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Friday Advice Column: Teens

November 26th, 2006


Dear Wacky Mommy,

What do I do with my teenager?



Dear Frantic:

This is a response to the five of you who have e-mailed, asking pretty much the same question. I’ve been avoiding this one, like most of us avoid anything to do with teens. And I’m sorry, if you’re not in the mood to read fifteen pages — but this may turn out to be a treatise of some sort: “How To Fix Your Teenager,” by WM.

The teenage years in the last decade or so have expanded to include a person’s 20s. As in, “She’s only 29! She’s too young to have a baby!” “He’s not even 30 yet, he hasn’t quite decided what to do for a career.”

Point #1) Teen years end at 19. I would argue that teen years end at 18, when you can legally vote and get drafted. So if you have a 28-year-old at home, and you’re babying him and doing his laundry, because he can’t figure out life yet — you and your son both have a problem, and you’re not doing him, or yourself, any favors. If he’s 57 and this is still going on — you have an extremely large problem.

You do have some other rather huge problems out there, I’m hearing, with your own Wacky Families. And not just the standard teen rebellions — smoking, stealing the family car, being rude to Grandma, refusing to go to church. I’m hearing harsh stories about kids mutilating themselves with burns and cuts; full-on suicide attempts; mental illness and medications that may or may not help; kids who run off to other states to meet their would-be Internet “dates”; kids who refuse to go to college, get jobs, get lives, or even get drivers’ licenses.

What the hell is going on out there?

Point #2) Teenagers need to have independence, responsibility, privacy, room to hesitantly, and sometimes wantonly, try things out — without the whole world watching. A teenager’s life should not be a stage — it’s a work in progress.

Point #3) The following things are not helping: a) Our culture’s sick obsession with pop culture, music and movies; b) My Space accounts, where you’re trying to rack up the cool points and are constantly on view c) Text messaging, where everyone knows what you’re doing and it’s supposed to all be so fascinating every frickin’ second of every hour of every day (Life is frequently boring. Get used to it); d) Our society’s drive to have more, bigger, better, now always, always, always, everything.

I’m not being a hypocrite here, saying that maybe some teenagers shouldn’t have blogs. I’m blogging as I write this, obviously. The difference is: I’m not in school, thank God. I’m a big girl and I don’t mind laying out my vulnerabilities and opinions. No one is going to use them against me in algebra class tomorrow. If someone doesn’t like something I’ve written, that’s their opinion and they’re entitled to it. They don’t have to buy my work, hire me as an editor, or look at my site if they’re not into it. I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, getting published since I was 14 and self-publishing since I started going to poetry slams and handing out my stuff.

If a kid is using their blog or My Space account to reach out, communicate with friends and family, and it’s all safe and good, that’s one thing. But if they’re killing themselves because somebody laughed at a poem they wrote and put on their blog, or if they’re getting hurt, physically or virtually, because some freak reaches out to them via the web, that’s a whole ‘nother trip.

“I want the world/
I want the whole world/
I want to lock it/
all up in my pocket/
it’s my bar of chocolate/
give it to me now”

You know who sang that? That’s right, Veruca Salt, the hideous brat from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Veruca, can we have a word? Veruca, when people used to mention you they’d shudder. Now you are an icon. People want to be you, Veruca. The world, Veruca, is a mess. Can you help?

We are expected to be Veruca Salt nowadays; rich, with a giant Hummer, getting frequent hummers, and your job had better be cool and not Taco Bell. Or Target, for God’s sake.

A brief disclaimer: I am not a trained medical or mental health professional. You know this. So please seek medical, mental, or legal advice as needed. Not that any of those professionals seem to know what to do either. Kids these days and all that. In my day, we walked twenty miles in the snow, barefoot, to get to school. (It is so easy to be flip. Or to think, yeah, it’s always been hard to be a teenager. There would not be enough tea in China for Wacky Mommy to want to be a teenager nowadays, though.)

There’s some racism going on now, too, that I haven’t heard discussed much. Hockey God and I were talking about Kids Today: What the Fuck? and I said my usual, “Damn, what’s wrong with bussing dishes, or hostessing? Then you work your way up to waiting tables, make some money, get through high school and college. Or you work as a maid.”

HG says, “Look around us — adults have those jobs now. And the lowest-paying jobs are usually worked by Mexicans. Where are the kids supposed to work?”

