Teen-agers listen to advice from other children's parents

January 30, 2001|By Susan Reimer

ON A RECENT Saturday afternoon, while I was upstairs taking a bubble bath and primping for dinner out, another woman was in my kitchen helping my daughter prepare for her first set of high school final exams.

The next day, while I folded laundry, the same woman prepped my son for the SATs and discussed with him what college-preparatory courses he should consider taking during his senior year.

Before you condemn me for my laziness or my arms-length parenting style, let me say that I could have done either of these things with my children, albeit not so well. But I doubt they would have listened to me. Boredom and resistance are common responses to my assistance.

However, I did lecture my daughter's friend on the dangers of freshmen girls dating senior boys. ("Mom, she thinks you're a crazy woman!" was my daughter's response.)

I had a long, measured conversation with another young lady, who is convinced that she will drink before graduating from high school. That same conversation with her mother ended abruptly when someone said something about calling police.

I have ministered to the injuries of another woman's son, but my own might not call my name from his deathbed. And I scolded another young man who told me he had decided he might just take a year off before college: "Who do you think you are? Prince William? Get going on your applications." I received his request for letters of recommendation forthwith.

Parents are supposed to talk to their teen-agers, but it never seems to go very well. Either they pretend to ignore us or they explode in outrage at our intrusiveness, our vulgarity or our cluelessness.

Perhaps because I have this wellspring of advice that knows no bounds, I have satisfied my need to direct the lives of children by preaching to other women's children.

Usually they are the children of friends, and I have tacit permission, but not always. Likewise, these children listen politely to me, either out of good breeding or because they are struck dumb by my audacity.

In addition, I have lectured complete strangers on how to talk to their children about sex, drugs and alcohol, while my own have cupped their hands over their ears and hummed loudly when I mention these subjects to them.(I calm myself by saying that if I inoculate every other child against these dangers, none will be left to get a child of mine drunk or pregnant.)

Once you have a child, all children are your responsibility. Not just in theory, but in fact. As parents, we must extend ourselves to those children because our own do not grow up in isolation.

It will take some gumption to do this, and our own children will not appreciate our candor with their friends. We will have to put our pride in a shoebox and not mind that we look foolish to our kids, who probably think that anyway.

It was my friend Janet who was working with my children that weekend while I pampered myself and did chores. She is an educator and her specialty is study skills, and she knows how to guide children through the obstacle course to college. And she loves working with adolescents. Who better to tutor my children, who consider it a matter of honor not to listen to anything I say?

Likewise, I am a tireless proponent of sex education, but my own children run screaming from the room whenever I draw in a breath to speak. I get no such reaction when I talk to the daughter of a friend about how to handle the crisis of a friend's unprotected sex, or to a globe-trotting Marine Corps nephew when I demand that he always use a condom, no matter how awkward it makes the moment.

Maybe it doesn't take a village to raise a child. Maybe it just takes a different set of parents. These other children may want to run screaming from the room when someone else's parents speak to them this way, but generally they do not.

Exchanges with other people's children do not have to be about big topics, and you do not always have to talk in capital letters. I took a friend's son to dinner and the theater, when my own might have tried to jump from the car at the first stoplight. We talked about nothing in particular, and we had a good time. Well, I did.

His mother took my daughter shopping, and another mother lets the girls mess up her kitchen in the name of baking. My husband is always good for a sports team's media guide and another father has a boat. I can edit a college essay, but my friend can speak French and brings German books and magazines home from her trips abroad for my children's extra-credit offerings.

I still envision my children in their footed sleepers. Quite reasonably, they find my attempts at cuddling insulting. So I offer to sit for a neighbor's newborn when I need a baby fix.

We all have something to offer, if it is only our attention. And there isn't a teen-ager out there who would soak up a little more of that.

Adolescence is a difficult time for parents and children, but that only appears to be true for parents and their children. Other people's children don't seem to find me as irritating as my own do and, if they let me, I will embrace them for it.

To paraphrase a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young lyric: "If you can't talk to the one you love, talk to the one you're with."

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