This Is Us

In Praise of Teenagers

Yes, they’re reckless. But they need our tenderness, too.

Photo: Talia Ali/EyeEm/Getty Images

We were trying on our dresses for the wedding, my two future step-daughters, my daughter and I: four females squashed into our family bathroom. All of us were crying. Something was wrong with each of the outfits — shoes too tight, neckline unflattering. My bridal gown has brushed against some shaving cream and bloomed a bit of blue. There we were in the mirror — red-eyed and gorgeous, the toilet and the shower behind us. We caught ourselves, and then the tears tipped over into laughter. “You guys are crazy,” said my future husband. “I’m staying out of there.” This is the story I tell people when they ask what it’s like to have three teenagers. Crazy, yes, but so beautiful.

I’ve always had a particular affinity for teenagers. I’ve taught them for 20 years as a college professor. When I was a young adult, my two half-siblings were in their teens. When my dear friend Deborah Tall was in the final stages of her life, I was honored to get to know her teen daughters who have turned, over many years, into friends. And of course, there are my own girls — the one I gave birth to, and the two I married into.

Teenagers are our bogeymen right now — college kids who literally can’t stop partying to save their lives, super-spreaders with their frats, swapping spit and sharing Solo cups. Teenagers are moody, irresponsible, contrary, self-absorbed. They’re the size of adults with brains that ricochet between those of four-year-olds and those of cocaine-addled macaws. Who would trust them?

And yet, that’s the heart of it, if you’re a parent. You have to trust them. My youngest, my only biological child, is 12. Although, to be honest, she was nine last year and she’s 14 this year. I don’t know if it’s partly the pandemic but she became a teenager overnight. It happened at a fingersnap. In June, she woke at 6:30 a.m. to “make the day last longer” and then, on a certain day in August, she began waking at 10 and woe to me if I tried to get her up any earlier. It happened that quickly.

I remember when she was a toddler, and I’d think I’d finally figured it out — how to make her sleep, eat, follow instructions, avoid harm. Then it would just suddenly shift as she entered a new developmental phase; there she was doing pencil drawings on the wall or sloshing her own pee from the potty as she carried it down the hall. She went through a cute phase of stealing my jewelry and hiding it. I didn’t realize until I found my gold bracelet, a gift from my aunt, stashed behind the suddenly obsolete nursing rocker.

It’s like that again. I’m playing catch-up with how to parent her — each day, a new thing. So far, this summer, I’ve learned a few things about her that will probably be useless by the time the first leaf falls. But here they are:

1. Listen. Although I may not be interested in the recitation of the plot of her latest anime passion (does anyone want me to recite the narrative of Tokyo Ghoul? Because I can), she needs now more than ever to be listened to. And often, somewhere between an instance of face-eating (does anyone want to enlighten me as to why there’s so much human-eating in anime?), she’ll slip in a Very Important Revelation and I’ll learn why she’s sometimes sad.

2. STFU. Things will pop into your mind, mom. You will want to say them. They might be lovely things, about how pretty she is, or instructional things, about how friends should treat one another, or simply observations about the trees you are biking past — don’t say them. Keep your mouth closed. If you interrupt her train of thought, she might pull her head back into the turtle shell and it will be days before she pokes back out. STFU.

3. (By contrast) Insist. Although two months ago, her needs and her instincts aligned pretty well, and you could kind of let her impulses guide her, her impulses are no longer reliable. She will sit in her room all day staring at a screen if you let her, and this is Not. Good. For Her. You need to insist she reach out to her friends. Insist she eat regular meals. Insist she get exercise. She will fight you. 2/3 times she’ll be miserable and whiney throughout. But you do it for the third time, when she’s suddenly smiling and glorious again. You do it for the long term.

I’m a weirdo whose favorite students to teach are first-years and sophomores. Students in these classes sometimes don’t really get college yet — or even commas. But they’re also more prone to revelation. Something utterly familiar to me is suddenly made magical and new in their eyes. And when I return to the basics, I realize a) they’re not that basic after all, and b) I don’t really know them. One can never know anything completely.

Adulthood, I’m sorry to say, is the process of calcifying thought, of absorbing pre-existing notions as one’s own. Adolescents are just as smart as adults, have the same raw brain power, but they don’t have the same context. This makes them behave stupidly sometimes, but it also means they see bullshit as bullshit. When I’m teaching, sometimes things that look true to me suddenly are unmasked as total horse manure. This is what an 18-year-old can do that a 48-year-old can’t.

What happens to teenagers is significant.

The standard line on teenaged feelings is that they’re fleeting. They’re in love, and then they’ve broken up. They’re sad, and then they’re laughing. A critique I’ve often heard of Romeo and Juliet is that it’s not a love story because the two lovers are “only” adolescents. It’s as though we believe young people’s feelings simply evaporate.

Why, then, does so much lifelong trauma date from those years between 12 and 20? I recall it — my own adolescence, the intensity of pain. It sang, my loss and my shame, my heartbreaks. Maybe objectively, the boy who rejected my invitation to the sophomore semi-formal wasn’t my life partner. Maybe the objective stakes weren’t that high, but my tender brain contended with the grief as if it were.

The quality of those feelings, not their object, is what’s important. How a drive around the rotary, windows down, music pumping, could thrill me. How I ached for days after I’d said a cold word to a friend. I had two best friends in high school — mistake — and they did not like one another very much. They also lived on the same street. I remember the ricochet between them — shuttling between houses, trying to make it up to one whom I’d wounded, and then to the other.

I guess I think our attitude toward teenagers should be awe. They have no armaments, and they are still out there, trying to grow. Awe isn’t a parenting style, but I don’t mind if it informs mine, which is what the first two rules on my new list are all about. STFU, and listen.

The novel I published in August, The Likely World, is a lot about my love for teenagers. The narrator is in recovery, in this passage below, and thinking both about her own youth, and that of the kids she sees at her 12 Step meetings.

I want to say this thing: when I was that age I didn’t get high to dance. The music was enough, the smell of bodies. I want to say this about teenagers. That all of them are a hundred times more beautiful than the most beautiful adult. It’s being uncorrupted by failure and gravity and entropy, but it’s not just that, not just youth and innocence. Teenagers, the chubby ones pulling down their too-short dresses, the ones who aren’t smiling because they are hiding their braces, teenagers are studies in vulnerability, have only the broadest cloth with which to cover themselves. Teenagers are lovely and when I see them now at the meetings, Jim from Mondays in Brookline, the pink-haired girl on day pass from the hospital, when I see them, I wish I had wings and breathed fire. I wish I could stand in front of them until they were good and ready to face the world. I wish I could go back, and stand in front of myself. — The Likely World

I guess you could probably boil what I wrote about them, and my thoughts about parenting my own, down to this: What happens to teenagers is significant. What they go through lasts the whole life long. We need to be tender to them.

Melanie Conroy-Goldman is the author of The Likely World, a novel from Red Hen Press and a Professor of Creative Writing at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

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