Mom plays smarter with second adolescent

November 08, 1998|By Susan Reimer

I AM THE mother of two children who might be more alike if they were related by marriage instead of birth. As a result, I often find myself being a parent out of both sides of my mouth: What works for one never works for the other.

The raging injustice of this dissimilar - but not unequal, I argue - treatment is often pointed out to me in tones of voice that my mother would not have tolerated. But never more vociferously than recently, when my previously blameless 12-year-old daughter trumped her 14-year-old brother's all-time best by ditching Sunday school.

For years Joe, who has always preferred a confrontational style, has harassed me like a grand inquisitor on matters of faith. But he has never cut class or ducked a church obligation.

Not so Jessie. She was bored, she said. So she sneaked out for breakfast with her apostolic posse. Her only regret was that they were caught.

I like to think that I learned something as Joe's mother (he refers to himself as the "experimental child"), so I did not inflame this crisis, as I have in the past, by shrieking or lecturing or grounding Jessie for life.

"I trusted you, Jessie," I said softly. "That trust was money in the bank, and now you've spent it all. You will have to find ways to build that trust account back up again.

"I am very disappointed."

Joe, who considers himself a parental consultant and is extremely generous with his advice, was listening and exploded in outrage.

"I can't believe it!" he said. "You gave her one of those emotional punishments. 'I'm so disappointed. You violated our trust.' I can't believe it! How come you weren't handing out those emotional punishments to me, huh?

"If I did something like this, I'd be a distant memory. I'd be a body under the porch. I'm going out right now and try some stuff, and when I come back I want one of these emotional punishments!"

Later, Joe came to me quietly and said that he felt his father and I had our feet up on the coffee table where Jessie was concerned. "You have to step up and take charge of her," he said, "or this will get completely out of control. I know I've worn you out, but you can't just quit with Jessie."

I told Joe that I appreciated the pep talk. But, continuing the sports analogies, I added that even if I had lost a step, I hoped I was playing smarter.

Then I sent him on his way, telling him to go back to being a child, as the job of mother was currently filled.

Having survived early adolescence with one child does not guarantee success with the second, especially if they are as different as my two are. But some generalizations can be made.

It doesn't do parents or children any good to raise the emotional stakes already on the table at this age. When the household thermostat is somewhere between "volatile" and "explosive," it might be best to crack open the doors and windows - not nail everything shut.

Parents of adolescents learn too well that they can't make their children behave - if they ever could. Their children belong to the world more and more, and the best we can do is create an atmosphere where good behavior is possible.

We can state, and restate, our expectations. Praise the kids when they are met and express our disappointment when they are not.

And hope that these emotional punishments will touch their emerging consciences the way a smack on the behind or eternal grounding may never do.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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