Raising teens: dirty laundry and a lot of verbal sparring

October 04, 1998|By Susan Reimer

I didn't go to college so I could spend my day loading the dishwasher. I didn't do all that studying so I could do dirty laundry as fast as my children generate it.

Yet that is the largest part of what I do these days - feeding children and cleaning up the mess they make when they eat.

I am raising a couple of teen-agers who eat one meal a day. It just happens to consist of 38 courses. The only time they are not eating is when they are sleeping, and bedtime ain't what it used to be in my house.

And I can't imagine that I purchased all the clothing my children spend the day soiling. My husband and I don't make that kind of money. I don't recognize half of it. I swear my kids are going around the neighborhood asking for contributions.

The dishwasher and the washing machine run all day at my house. Along with the shower. I am convinced my kids are operating a car wash behind that locked bathroom door. The public works department keeps sending trucks to my neighborhood to search for the ruptured water main.

I try to shut down my mind while doing these tedious, endless, repetitive chores - become sort of a parental zombie. But it doesn't often work, and I find myself itching to do the real work of raising children: intellectual gamesmanship and verbal sparring.

Therein lies the challenge of what we parents do.

We thought babyhood and toddlerhood were tough, with all the feedings, diapers and tantrums. But that was before we found ourselves up against miniature adults who have nothing better to do with their time than find topics on which they disagree with us.

This is the work of raising teen-agers. Suddenly, everything you say to them must be worthy of being stitched on a sampler - or it must hold up in a court of law - because they are listening even when you are sure they are not, and they will hold you to what you say.

Every word that comes out of your mouth counts, because the kids are probably wearing a wire and they are looking for loopholes and gray areas and omissions, and they will catch you up in your own words at the first opportunity.

And I love the challenge.

My children regularly throw verbal hand grenades into conversations with me - some absolute pronouncement that is shrill with judgment.

"He's a racist," one child will say about an adult. "You don't have to be married to have a baby," another will say. "He's a loser. I've written him off," one will say about a friend. "You have to be drunk to have sex," another will say.

Any of these statements is my cue to pull my head out of the dishwasher and try to be the voice of moderation, of charity, of understanding, of wisdom, of experience.

It is never easy, because a parent can't prepare. You will never know what black or white verdict your child will hand down, or on what topic. It is like moral "Jeopardy!" "I'll take peer pressure for $200, Alex."

But it is exhilarating to live life like this, parenting on the balls of your feet.

My heart pounds, my breathing comes quicker, and there is a hint of sweat on my upper lip. At last! A challenge worthy of my skills. I feel as if I am in the NBA, where nobody kicks it into gear until the fourth quarter or the playoffs.

Before I know it, it is over. It was one for the highlight films, but too soon the child drifts away, bored or hoarding his arguments until the next verbal clash.

Me? I throw in another load of wash and wait for my next big chance.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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