice you’ll get from parents of teens. The other type valiantly pushes back against these tired tropes of the surly, smelly, antisocial adolescent. These parents insist that it’s neither necessary nor normal for teenagers to behave so poorly. Give them some higher expectations and a little guidance, and they’ll grow and bear fruit like the most elegant of topiaries.

They themselves have an entire phalanx of teenagers in their house right now, they will tell you, and the only way you’d guess it is because of the sounds of the viola wafting up through the floorboards as they willingly practice their arpeggios. One teen is tutoring his younger brother, two are about to come home from work at the Fine Young Man Store, and one is sitting at the desk he built himself, writing a letter to apologise to his elderly neighbour for how unevenly he chopped the shallots in last Sunday’s boeuf en croûte.

It is simply a matter of having the right expectations, and you must simply expect your children to be as inexhaustibly fabulous as you are yourself, and the job’s halfway done.
(The other half happens at boarding school, it turns out, which the grandparents pay for. Also the kids spend their weekends at the grandparents’ house. The grandparents themselves live in a metal trailer in the desert, desperately petitioning the courts to terminate their visitation rights.)

I joke, I joke. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Teenagers are by no means natural sociopaths, but neither are they [excuse me while I get up and make sure my door is locked] especially willing and eager to be formed into useful members of society. Not. Especially.

One thing that’s very much true is that teenagers are watching their parents very carefully for cues for how to live. While you may not see immediate dividends for this strategy, and while human behaviour is always a bit of a wildcard, your best bet for ending up with a teen who can function in the world is to provide them with your own daily living as a solid example of what it looks like to be a decent, hard-working, functioning, stable human being. You see?

The only flaw in this plan is when you, as an adult, abruptly discover that you forgot to grow up yourself, and are in fact, kind of a craphead who doesn’t know how to do anything, regularly sleeps through alarms, never hits deadlines, and will eat an entire sack of banana-flavored instant oatmeal raw if nobody stops you.

Here you are, responsible for an entire household of adult-sized people who not only look to you for guidance on how to live, but also actively resent you for it, and do the opposite of what you tell them, and then blame you for it, and at the same time, other parents are also looking to you for support and encouragement, because you’re one of the few parents they know whose children are not currently literally on fire, and the whole time, deep down, you’re STILL THAT TEENAGER WHO HAS NO IDEA HOW TO LIVE.

You never got over it, and now you’re supposed to be in charge! And you have no idea! But you’re in charge! It would be hilarious if it weren’t so absolutely mind-bendingly outrageously tragically hilariously I’m sorry, I forgot what we were talking about. My brain has been doing this weird skipping thing lately, and I haven’t been sleeping well, at all.

Oh, I think I was saying it’s pretty much fine having teenagers, pretty much. It’s not that bad. Have you tried drinking? Maybe some instant oatmeal? We are out of banana, however.

Check back next week, when I discuss how to teach your teenagers how to drive.

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Simcha Fisher: Why isn’t there more advice about raising teenagers?