If they use their words, we’re obligated to listen

When you tell someone you are parenting teenagers, the first thing they do is tell you to “hang in there.” Sometimes they roll their eyes. Sometimes they offer to buy you a drink. “Girl, I hear you,” their sympathetic look seems to say.
I admit being blind-sided by the whole teen years thing, but now one of them is 14 and the other 16 and we’ve been doing this dance for a while. I’m experienced now.

I don’t just hang with my own teens. I’m often the driver for other people’s teens. When you’re the mom driver in a carful of teenagers — especially girls — they seem to think you are deaf and cannot hear their conversations. I hear many conversations and feel for them. Every once in awhile they remember I’m here and they ask me for an opinion or, God forbid, information about something not covered correctly in school (think sex ed or cannabis) and I have to figure out ways to answer questions truthfully, factually, and without anyone’s parent calling me up late at night and threatening to press some sort of charge.

It is never easy being the parent of teens.

None of our kids are perfect and often they aren’t as articulate as we’d wish they could be. Remember when they were small and inarticulate and we’d say “use your words” and they’d try to voice their frustrations? We led them to believe if they just voiced what was wrong there would be a way to fix things. I gave my kids that line, too.

Here’s where that doesn’t work: Teenagers and there’s nowhere that is more obvious to me than in the realm of our local boys will be boys culture.

A frequent rider in my car a few weeks ago was way quieter than usual. She’d gotten in trouble at school for hitting a boy. The boy had been harassing her to go out with him since last summer. He taunted her, teased her, tripped her. Called her names.

Apparently nothing has changed since I was a girl. A girl says no and so the boy spreads rumors of all manner of ill repute. It defies logic — as my own daughter pointed out. How can you both be too good and too bad at the same time?

I asked the girl a week later whether or not the boy had been reprimanded for his jerk behavior. She said no — but she had been sent to a counselor to deal with her “anger” issues. At this point it’s a good thing it was spring break because every bone in my body wanted to run to the school district — Uma Thurman in Kill Bill style — and teach some lessons. But I’m calm and I’m old and I’m not a ninja and I’d be out of breath by the second leg kick.

Is it any wonder the teen years are hard for girls when they get so many hypocritical signals? They learn the lessons between the lines. They learn if you stand up for yourself, you’re the problem. If you stand up for others? You’re also a problem.

They also learn that even in 2019 we have a culture of “boys will be boys” and it doesn’t matter what their thoughts and feelings are — it doesn’t matter that they want their bodies left alone.

This is why I’m super thankful that my own kids have been involved with programs like West End Theatre’s SWEET (Sierra West End Education Theatre) and Girls Rite in Quincy, Magic Beanstalk Players and Pachuca Productions, and when they were younger, Roundhouse Council in Greenville. These tiny, nonprofit programs in our communities and the women who run them go a long way in providing space for teens that the schools often fall far short of providing. These programs can be lifesavers and game changers for the kids involved.

There were seven teens from both Indian Valley and Quincy in my recent play, “Serious Moonlight.” One of the sad parts of it being over is I’ll miss the impromptu pizza parties and talking sessions that often emerged backstage and before rehearsal.

My kid or another kid would say something negative about themselves, then the well-trained Jennifer Ready (Girls Rite) or Risa Nesbit (SWEET) or Megan Mansfield (from public health) would jump on them and remind them to say five good things about themselves. It made me happy to know these women in our community — each from their own agencies or community organizations — care so much about the well-being of teenagers in our communities. It was great to see all those kids laughing and smiling and having a great time.

It’s wonderful that we have these organizations and adults who give their time to teens outside of the school setting — it goes a long way in balancing out the negative reinforcement that forced socialization in schools often brings.

We talk a good deal of how to solve the mystery of teen suicide in our county with our working groups and task forces. But do we ever stop and think that perhaps we need nothing fancier than simply changing the toxic culture so many grow up a part of? That so many in turn perpetuate on themselves?

We teach our kids early to “use their words.” In the teen years they learn this is a double standard and that using your words doesn’t often solve the problem. Maybe the adults in homes, schools and those long car rides full of teens — can start listening instead.