Ariel’s post on rebelling against liberal parents had me reminiscing over the last year, in which our household has been the on again, off again home to our seventeen year old niece. This was an interesting experience to me as a mother because it was a peek into the parenting future.
I often noticed the similarities between having a three year old and a teenager. Both are primarily concerned for themselves. Both are struggling with the need to distance themselves from you and anyone else perceived as taking care of them. Both are expensive (preschool + senior year of high school–now I am seeing the lifetime investment of a kid.) Neither wants to hear that you know better: whether it is sticking a finger in a light socket or skipping the SATs, they want to test the results themselves.
The big difference for us is that the stakes are so high with a teenager, and finding a balance of freedom and guidance can be nearly impossible. Sex, drug use and failing school were themes we were dealing with, and our niece ended up with many a strike in each category.
Our niece, in particular, was floundering in an effort to distance herself from her family. We wanted to help, but how? I saw over and over our niece’s act of rebellion: it was to fail at what people wanted most for her, or what people tried hardest to help with. I don’t know if she thought achievement would be some kind of umbilical cord to the people who helped, but it put us in a tough spot. What do you do for the kid who doesn’t want you to do anything but give them a shower, some food, and some distance?
Being aunt and uncle removed us from any kind of “I am your parent” authority, which was a blessing, because it dictated the path for us: helping our niece in any way we could, and asking for her respect and cooperation in return. She knew that new tattoos and piercings couldn’t faze us, but skipping classes or not turning in work on which we’d helped her would hurt us. That was as much as we could offer in the way of discipline to a girl who changed homes and families whenever she was turned off by one. She was going to be eighteen within months, and it seemed like it was sink or swim time, time for her to try out that independence she was craving. We would help, but we wouldn’t force.
Sometimes I wonder if we chose wrong, and how we will deal our kids’ teenage years and push for independence. Our niece didn’t end up graduating high school, even though my husband stayed up night after night trying to help her with assignments and studies. She left us with little thanks.
She moved in with her boyfriend as soon as she turned eighteen and we haven’t seen much of her since. I don’t know if she will get her GED and continue with school, if she would let her own interests lead her life or or if she will live it for her boyfriend (as so many teenage girls do), or if she will be pregnant any day now.
Were we enablers? Would trying to rein her in have helped her or caused her to leave our home sooner? These are questions I will be hashing over for the 10 years until my son hits teen-agery.
And how about this: Were we wrong to spend so much time, money and effort when we were guaranteed so little in return? Is that the foolery of two young parents still entrenched in the years you absolutely cannot expect much from your children, or is that the fact of parenting at any age?
I am coming to believe the latter: as mothers, we will always be there for the kids we love, no matter what, and we can’t look for any specific result from that. We have to do it out of pure love and dedication. We could be sorely disappointed waiting for our kids to pay us back with admiration and achievements in kind to our efforts. But if we do it all out of love, any kind of return is just a cherry on top.
It doesn’t matter if your kid is three, seventeen or thirty-five: you will always try to help them, and they may or may not understand or appreciate it. It’s not that I think parents should be doormats, but that parenting cannot be an investment in specific outcomes. In fact, according to studies on the happiness of parents, such expectations and investments are often the specific and unnecessary root of parental unhappiness and stress.