Parenting adolescents – it’s in the barrel

Categorized as 07/27/09 Goshen News column

“Parenting,” Ed Asner sagely said, “is part joy and part guerilla warfare.” At no time is this statement truer than when navigating the treacherous shoals of the adolescent and teenage years. You may not have to be a rocket scientist to raise a teen, but I’m pretty sure it would help.

Growing up, I was the oldest of three children. My sister came two years after me, and she was followed five years later by our brother. He was (I admit it) a cute little guy at first. Funny, too, but then he got annoying, and for a lot of years, he was basically just annoying.

I didn’t realize at the time that his tussles with Dad and his propensity for practical jokes and daring adventures were just preparing me for what was to come. If I would’ve known then that I’d be raising all boys one day, missing the pink half of the spectrum entirely, I would’ve taken a lot more notes.

How well I remember the angst of my own adolescent and teenage years. To put it simply, the highs were high and the lows were low. While my brother was busy collecting bikes and riding the four-wheeler, my sister and I were far more concerned about our social status and relationships.

On any given day, our moods could swing a solid 300 points either side of the middle line, depending on what was happening on the social scene. This, I see now, could explain why my father and brother spent so much time tromping through the woods. What is the threat of cougars or death by bobcat, after all, compared to living with two hormonally-crazed teenage girls?

Somehow, I made it through those tumultuous years filled with sleepless slumber parties, part-time jobs, and social jockeying. Now, I have two teenagers of my own, and the view from this side is entirely different. In the understatement of the year, raising teens is a whole other ballgame from being one.

For one thing, ours are boys. This means that they approach life from a much different perspective than my sister and I did. As I would really like to understand these men I live with, I’ve blown any number of circuits by trying to “think like a man.” I’ve tried putting myself in a pair of sweaty size 11 sneakers and walking a mile in their shoes, as some wise guy once suggested. At the end of the proverbial mile, I’m still stumped, and I’ve got blisters to boot.

I’m beginning to think that Mark Twain was on to something when he said, “When a boy turns 13, put him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns 16, plug up the hole.”

This makes a whole lot of sense in light of my burgeoning grocery bills. For some reason, when boys hit adolescence, a switch gets flipped that turns an average, garden-variety pantry piranha into a veritable food furnace. My brother, for instance, was famous for his appetite as a teen. He would eat anything that wasn’t nailed down or growing mold. Dad used to say, “He gets hungry from eating.” And he was right.

Another notable shift that occurs is their change in attitude toward members of the opposite sex. At first, girls are disgusting and weird. They’re annoying and dumb. At the very least, they’re incomprehensible creatures best left alone.

When one of our teenagers was in second grade, he had a running feud with a girl in his class whose desk, unfortunately, bordered his. She was the proud owner of a huge box of crayons. The trouble began when she would flip the lid open and let it lie on his desk. This infuriated him. Back and forth they went. Open, close. Open, close. He would storm home, furious at the intrusion as his project lay unfinished on his desk.

Then there was the dark and terrible day one of “them” had the audacity to sneeze on the back of his neck. Furious, he blew up to the teacher’s desk, sneakers smoking, and energetically lodged his complaint. At the tender age of 9, he swore off girls forever, squirming with indignation at the thought of such close contact with girl germs.

It was this very boy whose entrance into adolescence was marked by an abrupt and noticeable interest in the fairer sex. Suddenly, he was devouring nearly every book on relationships that we had. He picked my brain endlessly, wanting to know what girls were looking for and how to pique their interest. He even began praying for opportunities to sparkle his teeth in a charming smile at the girl of his dreams. I think it was then that the barrel with a knot hole idea started looking really good.

Oh, raising teens is hard work. It’s frustrating, fun, rewarding, and exhausting by turns. Some days, you want to retire. And that’s before driver’s ed begins. But somehow, you always manage to resist the urge to quit and to hang in there for one more day because when you look at them, you see the babies they once were and the fine young men they will become. Once you unplug the knot hole, that is.

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