Me: “Target. Fred Meyer. Dunkin’ Donuts. Get. A. Job. I don’t care if they’re cutting grass, babysitting, cleaning out gutters. They need to make their own damn money, the little slackers.” (Which leads us both into a tirade re: why is it that no kids in our neighborhood babysit? Mow lawns? Put up Christmas ornaments? Again — WTF?) Hockey God and I both worked as teens — I started out babysitting, then worked in the woods summers, building trails and being a Junior Ranger of sorts. I waitressed, worked as a soda jerk at my neighborhood pharmacy, sold Avon. Oh. My God. I just admitted to the Internet I sold Avon. He detasseled corn (and get your mind out of the gutters — he grew up in Iowa), waited tables, played music, then went into the grocery business, working produce. Which somehow led him into computers and hockey, go figure. We wanted money. And our parents were not handing it out.

So, the racism — there is a sense of entitlement out there, for sure, especially if you’re a white, middleclass kid. Someone who e-ed me said her two teenagers scoffed at the idea of working at Taco Bell: “Only Mexicans work there.” Tell your kid this is racist. Not just racist — classist. As in: “You’re better than everyone else? Damn, buddy. You don’t even have a job!” Another good line, if you hear your kids, their friends, or anyone else bitching about someone speaking a language other than English in America: “He/she can speak two languages. Maybe more. You can barely speak one.” Wacky Mommy does enjoy a good comeback.

There is another problem here — the upper-lowerclass to lower-middleclass and even middle-middleclass not being able to support themselves, much less a family, on the wages that are paid nowadays, ie — grown men and women working entry level jobs for peanuts. (For more on that, read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by one of the wisest women in the world, Barbara Ehrenreich.

I’m referring you to three other books, as well. I’ve just started reading the first, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before, by Jean M. Twenge. It’s great, and Twenge has some real insights into what’s going wrong.

The second, Unless, by Carol Shields, is one of my favorite novels ever. Norah, the eldest child of 44-year-old Reta Winters, drops out of college, for no clear reason, and lands on a Toronto street corner panhandling. She refuses to speak, and wears a cardboard sign around her neck that reads “Goodness.” What is going on with her? Shields was a brilliant novelist and this, her last work before her death, was her best. And from me, that is saying a lot, because I adored everything Shields wrote.

The third (and don’t laugh) is Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care: A Handbook for Parents of the Developing Child from Birth through Adolescence by our dear departed friend, Benjamin Spock (with Steven Parker). Because sometimes we need a refresher. And I like his style. I would recommend you go back to the toddler section, and all the yadda-yadda about consistency, rules, love and firmness, and try to meld it into something you can use now. Toddler tantrum, teen tantrum — it’s the same kid. Try to remember what did and didn’t work when your kid was little. Try, please try, to not kick yourself for things you wish you had done differently. Read the teen section, too.

The advice I’ve been getting from my friends who have older kids is to be consistent, starting right this second, and for the love of God don’t cave. Don’t buy them a toy every time you go to the store. Don’t spoil them too much. Love them, but don’t let them run the show. (Yeah, too late for the Wacky Family.)

I had a friend in college who was moaning and bitching about his mom, who had stopped handing out cash and wouldn’t let him move back home. “She’s doing Tough Love, which basically means, ‘No Love,'” he told me. She was a great mom — raised five kids alone, went back to school to get her graduate degree, put up with no shenanigans. Tough Love was the smartest thing she could have done for my friend. But he wasn’t mentally ill, drug-addicted, lost, violent. What about these kids? I do not know.

And what the hell do I know about teenagers and 20-somethings, anyway? My kids are 4 and 7 and by comparison are so simple and easy. Right now they’re watching “Wizard of Oz” and later, we might play Chutes and Ladders.

I did have a stepson most of you don’t know about — not really a stepson, because his dad and I never married. But when I was in my early 20s I dated a man — a terrible father, fyi — whose son was three months old when we met. This kid is now 20. He won’t work. He won’t go to school. No driver’s license, although he is considering buying a motorcycle because “I have a leather jacket. Seems kind of stupid to have the jacket and no bike.”

He’s “too cool for the room,” as jazz players are fond of saying. He told me he would never work in a restaurant, “because I don’t really support the whole system of tipping.”

Yeah, I came unhinged at that, and reminded him that his mother (who could never hold down a job) and his father (who moved out of town and abandoned him) didn’t support him when he was a kid — I did. By waitressing. AND HE WASN’T EVEN MY KID. And I was also going to college at the time. And I worked at the college newspaper, and then as editor of the college literary magazine, and sometimes temped at a third job, “So I could fucking pay my bills and support you and don’t give me this shit about you don’t support the whole SYSTEM OF TIPPING. You need to get a goddamn job. And go to school.”

