Helping the Parentals

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I’m intrigued by adult authors who write so convincingly about being in high school.  Personally, I’ve blocked out a lot of what I went through during those years. But it came flooding back to me as I read John G. Hartness’ foray into YA lit, From the Stone (New Knights of the Round Table, Book 1), a re-imagining of the King Arthur story where the characters are the geeks and freaks of our teenaged memories. Mr. Hartness captures the gestalt of that phase perfectly—the camaraderie, the debilitating insecurities, the ubiquitous stereotypes walking around masquerading as originals, because no one at that age really wants to be original—even the outsiders trying to be original do so in distinctly unoriginal ways.  You remember, right?  It was a nightmare. I love it when an author nails the teenaged zeitgeist, mostly so I can be grateful that I’m well past that particular circle of Hell (Dante failed to write about that one—it’s the eighth circle, I’m pretty sure). It’s a clever story, and my only complaint is that I have to wait for the next one to come out—hurry, Mr. Hartness, hurry.   In one scene, Gwen, one of the protagonists, responds to her mother’s concerned questions by assuring her worried parent that all was well, when it clearly was not.  In another scene, Gwen tells her parents that she’s dating Rex (aka Arthur) even though they’re friends not lovers, so that they won’t be so afraid she will grow up to be a crazy cat lady.  When Rex asks why Gwen had been so untruthful to her mom and dad, she responds that, “It's all about helping the Parentals make it through these difficult teenaged years, right?”

I will say that when I was a teenager I was in no way concerned about sparing my parents' feelings or helping them deal with me in all my hormonal, angst-ridden glory. They owed me for having the audacity to bring me into the world. All the responsibility was on them, not me. Mature, I know. But I wasn't, no matter how much I thought I was or wanted to be. 

The relationship between young adult children and their parents is tricky. It's a time of significant transition and one that often goes disastrously wrong. Parents often have a hard time letting go and kids often overestimate their ability to thrive in the real world without the direct and indirect support of their elders. Even when parents are prepared to let go to an appropriate extent over time, it's almost impossible to know where to draw the lines between encouraging independence and establishing necessary boundaries, no matter how earnest the efforts. I know this from first-hand experience.

I also understand the concept of managing one's parents.  I definitely did that, all the time, in fact. It wasn't for their benefit, but for mine.  A complacent parent was an unconcerned parent. Moreover, I always equated parental management with the strategies of ancient Roman administrators; it's all about the bread and circuses, dude. Feed the 'rents a steady diet of good grades and entertain them with the bullshit they want to hear about how much we want to succeed and go to a good school and get a good job and give them grandchildren. Problem: solved. But it mattered not at all to me whether their motivation to stay out of my biz was because they felt authentically calm and confident about my future, or because of my uncanny knack for lulling them into a false sense of security with my razzle dazzle. These are not the ‘droids you’re looking for.

In short, I didn't care at all about my parents' feelings. It was of no concern to me if they worried about the job that they were doing; I was a very typical, self-centered teenager interested mostly in what I could get away with. My strategy was to keep the focus firmly on my brother and his issues—thus keeping all eyes off me. I was not above convincing my brother to wear eyeliner like Mick Jagger and then pointing out to Mom and Dad that their son was wearing makeup and might be gay—and yes, back in the day, there would have been something wrong with that for my parents, sad to say.

As demonstrated by my willingness to impugn my brother’s reputation, my primary approach to dealing with the Parentals was to lie.  All the time. About everything. I'm told that that's the best way to pass a lie detector test (although I don't actually think it’s true).  By lying constantly, I completely lost sight of the line between harmless exaggerations and little white lies  (like Gwen telling her mother she was dating Rex) and soul-sucking deceptions that obscured my identity and corrupted my essential self.  Such lies are destructive—self-destructive, mostly, although they don't do anything for the target of the deceit, either. But back to Rex, Gwen, Lance and the gang. As I thought back on Gwen’s comments, I had to acknowledge that maybe the reasons for her misdirection concerning the nature of her relationship with Rex were self-promoting, but I don't think so. These kids seemed genuinely concerned about assuaging their parents' fears, which struck me as sweet.  I hope that if my kids are going to lie to me, it will be with similarly generous motives, misguided though they may be. Mostly, I just hope they’re not like me at that age.  That would be the ninth circle of Hell.