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Friday, April 13, 2018

confessions of a gen Z parent

Most parenting articles are a vehicle for dispensing advice, disseminating information or providing encouragement and support.

This post is none of those. It's more along the vein of weary surrender.

Anyone with a set of ears or eyes knows the legends, notorious and frightening, of raising teenagers. I can't count the number of times someone said to us, while embroiled in a medal-worthy tantrum with our preschooler, "You just wait until the teen years."

It's kind of like when a woman, her belly curved with baby, an announcement of her imminent initiation to the ranks of parenthood, has to endure well-intentioned yet careless parents warn of the treacherous journey ahead, stealing joy and expectancy with one swift cut: "You just wait. Your life will never be yours again."

I can say many things about being the mother of a teenager. The tales are true, the struggle is real and daily, the job itself often unfair and cruel. It's brutal to watch your child's adoration of you turn to rejection, embarrassment, scorn, and fury. It's painful to live with someone dislikes you roughly 50% of the time.

Confession #1: I tend to be a micromanager, a Type A person with significant  marginal control issues. I don't love this about myself. I've worked to channel these liabilities into strengths (I know how to get shit done) and, even more beneficially, have learned the delicate and rewarding art of letting go.

Letting go means keeping my mouth shut when my teenager waits for the bus in a t-shirt on a 28 degree morning. It means not pushing when she won't share her speech with us, the one that was selected to advance to the next round in a school competition, depriving us of celebrating her accomplishment. Letting go means allowing my 10-year-old buy whatever she wants with her money even if it's crappy plastic junk that will end up in the trash when I find it in a dusty corner two months from now. It means standing by, baffled but silent, as she shaves an eraser into tiny bits and collect them in a Ziploc bag because its a quirky project she's doing with a friend and it makes her happy.

These are the easy ones.

Then there are the other ones. The situations that lurk in dark corners, striking at will and ruining otherwise good moments, the ones that bait a momma bear's instinct to protect! to set a limit! to intervene! while every step you make in that direction breeds argument, discontent and defiance between you and your child.

These are the tightropes of parenting a teen, where choosing left or right - intervene or let go- might be the wrong answer.  Either way you still plummet to the ground.

Big ticket items: poor diet choices that have significant ramifications on health and mood; teeth brushing, the absence of which means large dental bills;  a disrespectful attitude, including eye rolling, sighing, back-talk and excessive grumpiness; money- how much do I give you and how much do you earn? And this list can be added to infinitely- grades, jobs, dating, friends, lying, drinking, sex, etc.

Then, the granddaddy of them all: the phone.

Confession #2: I hate the phone. I hate being the phone police, managing screen time, data consumption, app usage, safety, potential bullying, privacy, text messages and Internet searches.

It's really messing with my attempts to let go.

I hold the burden of regulating phone usage heavy in my heart every day, knowing too much isn't good for a child, especially one with a mood disorder. I'm terrified that the phone is often more captivating than real life, devastated that screen time is more appealing than climbing a tree or a mountain and panicked that my teen's developing brain is being wired to need steady, rapid-fire digital input. I anguish over what social media is teaching her about her body, her life, herself.

I want to cry every time I say, "Hey look!" and point to something we're passing in the car-  a tawny doe in a frost-covered field, someone in a Statue of Liberty costume on the corner near the mall, a flock of geese flying in a perfect V against a tangerine sky - only to have my daughter barely glance up and offer me a feeble "ugh huh" before her head is pointed down once again, magnetically pulled to the force field of Instagram and Snap Chat.

And don't even get me started on the postural ramifications "text neck" has on the growing musculoskeletal system.

I remember, two years ago, saying to my daughter, "I know you're growing up and technology is part of our world, but I refuse to lose you to a phone."

This was before I understood the tsunami of social influence the phone, and the world that exists on it, would present to us.  Technology- the acquisition and consumption of it- is a social animal, heavily driven by peer groups and corporate influence.  It's a story as old as time, a quintessential hallmark of adolescence - "But all my friends are doing it!" -  accompanied by the upstream swim parents must navigate in the murky waters of limit setting and balancing kids budding independence with the need to keep them safe.

I've considered that perhaps the phone is just the vehicle of independence of this generation and that the more I focus on it, the more strife, rebellion and distance I'm creating.

But what if the opposite is true? What if, in letting go, I'm inadvertently making choices for my child and her brain that are irreversible, irrevocable and detrimental. Perhaps this is no time to let my guard down, to surrender. Especially now when the stakes seem to be at an all time high and getting higher with each passing year.

It's the tightrope, a fall on either side. The mental gymnastics themselves are enough to make you give up.

Confession #3: It is a crushing responsibility to choose for another human being when each move, to act or to not act, will impact her future.

