February 16th, 2012

Just a Phase

Linda Kennard

Note: This post was inspired by Glennon Melton’s “Don’t Carpe Diem” over at Momastery. Do yourself a favor and read it, if you haven’t already: it’s a great one!

Oh yes, I remember: standing in a checkout line with tired young children, one or all of them whining, and an old lady looking at them adoringly then turning to me with a nostalgic smile to say, “I hope you’re enjoying every minute!” As guilt-inducing as those comments were, I miss them. I do because I’ll tell you what: nobody is saying anything like that anymore. I’m not sure when the “we-don’t-think-they’re-cute-anymore” age officially starts, but I do know that no one looks at my 13-year-old boys and my 17-year-old daughter with a doting smile that says, “carpe diem,” particularly not if one of them is doing anything outside the realm of normal, like wearing cheetah pants with patent-green-leather boots or sporting freshly dyed hair.

Apparently, it was cute when two-year-old Tanner wore his “pretty,” which was Jay’s pink tutu over jeans and a dirty T-shirt, accessorized with a tiara and a strand of pink beads. As I recall, Tanner invited a grin and a wink or two, and I got a commiserative smile for that outfit. But grownups didn’t give a friendly nod to the teen boy I saw dressed in purple skinny jeans; no one thought that was cute.

Outside observers with sweet, trying-to-be supportive smiles seem to disappear during the teenage years; it’s like the sympathetic audience was replaced with a judgmental one. Moms of little kids can say, “Jack pitched a fit yesterday at the park when I told him it was time to go! He stomped around the sand and shouted, ‘I’m not going!’” Most people will respond with a smirk, and their message, even if unspoken, is, “Kids will be kids. He’s still so little, and look at him: he’s adorable!” Moms of teens on the other hand aren’t typically well received when reporting misbehavior. A mom might say, “Jack freaked out yesterday when I told him he couldn’t go to the concert. He stomped off to his room and slammed the door!” Many people respond with nervous laughter (at best) and their message, even if unspoken is, “Whoa! WTF mom! You need to get a handle on that. And by the way, tell Jack to pull up his pants and cut his hair!” If the mom adds that Jack was “swearing,” the response might be a raised eyebrow with the quiet speculation that Jack probably swears because mom let him play M games and watch R-rated movies when he was too young.

I have a theory about why young kids and their moms tend to be received with sympathy while teens and their moms are too often received with judgment: I think we’re forgiving of little Jack and his mom because we’re willing to assume that Jack is in a phase. We believe in little Jack’s potential to outgrow his bad behavior. We’re less forgiving of big Jack and his mom because we don’t view his antics as just a phase; we think that big Jack should already know and follow the rules, so we’re too quick to conclude that something went wrong with his parenting. Think about it: if you see little Jack peeing in the corner of the parking lot, you’re likely to grin at the horrified mom and say or at least think with a giggle, “No worries! He’ll grow out of it.” If you see big Jack drunk and peeing in the corner of the parking lot, you’re not smiling anymore.

But if my theory is right (that we forgive little Jack because we assume he’s in a phase), then it’s very curious because what are the teenage years if not a phase? From the time they hit puberty to the time they figure out who they are (which might not be until their late 20s), teens (and beyond) are going through a phase, the hardest phase of all. During this phase, your teen might start wearing clothes that you really don’t like. She might start being snotty and acting like she knows everything. She might decide to dye her hair unnatural colors. She might want to pierce her belly button or her nose or eyebrow or tongue. He might want a tattoo—or three. And that’s the easy stuff. The real stakes are a lot higher:  He might try (or become addicted to) alcohol or drugs. He might (in fact, odds are that he will) have sex, sometimes lots of it and sometimes with members of the same gender.

This is the phase, the necessary phase during which kids truly grow up, and to do that, they separate from their parents and define themselves as unique individuals. Once (if) they do, everybody’s happy, but until then, life’s hard. It’s a hell of a phase, and the worst part is this: mom has less control over kids in this phase than she has ever had before. You can drag a 2-year-old horse kicking and screaming to water and you can make him drink. But if you drag a 16-year-old horse to water, try as you might, you can’t make him drink. You can only plead: “Please! I know this is what you need! Just drink already!” Teens are like ticking time bombs; you don’t know when they’re going to go off but you have a lingering fear that they will. And you realize that when or if they do, the results could be life-altering, life-lasting, or even life-threatening.

Oh it’s hard alright, the teen phase. The point is, it’s just that: a phase. So if we can forgive little Jack—even find him adorable—for wearing weird clothes, or pitching a fit, or peeing in the corner, and if we can sympathize with little Jack’s mom all because we’re willing to believe that little Jack is in a phase, then maybe we can do the same for big Jack and his mom by recognizing that he’s also in a phase.

It works for me. When I remember that teenagers are in a phase, I can see the humor in some of their crazy antics. When I remember that they’re making their own choices (as highly questionable as they are), I find it easier to be more patient, more sympathetic, and less judgmental of my teens, of myself and of all other teens and their moms. When I remember that teens are taking deliberate steps to separate themselves from their parents, I find it easier to believe that what I might view as a mistake might be their path to adulthood. When I recall that teenagers sometimes experiment with the wild side in their stumbling attempts to establish their identity, I’m less apt to view their actions as marks of parenting failure and more apt to view those actions as signs of self exploration. When I remember that these difficult years are “just a phase,” I see the little kid inside my big kid and rediscover that kid’s potential; I believe again.

So if I repeat the mantra, “It’s just a phase!” when I see big Jack drunk and peeing in the corner of the parking lot, maybe I’ll be able to give him a wink and his mom a commiserative smile that says, “Hang in their mom! It’s just a phase! And by the way, when he wipes the drool off his chin, he’s a good-looking boy!”

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This Weeks Tip

With the advent of chewables and liquids, many of us forget that, at some point in their lives, our children WILL need to know how to swallow a pill. Better to learn young, as the gag reflex only gets stronger with age. One pediatrician suggests starting at age 4 and making a game of it… using a supply of TicTacs and their favorite drink. Have them put the TicTac way at the back of their tongue and then GULP!