The adolescent is doing her homework.
Cruel and unusual homework, involving being forced to read books of questionable entertainment value, and math that she is never going to use, and history that is totally irrelevant.
I try to be sympathetic. I remember what it was like to feel like you were squandering your precious youth slogging away under the dictatorship of institutionalized education.
But then it starts. The Tirade: “I hate school! And I hate homework! And this is stupid! And I hate reading!”
The last one really got me. How is it possible that I have raised a child who hates reading? My kids have personal libraries to rival the kids’ section at Barnes & Noble. They’ve had library cards since they were old enough to print their names. Reading aloud was an essential part of our bedtime ritual. We are a literate family.
I point out that she used to love to read.
“That was before I was forced to do it! That last book I was forced to read was the Worst. Book. Ever.!!! It has ruined reading for me for the rest of my life! I will never read willingly again!”
(For the record, it was Journey to the Center of the Earth. And I probably felt the same way about Lord of the Flies.)
But eventually I can take no more.
“Listen!” I snap. “Education is a privilege! Think for one minute about what your life would really be like if you couldn’t read! Think what your life would be like if you lived in Afghanistan or Iran or anywhere else where you could be denied an education just because you’re a girl! Where women literally risk their lives to provide girls your age with even half the education you’re getting for free! So quit bitching and do the 25 whole minutes of homework you seem to think is such an injustice! And if you didn’t waste so much of your time complaining about these ludicrous, ridiculous things, you would have been done already.”
Her eyes widened in understanding, and she immediately recanted, saying, “I’m sorry, Mom, you’re right,” and set about finishing her homework.
Oooooooooooooooh, excuse me, I just drifted off into fantasy land there for a minute.
“Whatever!” she shouted, and stormed off to her room.
One of her favorite recent retorts is, “Why do you care, Mom, it doesn’t affect you.”
As in, when I was irritated by the Corn Refiners’ Association ad promoting high fructose corn syrup. (Much more entertaining SNL spoof here.)
“What do you care, Mom, it doesn’t affect you.”
Or when it bums me out that people intentionally park their SUV’s diagonally, so as to take up two parking spaces rather than one. Or when I’m upset about adults smoking around their little kids. Or the fact that she leaves wet towels all over her bedroom floor. Or the Taliban. Or her grades. Or when I learn that one of her peers has an abusive boyfriend. It doesn’t matter. None of this, she claims, affects me.
It bothers her that I care, and I don’t know why (note to self: put this on the agenda at next therapy session).
I’ll admit to being a little disoriented by having the “rational discourse” rug yanked out from under me.
Because the child who now thinks that any opinion I have is automatically a Stalin-esque intrusion into her personal autonomy used to be open to rational discourse. When she was two, I showed her an electrical outlet and said, “Don’t touch this; it can hurt you.” She just nodded in understanding. (Her younger sister, when given the same explanation, got a devilish look on her face and, while maintaining eye contact with me, slowly reached her finger out to stick it into the outlet.)
When she was younger, she asked me why teen-agers ride their bikes without helmets. We had a calm discussion about how changes in the adolescent brain affect risk assessment. She got it. She understood when I said not “You are not allowed to smoke!” but rather, “Here are the reasons why smoking is bad for you.”
In short, being able to talk to her rationally about things that, in fact, did or might or would eventually affect her was pretty much the bedrock of my parenting style. And despite all of my friends who advised me this was a huge mistake! I should be authoritarian! And “Because I said so!” is all you need to say! I felt confident I was doing the right thing. Yes, in the end, I would absolutely lay down and enforce the rules, but I was more than happy to discuss why we had these rules in the first place.
Because we’re not raising children. We’re raising adults. And eventually they will be making their own decisions. And when they do, I want them to have a better set of decision-making tools than “because my mom said so.”
If I were to give my daughter the outlet talk today, she would just demand, “What do you care, Mom? It doesn’t affect you! And it’s my business! And maybe I like being shocked! Did you ever think of that? It’s my right to stick my finger in the outlet if I want to!”
Sometimes I take the bait. I explain why the rights of women in Afghanistan affect the rights of women—and of caring people regardless of gender—everywhere. I explain why the obesity/diabetes/cancer epidemics affect us all. I explain why it matters to me when one of her peers is bullied or intimidated.
When she overhears me talking to a friend about how upset I am about certain goings-on in American politics at the moment, she tries to lob her volley:
“It’s your own fault for paying attention to politics, Mom. It doesn’t affect you.”
Cue my impassioned monologue about this thing called democracy, and how it’s not my fault but my obligation to pay attention to politics despite the fact that there are a zillion things I would rather do (has “trans-vaginal ultrasound” officially replaced “root canal” as the clichéd odious medical procedure of choice?), and how yes, in fact, It. Does. Affect. Me.
Her eyes glaze over. I remember something a friend said over dinner a month or so ago: “Do you ever try to choose which of your traits your child will rebel against? Like, ‘Ugh! I can’t stand the way Dad picks his nose, but at least he’s honest’?”
Problem: My child is rejecting everything I say.
Solution? I need to start saying wayyyyyyyyyyyyy crazier things.
I need to join a religion that won’t let her cut her hair or wear pants (or vote or read secular material or listen to Taylor Swift). And I’ll start wearing curlers in my hair when I go to pick her up from school. I’ll adopt an ersatz Jewish-mother-from-Manhattan accent whenever her friends are over. And overcook all of our vegetables! And every Wednesday will be scrub-grout-with-old-toothbrushes day!
The new parenting strategy: Be so outlandish that your kids’ rebellion pushes them toward your real values. I just hope it works. Because I do care, and it does affect me.