I hear the recycled parenting advice on a loop: you're meant to be a parent, not a friend. You're the boss and you make the rules. I hear the incessant feedback of the generation above mine, well-meaning folks keen on pointing out what parents of today already know, already fear. That phones are ruining society and crippling kids socially, how screen time diminishes the development of emotional intelligence and creativity, how it's linked to depression and obesity and the how the instant gratification and intense neural stimulation impacts brain development and learning performance.

None of this provides comfort day to day. None of this helps the battle or the war. Because, for most parents, every step you take between your teen and her phone makes you the instant enemy. Because we live in a time when there is an actual term for people who have fear and anxiety about being separated from their phone. It's nomophobia, or "NO MObile PHOne phoBIA".  Because we live in a time when another word, far more alarming, circles like a vulture: addiction.

(Maybe you're the parent of a teen and not having this experience. If so, can I come hang out at your house for a while? I promise to leave my phone at home.)

Can you see the conundrum? I'm working to allow my daughter to be who she is, express herself, make her own choices and find her own way, understanding her life is her own and not mine.  So I let go of my end of the rope (yes, with hands bloodied and bruised from rope burn), give up the fight, stop micromanaging, surrender the power struggle. I slip my finger out of my end of the Chinese finger trap, hoping ease on my end will discharge the battle.

But if I do too much of that, she will never get off the flipping phone.

How do you give up micromanaging when micromanagement is required?  Do I let her swipe her finger endlessly down her phone during breakfast or do I put my foot down? Do I mandate a break from screens when it makes her even less willing to participate in family life? Do I intervene when she sits with friends, side by side, not speaking, their heads in each of their phones?

The old adage "pick your battles" comes to mind often. It's great advice, though this parent could use some guidance in battle selection.

A couple of years ago when my girls were much younger I was hanging out with a friend who had  children the same age as mine as well as a teenage daughter. In a passing exchange between the mother and daughter, I watched the daughter speak to her mother in a tone so full of disdain and rudeness, I hurt for her and the betrayal she must have felt to have the child she had sacrificed everything for treat her that way. Even more confusing was the mother's reaction to it, something between defeat and acceptance.

I vowed to myself that I would never let my children speak to me that way.

Fast forward and here I am, standing on the slippery slope, picking my battles.  Which do I let slide and which require consequences and withholding of privileges? Does the annoyed response when I ask an interested question about her sport get ignored? What about the sharp temper, lite like a fuse, when I say it's time to put the devices up? How about the exasperated, borderline contemptuous, response to a mistake I've made or a wish I cannot or will not fulfill.

Let it go, I tell myself. Don't focus on it. And my personal favorite: it's not worth it. But then, in one blinding instant, when too many days have stacked into weeks and then months, I realized my child was talking to me in the way I vowed I would never allow.

I'm not just on a slippery slope. I'm on a landslide.

I told someone I respect, "I'm done with the struggle, tired of being the scapegoat. I'm letting go. She has to figure this out for herself." To which my kind, knowledgeable friend (the parent of adult children) said, "You can't. You're her mom."

And so we have standing limits in place: the phone is surrendered nightly at 8pm (and every minute past is docked from morning usage), she pays for the phone and the monthly service fee, chores are required and when a device break is mandated (especially during the less structured weekend time) all items are relinquished to the parents to prevent the inevitable sneaking that occurs. I try, as much as humanly possible, to execute these with as little emotion and apology as possible. 

I didn't fully understand that at some point my responsibilities as a parent would make me the target of  my child's anger, confusion, insecurity, stubbornness and wrath. I didn't know that, no matter which way I went, I would feel like I was losing. I didn't realize how abruptly the tide would change from loving child to surly teen (practically overnight) and how much I would miss my daughter. I didn't ever mean to be, don't want to be, the roadblock, the obstacle, the enemy.

I take great comfort in the big picture and, as much as possible, use my gut and my heart to guide my decisions. And I try to remember that part of why I miss my daughter is because it's her job to pull away from me; it was long ago written in the stars.

Confession #4: Natural though it is, the messy separation of parent and child will break your heart a thousand times.

There's a place I find every now and then, a soft place I can land where I trust that everything will be okay and we will all survive with our love and our bonds intact. When I'm there, I have regard and compassion for the turbulence inside my child, the enormity of the job of growing up, the need for separation and the conflicting need for connection. I don't take things personally and can approach even the heated moments with a deep breath and a sense of humor. I can remember that we are on the same team even if one of the team members despises the captain.

I can remember that I'm doing the job I came here to do. And so is she.

If only I had directions, a map and the GPS coordinates to this place. I suppose I could ask my daughter. She could probably locate it online for me inside 60 seconds.

"For I see now that what I have done, and not done, with regard to you, bears all the hallmarks of the failings of age. Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young."
                                                              - Dumbledore, Harry Potter Order of the Phoenix







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