Parenting Teenagers

Today, my twin boys Finnegan and Cormac turn 13. It feels very strange to have teenaged sons and I feel very much like I’m sailing in uncharted waters. I don’t remember getting much of any parenting at their age. It wasn’t long after I had to adjust to moving from New Jersey to Oklahoma that I then had to adjust to puberty. It was a huge amount of change to process all at once and my main way of adapting to it all was to figure out the boundaries of parental involvement well enough so I could manage to get as much autonomy as possible.

I figured out fairly early that if I never got into serious trouble and maintained decent enough grades, I could do anything in my life in between those lines. In Oklahoma, you can get a motorcycle license at age 14. I had this hilariously low powered trail bike at the time and received my license as soon as I could. It gave me the freedom to roam, which I took advantage of mostly by finding movie theaters most easily accessible via lightly traveled roads.

So at age 14 in the summertime, I was taking my little trail bike to the movies almost daily to see just about everything that was out — including a whole lot of R rated stuff. By then it was just second nature to me — as early as 13, I was watching really disturbing stuff like “Midnight Express,” (which includes a very long scene where a prisoner masturbates when his girlfriend comes to visit him at a Turkish prison), “Animal House” (a comedy, but that movie would be unrelease-able today with its various sexist jokes and bizarre subplot about statutory rape,) “The Deer Hunter,” (which still gives me nightmares due to those crazy Russian Roulette scenes) and “Apocalypse Now.” My kids have ready access to all of this kind of stuff now because of the Internet, but they aren’t a fraction as comfortable with really disturbing material as I was.

And no wonder, because the people in my life were at least as crazy as the movies. My dad was a non-presence in my life at the time, but he was busy out on his own destroying himself in various ways. It really wasn’t until he had a heart attack at age 49 when my dad found an anchor in the imminent threat of death and started to shift his focus back to others. He was a complete disaster of a human when focused on himself.

My mom was completely caught up — for the first time in her life — living a life of comfort and wealth. She reveled in the attention my stepfather lavished on her — the frequent dinners at expensive restaurants, the endless shopping, lots of travel. This was possible because my stepfather was running a criminal enterprise in the form of a truck stop. The business was taking in so much cash via illegal gambling and god knows what else shady business (all of it requiring “connections” and kickbacks, I’m sure), that my stepfather’s accountant made it clear that there was only one way to avoid paying taxes on all of this and potentially getting caught — spend everything you take in.

So my parents were busy re-inventing themselves and I was left with absolutely no values to fall back on. There was something extremely liberating about having the freedom to self invent — it actually was more than freedom, it was an imperative. I became both highly self reliant in my actions but also completely parasitic in my reliance on this superstructure of greed and irresponsibility.

It was my strong desire to keep my parents at a distance that gave me a semblance of saving grace through all of this, because if I had fully indulged all of the money and freedom that I had in my teenaged years, there’s no limit to the self destruction I could have brought down on myself. I self regulated away from that destructive behavior and added to my obsession with movies by becoming a ruthless, hyper competitive debater who terrorized opponents. My cross examinations were cruel and unrelenting, dripping with sarcasm and disdain. As I look ahead to my Jungian shadow work, it was in debate where my darkest will to power impulses took on their purest form, and I was insanely good at it.

Last week, I half joked to Mac that my days as a laid back, supportive but not pushy dad would immediately come to an end if he ever decided to participate in debate in high school. At that point, my id would be unleashed and I would demand he pick up my mantle and dominate. I say half joke, but I know it’s true. I was a high school debate coach at Walter Payton High School for one year in 2004-05, where I transformed a bunch of smart, laid back kids into absolute assassins. It actually became too intense for me at that point and I had to step aside — it was getting in the way of my career and personal life. I was also not making a lot of friends among other coaches, which didn’t bother me. I was looking out for my debaters, not theirs.

I feel a little bit of this competitiveness with writing as well. I cannot tolerate my kids turning in a half-assed paper, I tend to push them over numerous drafts to go deeper. But I’m also highly protective of their work after it’s complete and got into a pretty serious conflict with Finn’s teacher last year when I didn’t think she fully appreciated the quality of one of his more imaginative works.

So I have these few things — movies, debate and writing — that I can help my kids with. But I would like them to pull away from their devices and become better rounded people. I’d love for them to learn musical instruments, if just for the ability to play with others and enjoy the experience. I’d like them to read for enjoyment. I suggested to Finn last week that maybe the three of us should read “Don Quixote” this summer together and compare thoughts on it. I might be able to pull it off if I bribe them enough.

But this raises another concern — the whole money dysfunction concern. I was raised with a wallet throughout my teenaged years and I want to avoid doing that with my kids. I’m hoping they don’t grow up with the same sense of entitlement and misunderstanding of the difficulties of getting by in the world on the money you earn.

I could go on about this for awhile, but I will just leave it here. Notice that I have not talked about the more common teenager concerns about relationships, especially romantic ones. I feel so out of my depth on that issue that I honestly wouldn’t know where to begin to give good advice to my sons. That concerns me and perhaps is the primary reason why I still go to therapy. If I can’t figure it out for myself, how can I be of any help to my children?

Perhaps the answer is that its something they are going to have to figure out anyway — and just giving them a secure attachment model through their early lives has already done more good that I know. I hope this is the case. I know that I have probably screwed up in ways that they will let me know about later in life, and I’m ok with that. We all create unique issues for our children to overcome.

At this point, I’m just pleased that I have two intelligent, caring boys who have no desire to exploit others and who feel like they have something to offer the world. I can’t wait to see what enters the world through them.

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