I read a great deal of blog posts about the joys and, more particularly, the challenges of parenting small children these days, and it’s a good thing. When you’re sleep deprived, when your house is a tip, when you haven’t been allowed to go for a poo on your own for as long as you can remember and Grampy Rabbit’s ‘The Sea, The Sky’ song is your perpetual ear worm, it’s both comforting and validating to be reassured that freezer food isn’t going to kill anyone, that all of us shriek at our kids sometimes and that when you’ve had a particularly tough day it’s OK to yearn for the moment they’re safely tucked up in bed so that you can rip into that bottle of prosecco.
I see fewer articles about parenting teens, and those I do see tend to be academic or instructional (“How to make your teen keep a tidy bedroom”, or “How to ensure your teen never takes drugs”), rather than celebrating the raw guts and glory of parenting à la Peter and Jane or The Unmumsy Mum. And despite the fraught times experienced by all parents of littlies, I pretty much guarantee that, if pushed, they’d admit to blanching at the prospect of some day exchanging those adorable bundles of joy for the hulking, hairy, hormonal, headstrong teenagers they are destined to become. I certainly would have done.
Teenagers used to terrify me: not only when I was a child, but when I myself became a teen and even during adult life. They are the reason I made the eyebrow-raising decision, in my early thirties and whilst working and raising two small children of my own, to undertake a PGCE in secondary music. (Grief, I had some courage back then.) Teenagers frightened me, so I decided I’d face that fear and learn to teach them. The reactions of those around me didn’t always inspire confidence.
“Big kids?” said one friend. “But you’re so little!”
“What, in secondary schools?” gasped another. “Ahh, no, I can’t imagine you doing that; you’re so quiet!”
I’m happy to report I survived the experience and even quite enjoyed some of it. And it did give me a useful insight into teens and pre-teens. In large groups they could still be intimidating, even brutal. At one point I was defeated by a class of year 9’s; I literally did the student-teacher thing of running from the classroom in tears. What surprised me was that they felt remorseful about it! They are human after all, I realised.
Once I’d got my bearings and was able to put together and deliver some good lessons, I experienced some truly rewarding moments: these kids were able and eloquent, but more than that they brought with them fresh perspectives that kept me re-evaluating my own – not just where my subject (music) was concerned, but on a whole raft of levels. Getting to know them was a privilege, and kept me on my toes (as did my high heels. And I was still the shortest person in the room).
As a parent of one fully-fledged teen and another months away from the big 1-3, it is their perspectives on different things that continue to surprise me and keep me thinking. When you parent young children you get used to calling the shots. On many counts you have to: it’s safety first. As they get older you have a choice: you can try to enforce your views, or you can listen to theirs and probably become a little more enlightened. Parenting, like so much of life, is a series of surrenders, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The outspoken reaction of my daughter and her friends towards the Brexit referendum made me very proud (at 14 I didn’t have a clue about politics). Their attitude towards sexuality is different and more evolved than mine: it’s all about the individual and not about pigeonholing. It simply isn’t an issue to them if somebody happens to be gay, bi or trans; doesn’t even register as a ‘thing’.
Is it easier parenting teenagers than it is small children? Everyone who has experienced both will have their own response to this, but for me it’s not a straightforward yes/no question. With small children you are always on duty, which in itself is exhausting. With teens it’s a balancing act: sometimes you need to call the shots, sometimes you need to back off and, against the inauspicious backdrop of your perpetually diminishing influence, you’re somehow supposed to know which battles to pick.
Your teen often won’t express the same kind of heart-melting affection that your little ones will. I remember discussing this with my mother-in-law once while on holiday. I attempted to ask her at what age my son was likely to stop giving me hugs, but I couldn’t even reach the end of the question without dissolving into tears (yes, alcohol was involved, but you get the point!) Well, he hasn’t stopped giving me hugs so far, and neither has Big Daughter, and long may that continue.
As for the smaller challenges of raising teens, there are plenty. You can’t tuck them into bed and then rip into a bottle of prosecco because they stay up later than you (and if they’re out, someone needs to be sober to pick them up). If you want to have sex you need to keep it silent as the grave because they’re awake (granted, they’re almost certainly plugged into their ears, but you can never be sure). They teach your three-year-old to call you “butthead” and quote Family Guy while she’s at nursery (giggety). You may feel your very soul is being eroded by the omnipresence of small screens. Fun family chats and singalongs in the car are a thing of the past because each of them is listening to his or her own music. You need a gas mask to enter their bedrooms (after knocking – do knock), but mostly put up with the knee-deep chaos because you know their brains are busy rewiring themselves right now and therefore making a fuss about the state of their rooms is a battle best left unpicked.
You laugh in your sleeve – albeit in a slightly unhinged way – at parents of younger children who pride themselves on strictly limited screen times or bright and early starts at the weekend when heading out on a lovely nature ramble while your teens are still farting away under their duvets at lunchtime. And you’ll never again know the satisfaction of having the last word and slamming the door because that’s a privilege you unwittingly pass on to them, while you assume the rather more dull role of grown-up.
There are, of course, plenty of compensations, lie-ins being one of them (or they would be, if I hadn’t gone and had another baby a few years ago, but that’s a tale for another post). Nights in while my husband is away are far more enjoyable now that the older two are up with me watching stuff we all actually want to watch. Through them I’ve discovered Lost, The Big Bang Theory (OK, I also have to credit my friend Will with those two), Modern Family and Once Upon a Time, all of which I’ve greedily binge-watched with either or both of them. I like to think I’ve returned the favour: my son is now an avid Doctor Who fan and Big Daughter can recite the script to Dirty Dancing practically verbatim. There’s been a similarly fruitful exchange where music is concerned, particularly Muse (mine) and Panic at the Disco (theirs). Going to a concert with your teen or pre-teen and knowing the songs does make you feel a bit young and cool.
Conversation is another big plus. All the ear-plugging and small screenage has in no way detracted from my kids’ ability to interact socially and debate the bigger issues. It’s particularly satisfying to hear Big Daughter arguing politics with my husband so eloquently that occasionally he is forced to concede that she ‘might just have a small point there’. As an added bonus, it’s gratifying for me and confidence-building for them that, after years of commitment to their various extra-curricular activities, they’re now getting seriously good at a couple of them.
Becoming a smaller, though still vital, influence on your child’s life is a double-edged sword. Beginning to relinquish control is always unnerving but it can bring with it a sense of relief: “They seem to be turning out OK in spite of me” is generally how I see it. However, the only people really qualified to evaluate your parenting are, of course, your children. As long as we’re communicating and the hugs keep on coming I’ll continue walking the tightrope and try not to fret too much.