Seeing teen-agers from a new perspective

January 11, 1998|By Susan Reimer

ALL YOU HAVE TO do is drink soda for two hours and smile when your aunts start squealing about how much you've grown," I said.

"That, and wear a shirt with a collar."

These were my son's marching orders for the recent holidays. A fairly painless prescription for passing the time among relatives he sees once a year.

My daughter's instructions were pretty much the same.

"All you have to do is drink soda for two hours and smile when your aunts tell you how pretty you've become," I said.

"That, and wear your sweat shirt right side out."

These things they did well as my husband and I dragged their teen-aged selves from reunion to reunion. They still looked bored to my practiced eye, but I don't think anyone else noticed.

And, I must say, I have not liked my children so much since the same time last year.

There is nothing like seeing your kids through someone else's eyes to change your view of them.

Suddenly, he did look much taller and she, much prettier. Both were shyly polite and smiled disarmingly at their uncles and cousins. And "used all our manners," as my daughter once said upon entering a white-linen restaurant.

Away from my crowded kitchen at dinner time, away from their friends, away from school and just beyond my reach, my children were bathed in a new light and I saw them differently.

I saw them as other people see them.

And they were not irritating, bickering, rude, clueless and uncooperative.

They were very nice kids, deserving of all the standard ZTC compliments lavished upon them by the relatives who do not have to finish a science project with them the night before it is due.

There is nothing like a fresh perspective on teen-agers you might have been close to strangling during the previous week.

I ran into a fellow mother at parent-teacher conferences recently, and was surprised to see her there because her middle-school son is known to be an excellent student and never a discipline problem.

I asked if there was a problem and she said, exhaling the words in a confessional rush, "I just wanted to hear somebody say something nice about him."

Of course. I should have guessed. That's why I was there, too. I wanted to hear something good about my kids because, like my friend, I couldn't think of anything at the moment.

It is no wonder that the parents in the thick of raising teen-agers can't see the good in them; the dust of battle never settles long enough. Even the mildest kids thrive on argument. Parents are constantly amazed at the topics up for debate:

Proper personal hygiene, and the amount of time and hot water it takes to achieve it.

The role of the parent in wish-fulfillment.

The quality of food served in the home, and whether the folks at Sam's Club or the boys behind the counter at Domino's might do a better job.

Clothing -- whether it fits correctly, is in style or requires immediate washing. And whether it is more efficiently stored on the floor of one's room.

The value of education, and whether the parent shows any sign of having had any.

The finite funds that flow into the house, how they should be allocated, and whether anything resembling chores should be required in exchange.

Your personal child-rearing style, your home's similarity to a gulag, and whether the children could get a better deal in foster care.

If you have teen-agers, you wake up to an argument and you fall asleep with the last argument ringing in your tired ears. It is either that, or your personal teen-ager is setting a new standard for "sullen," one that will stand for all time.

It is hard to find something nice to say about them when you are having trouble thinking of a reason to go on living.

My advice?

Put yourself across a crowded room from them. Preferably, one filled with adults who, by birth or marriage, are predisposed to like them for your sake. And watch them.

From this perspective, your children will look taller or more handsome. Prettier than ever and more mature. Sweet and polite.

"Delightful kids. Just delightful." You will hear it said, and you will have to agree.

"I hugged your Joseph and he hugged me back. First time ever," my sister wrote in a holiday postscript.

"I think he is going to be just fine."

And from where she stood, I, too, could see that he would be just fine.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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