The summer before entering 7th grade, my parents gave me the choice of attending Junior High School in my district or being bussed to school on the other side of town. The advantage to the former: the security and familiarity of my best girlfriends. The advantage to the latter: my father was not the principal of the school. I chose the path that felt right at the time and settled for middle school alongside my peers. How bad could Dad be?
Webster’s defines adolescence as a transitional period between youth and maturity; a time of conflict. Experts write about that cycle; likening it to an emotional rollercoaster. Having attended middle school under the tutelage of my father, I’d have to agree. Awkward physical changes and psychological highs and lows were tough enough. But standing on the sidelines while Dad reprimanded kids daily for running in the halls, passing notes in class and starting food fights in the cafeteria was nothing short of traumatic. I wanted to evaporate when I heard his voice on the PA system. When I saw him in the hallway, I looked away; hoping to fade into a locker. In the car, I took it as a personal affront when he glanced in the rear view mirror. “Why is he looking at me? What did I do?”
Amidst the inner turbulence, I was loyal to my favorite TV show: Father Knows Best. Often regarded as an example of the conservative nature of American family life in the 1950s, critics saw it as an overly rosy portrayal. Each evening, I got lost in the predictable, thirty-minute segments. Recapping the show in my mind, I considered alternate endings or future plots. While the situations in the
Enamored with Lauren Chapin’s character, Kathy, (pet name: “Kitten”), I never missed an episode. Kathy was sweet, innocent and protected by her older brother, Bud and teenage sister, Betty. And, of course, she could rely on Mother and Father. No matter what emotional upset she encountered, Father made it all better – simply, gently and kindly. His years of life experience affirmed that frustration, disappointment and bumps in the road were all a normal part of growing up.
Sometimes, when I knew my Dad had had a particularly rough day, I would take on Kathy’s voice and demeanor and visit the basement where he watched the ballgame from his easy chair. “Hi Daddy”, I’d say; just like Kathy. “Hello Kitten”, he’d say. But my efforts at softening him rarely amounted to much. He was a tough man at home and ran a tight ship at school.
I rarely argued with my parents. While I may not have agreed with everything they told me to do, I knew not to question them. I behaved in my home as my girlfriends did in theirs. Parents were parents and we were their kids. Instinct told us that they knew more than we did.
In the unlikely event we pushed the envelope by questioning their authority, the response was simple: “Because I said so”. At times, their predictability seemed boring as they set limits and we followed the rules. But at thirteen, we needed scaffolding. Their modeling of right from wrong offered us stability. We knew and believed that they knew best. As a teenager, I yearned for independence. I understood my secret desire to challenge their decisions. But rebellion was covert. I was never disrespectful toward my parents nor would I have steered too far from the value system instilled in me. I couldn’t -- I wouldn’t -- I was too scared.
As a teenager, I yearned for independence. I understood my secret desire to challenge their decisions. But rebellion was covert. I was never disrespectful toward my parents nor would I have steered too far from the value system instilled in me. I couldn’t -- I wouldn’t -- I was too scared.
“Be a good girl”, my mother warned. But she didn’t have to say it. My Dad had a loud voice and a volatile temper. Spanking was not out of the question. My brother and I expected to be punished for bad behavior. We may not have worried about suspensions at school but we worried about actions and reactions at home. We did not cross him; or any grown-up for that matter.
Like it or not, we knew our place in the lineage. Children and adults were not equals. As such, we didn’t have the same rights and privileges.
I am now a mother of three; two of whom are in middle school. I wonder now how my father endured thirty-five years of middle school administration. They couldn’t have paid ME enough.
"When I respond NO, the immediate counter is WHY?"
My husband and I try to follow an organized system to raising our children. But the only thing for which I’m certain is that we utilize the tools that were successful in our own upbringing; distilling the techniques that now feel old fashioned. We support our sons’ efforts in all aspects of their lives. But how much of the responsibility is ours and how much do they need to experience first-hand?
Our first brush on the other end of NO was when I told my toddler (now thirteen) not to eat the cat’s dry food from her bowl. “NO”, he told me; continuing to scoop out handfuls of tuna-flavored kibble. When my middle son (now twelve) took his older brother’s teddy from his crib, I told him: “Put that back, it’s not yours”. “NO”, he cried, running quickly with Teddy in hand.
Lately, “NO” has evolved into “WHY?” When I respond NO, the immediate counter is WHY? They honestly expect an explanation for a parental decision. It shocked me at first; particularly because it was so opposite to my own experience. But, throughout the past few years, I’ve learned to brace myself for the argument. I explain regularly that I do not make requests. Rather, I make statements. This concept is foreign to them. They have become master negotiators.
Recently, after telling my son that staying up until on a school night was not okay, he pointed to his Dad watching the news and reminded us that all men are created equal.
It’s no longer 1970. And truthfully, I’m not sure I’d want it to be. We’re a long way from “children should be seen but not heard”. While the conservatism of the 50’s feels outdated, I yearn for some semblance of balance. Mother isn’t always right. Father isn’t perfect. But our life experience and maturity have to account for something.
We DO know more than they do. And, we understand the consequences for improper behavior. We survived without immediate gratification and know that they can too. We were not entertained every afternoon and weekend and still managed to have fun. Extravagant summer vacations were for the more fortunate. We may have looked on with envy but never stared. Our futures were not plotted out for us and we all found our way.
"...our kids need to accept that until
they are adults themselves,
Mom and Dad really do know best."
Our kids have more leeway and a sense of entitlement that we didn’t know existed. The current media portrays parents in a way that is demeaning to us. Kids model their TV heroes and sadly, those heroes do not respect their elders. Ultimately, the fault lies with us.
I’ve gained a healthy respect for the turmoil of adolescence. What adds to the confusion is the missing happy medium. We need a balance between the fear factor that I grew up with, the wholesomeness of the
I was raised with consistency and conviction. While I see myself as more open-minded, flexible and tolerant than my parents were, I remain convinced that our kids need to accept that until they are adults themselves, Mom and Dad really do know best.