Sunday, January 17, 2010

Same as it Ever Was ....

So I’ve probably revealed a bit about myself by titling this post with a line from a “Talking Heads” song, but after mucking about in the on-line chatter over 15-year old Tess Chapin from New York City, the party music of my youth has taken up a steady beat in my brain.

In case you haven’t heard, which is hard to imagine: Tess Chapin is grounded. She attended a party where there were no adults, drank alcohol, and returned home one hour past her curfew. Her parents have grounded her for five weeks, and Tess has launched a campaign on Facebook to have her “groundation” lifted. The New York Times got hold of the story, blogged about it, and a firestorm of comment and debate (some civil; much not) has erupted between parents and teens everywhere.

Back when I was a producer at a “talk” radio station in Atlanta, Georgia many years ago, we called this a “water cooler” story. That meant stories people talked about at work when they bumped into each other at the water cooler/the coffee machine/the lunch counter. “Water cooler” stories may lead to tears or belly laughs or shouts and shrieks, depending on their content. They elicit very strong, often polarizing reactions. They always lead to retelling; they’re viral.

As the parent of two teenagers you can imagine which camp I fall into. As a writer combing through all the posts, I’ve been fascinated not only by the opinions expressed but also by the “voices.” The adult condescension/wisdom/warnings/threats/pleadings. The youthful rebellion/humor/naivete/obscenity/pleadings. Pleading to be heard. Pleading to be understood. Pleading don’t-screw-up-your-life. Pleading let-me-live-my-life.

Same as it ever was …

Coincidently, I was working this past week on a chapter in which a group of 17-year olds have gotten their hands on a case of beer and are drinking it at night, lying on blankets in the middle of a football field and gazing up at the stars. (It started as a case of Corona, but my 16-year old daughter reminded me that these particular middle-class kids would not be drinking imported Mexican beer. She suggested Budweiser but I went with Rolling Rock … and yes, those are the sorts of questions I wrestle with throughout a manuscript ….) I’ll confess that it’s been fun to step out of my parent skin and sprawl drunkenly beneath the stars with friends. It’s been fun to abandon my role as purveyor of sage advice and experience. It’s been interesting to crawl back into my teenage self and remember why I did the things I did.

I don’t recall, ever, when I was making reckless choices about drinking or driving or sex, that my behavior was based on any sort of a big “F- You!” to my parents. Actually, their advice and their rules and their example played no part in the decisions I made at the moment. I was too full of life and energy and “YES!” to consider consequences. I was too busy riding the incredible rush of being and feeling young.

If there was any great imperative guiding my choices it was the overwhelming need for contact and relevance in the world of my peers. I didn’t necessarily have to be popular: I just didn’t want to be left out. Now that I have a spouse and two children of my own, I’m apt to forget that as a teen I felt an existential, consuming loneliness that evaporated when I felt that my peers accepted me. It’s a dangerous combination: all that energy and all that loneliness. No wonder the good advice of involved parents often falls on deaf ears.

Still, if my kids are any example, I'd say despite the tuned out looks and the snarky responses to my always-excellent (!) advice, their hearts are open and they do hear us. Whether that influences their behavior at any given moment is another question, but I have noticed that when I shut up for a minute and listen ... really listen ... to them, they return the favor. It doesn't mean anyone is going to change his or her mind or yield any ground, but it's a start.

So, the Chapin parents must ground, and hold their ground. Tess must struggle mightily against any restrictions. And all must rail about the inability of the other to hear/understand/act accordingly. In the worst cases, something bad happens and relationships are irretrievably wrecked. In the best, love and good humor and good sense prevails and we muddle on, so that we parents live to see our children chiding their teens, and our children live to hear our words of wisdom emerge from their mouths.


  1. I loved how you looked at this issue from a dual perspective and incorporated your WIP. One of the perks of writing for teens as a parent is being willing and eager to understand life from a younger vantage point.

    My relationship with my daughter has improved since I started writing YA. I turn to her for advice and listen, but empathy isn’t the same as capitulation. If teens don’t learn about consequences at that age, there will be worse trouble later.

    Based on the empty cans I find littered in my yard, which backs into the woods, I’d go with Bud Light and Coors for the illicit drinks of choice in Maine. You and I drank Rolling Rock in the 80s. Times have changed. Listen to your daughter AND ask how she knows that.

  2. Okay, even though I hate Bud Light I yield to you and Madsy. Point taken! And I agree: empathy isn't capitulation.