Kurt turns eighteen tomorrow and I have no idea how we made it this far or any concept of how I should have parented him. That’s not ‘parent guilt’ talking, just a reflection on how challenging parenting is, because every child is custom-made with different needs and the chances are we may never get it right.
I’ve learned so much from the ‘bad parenting’ group I’ve been attending recently. I’ve learned that however complicated your journey with your child, maintaining a good relationship with them must remain the priority. It’s made me think hard about the roller coaster of emotions I’ve experienced during Kurt’s teenage years, since the rot first set in. The disappointment, the blame and the shame. I realize that fear of disappointment has driven me to parent my son is a way that was unsuited to his personality.
With the pressures of life, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of expectation, of nagging, trying to force our own desires onto our children, but I now understand that no amount of nagging will repair Kurt’s selective hearing. He has always chosen to be the master of his own destiny and if that destiny is not quite what we envisaged when we cooed at him in the crib – so be it.
What I want most of all now is to be able to communicate with him again, to make him understand that in spite of all those cross words, rash accusations and his very different attitude to life to mine, that I’m not disappointed in him.
I’d like to reassure him that not all parents have a narrow, tunneled vision about their kids’ futures or need a golden child as the end product; whatever that is. Not all of us see a university education, white-collar office job and the girl-next-door as the perfect daughter-in-law, as the ultimate goal or mark of success.
But being a typical teenager, Kurt bolts the minute he sniffs the first sign of a ‘serious conversation’ evolving. Sometimes it feels as though the only time we exchange dialogue now is when he asks me what’s for dinner – usually around lunchtime.
I sense that many of Kurt’s recent, controversial life decisions have come about because he considers himself a disappointment to us. He believes that he constantly lets us down and then poor self-esteem exacerbates that notion leading to an unbreakable cycle.
He seems to forget that we were teenagers once; that once upon a time we too had to learn to control our emotions, learn to manage our anger and frustration at what we considered to be our parents’ ridiculous demands, and ultimately had to learn from the mistakes we made, too. One of the main benefits of being a teenager living at home is having the freedom to make those mistakes with the safety-net of parents.
The irony is, that Kurt, like so many teenagers who bury themselves away in a self-imposed exile of isolation, isn’t a failure or a disappointment to us. We know exactly how much our boy has to offer, if he’d only believe it himself. That’s the most frustrating part. He can’t see the warm, vibrant personality that people gravitate towards; the huge warmth in his smile and self-effacing wit; his natural musical talent, or even that his impulsiveness can be strangely infectious.
Yet, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I have grieved at times, as his parent. Some of his choices have bought us scarily close to every parent’s worst nightmare of potentially serious consequences. How many times have the old man and I dared to utter to one another that things can’t possibly get any worse, for our son to then ram his behavior up another notch?
Sadly, Kurt seems incapable of discerning anything positive about himself, and because we aren’t saints, just human parents, with the standard moral codes that most people adhere to, we probably haven’t encouraged him to. We’ve been too busy putting out his fires, praying secretly that one day we will change him to be more like us.
Society heaps so many impossible expectations on our teenagers these days and it would be hard for them not to absorb some of the intensity of that pressure. The ones who scale the teenage phase unharmed are the ones who develop good coping skills along the way; but there are other kids who require more scaffolding. Accusing teenagers of being ‘entitled’ reeks of disappointment, but if that term does hold any truth, perhaps we need to ask why, and take some responsibility for it. This generation of young adults are the guinea pigs of social media and have spent their short lives constantly comparing themselves to their peers and celebrities and seek unattainable perfection in everything they do.
Such mounting expectation inevitably detonates an implosion in the weaker ones.
I’d like to tell Kurt that we changed our expectations for him a long time ago – because we grew up, too. We didn’t lower our expectations for him; rather, we customized them to him when we realized that traditional expectations weren’t the right fit; we adapted them to his skill base.
I wish that during all the recent dysfunctionality in our relationship, when we were wading through that torrent of swirling water that is now thankfully under the bridge, I wish I hadn’t lost sight of who Kurt was, hadn’t allowed myself to forget the beautiful qualities about our son. We’ve wasted a lot of time worrying about being disappointed, been blindfolded by what he should be, at times, rather than embracing who he is. We were fearful of how people would judge us for raising this wild child who refused to conform to society’s ‘normal’ codes of behavior. We should have given him the benefit of the doubt, allowed him the time to mature properly and work out for himself which direction to take next.
Tomorrow Kurt turns eighteen and commences the next stage of his life, and then on Monday he takes a new direction. I hope it takes him where he wants to go. Kurt has never taken the obvious side of the fork in the road, but from this point on I am going to change my outlook and consider his choices as ‘surprising’; never ‘disappointing.’