Life’s longing for itself

My oldest son is on the verge of turning thirteen. Just as I was, and as probably all kids feel, he is incredibly excited to have that -teen suffix on his age. He thinks it will change his life and that it will be non-stop excitement. In truth it will not be non-stop excitement, but a gradual unveiling of who he is as an individual.

Most people I know fear the thought of their children reaching their teen years. Rebellion seems to be what people worry about most, and that their kids will do something terrible to mess up their lives. If as a parent you ever had any illusion that you could control what your kids do, you would have to be delusional to seriously think you still had that control in the teen years. That’s the time when your child will start to make their own choices about the big issues that may seriously affect their lives, and there are so many more issues that determine what they will choose than just what you have taught them. With luck and grace, hopefully our kids will choose well enough to avoid negative, life-altering consequences.

However, I have wondered how much “teenage rebellion” is really just the child making a choice other than what the parents want. Our culture makes a big deal out of teenage rebellion, and psychology tells us that in our culture the teen years are a time of individuation, when each of us has to decide what our identity will be outside of our family of origin.

When I was a teen, appearance was the biggest issue of debate in my house. My parents would probably say that I rebelled a lot, even though I didn’t do half of the things I really wanted. I often think this is why I pierced my nose in my late 20s and still have it well into my 30s: I wanted it at 16 and knew my parents would have completely flipped out, so out of respect (and to avoid major punishment) I chose not to do it. Most of my teenage “rebellion” was either about wanting to control my own appearance or believing that their curfews were unreasonable. As an adult I now see that obeying curfews was about respect, but I don’t feel that way about the appearance issues.

Was it really rebellion that I wanted to get a tattoo at age 16, just because my parents didn’t like them? Was it rebellion that I wanted to color my hair purple or get body piercings? They thought I was interested in those things only because they didn’t like them, when that was just actually who I was. I wanted to do those things in spite of their opinions, not because of them. They couldn’t understand why someone could possibly want to alter their appearance in such a way that society considers unattractive, therefore they assumed it must have been rebellion. But when I was an adult and free to do whatever I wanted, I still went on to get more tattoos and to dye my hair in weird colors. I was trying to be my authentic self as a teen and it just happened to disagree with my parents’ view of my “authentic self.” That mismatch between my self-image and their image of me was the problem.

It makes me wonder how often teens are said to be “rebelling” when in fact they are just expressing that they have interests their parents don’t like. Certainly, when it comes to disregarding curfew or sneaking beer with friends after the football game, some behaviors are just typical for teens. But I know someone who is a devout Christian whose son became an atheist in his teens, and my friend assumed her son was rebelling. Why isn’t it possible that her son just came to different conclusions on his own? Painful for the parent, certainly. But there is no guarantee that our children will come to the same conclusions about life that we have.

As parents I think it is natural that we expect our children to turn out like us. Of course, the way we raise them will influence them. But our children are not us. They are individuals with their own minds, and opinions, and rights to make their own decisions. In order to become the opposite of me and my husband, our children would have to become fundamentalist hardcore right-wing sports fans. If that’s what they choose to become, it will be because that’s who they are, not because they are trying to be in opposition to me. It is their job to become who they are. It is my job to guide them well by my values while I can, pray that they will use the guidance well and respect who they become. I do not get to design them as a clone of myself, but I have to accept them for the individuals they are.

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