(How much do I love it when I open my mouth and my mother’s voice comes out, complete with Southern accent? I do love it. My mother raised two smart daughters, if I do say so myself. And all by herself. She worked. She’s still working.)

My stepson was living with his mom at the time, so I added, “Your mom can be broke all by herself, she doesn’t need help with that one.” (Again with the Southern attitude.) That was a couple years ago, and now Hockey God and I only hear from him around the holidays, when he’s hoping for a hand-out.

Maybe a motorcycle, or a set-up in an apartment of his own.

So maybe you should learn by what I did wrong, and remember the words of Jesse Jackson (and I’m paraphrasing here) — We don’t need to tell the youth of today to “just say no.” We need to ask them why they are feeling the need to anesthetize themselves. We need to ask them why.

Why do they cut themselves? Hurt themselves? Introduce themselves to rapists?

Point #4: Take the Internet away. I have heard some harsh stories about kids running off to meet someone they met on the Internet. Turns out he wasn’t 20, after all, he was fifty. No, I’m not talking urban legends, I’m just trying to give some confidentiality to people (not my stepson, obviously). One mama I know had a kid from abroad show up on her doorstep — her kid had told the international traveller, sure, come to the States and stay with us. He wasn’t a nice kid, unfortunately. You can say no to that freaky kid at the door, because it’s your house, see? You don’t even have to say yes to your own kid, if they’re physically hurting you, or someone else in your home. If they’re stealing from you. If they’re wanted on warrants. You can call a cop. You can be less extreme and take away the Internet. You can’t stop them from logging on at the library, school, or a friend’s house, but you can sure as hell take away the computer or laptop in their room, and disconnect the DSL.

Point #5: Don’t make home too comfy. Take away the TVs, the Ipods, the DVD players. Put them in your attic, or a friend’s attic. Can’t bear the thought of no TV? Too bad. If you’ve got the cozy set-up in the basement rec room, or in their bedrooms, why the hell should they look for work, or go to school, when they can watch Battlestar Galactica re-runs. Don’t pay their cellphone bills. Don’t buy them a cellphone in the first place. You got the phone so you could helicopter-parent them, perhaps? But they’re not picking up your calls, anyway? They can pay for a cellphone themselves if they want one so badly.

Point #6: I’m sorry to be so harsh, but you need to hear this. Stop handing out the cash. You are not an ATM, so don’t act like one. You can’t afford it and your kids can’t, either.

Point #7: Our seminar today: “Birth Control: Why It’s a Beautiful Thing,” complete with a free pack of condoms.

Point #8: If they’re lucky enough to have grandparents offering to foot their bill for college, remind them this offer has an expiration date and enroll them yourselves. Drive them to campus the first day and leave them there. Get the images of abandoned puppies and kittens out of your head.

Point #9: If you have a kid who’s cutting high school or middle school: Drive them to school and attend classes with them. Or send grandma, grandpa, an especially burly uncle or a nosy neighbor. I’ve heard that one day of this usually does the trick.

Point #10: Easy for me to say, huh?

Point #11: Get mental health care or addiction help if you or your kid(s) need it. Try alternative health care if they refuse to go to a counsellor, or even if they do. And best wishes — I know this one is the hardest of all to deal with. I’m not even going to try to tackle it. But talk — don’t hide it. Keep talking — to them, to your close friends, to your pastor if you have one, to your spouse, to family members you trust. Don’t hide it.

Point #12: If you’re married, hang tough, together. Don’t let your kids work you against each other. Because someday they’ll grow up and leave, but you guys will still have each other.

Much love,



  1. edj says

    Also, “Age of Opportunity” offers a hopeful look on how teenagers can be fun and you can enjoy the teenage years. No really. I haven’t read it yet, (just the intro) but it looks good. It’s a Christian book, so if you’re not you should prob skip it as it would no doubt be annoying.
    You offer some sound, common-sense advice, WM. And great quote from Willy Wonka! And I like the Southern attitude. When I’m upset, I start sounding British, which is even weirder, but again, I’m echoing my own mother.

    November 27th, 2006 | #

  2. Wacky Mommy says

    Thanks for the suggestion — we need all the help we can get ;) Do you start throwing British phrases around that you don’t ordinarily use? I do that with Southern ones. It startles my children.

    November 27th, 2006 | #

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