With a fifteen-year-old son, I’m learning to say that a lot lately.
My formerly easygoing little boy has become a young man, and we disagree when I least expect it. Fifteen can be a tricky age, filled with extremes. There are few gray areas when you are a fifteen-year-old boy.
There are things that are cool and right and fair, like Reddit and funny memes and staying up late to play games on the computer, and all the other things that are not. More often than I would like, I fall into the latter category.
Suddenly it seems like I don’t know anything, at least as far as he is concerned. I used to know a lot. When he was younger, I had the answers to nearly all of his questions or if I didn’t, I knew where I could find them. We spent countless hours in the library together when he was little, searching through books filled with dinosaurs and airplanes and rockets, trying to find out how they worked, what they did, and why. Always why.
When he asked his questions, I gave the answers, and he would nod his little head, accepting and soaking in all of my presumed wisdom. Now when he asks me a question, he seems to be almost daring me to answer, as if looking to expose my areas of weakness. No, I don’t know about the most recent developments in Fortnite, and to be honest, I don’t know if I really care.
So I have to be careful, phrasing my answers with a caution I’m not accustomed to using. I watch my words, trying to avoid conflict whenever possible. And I have learned to admit when I don’t know something. I am learning to accept that even though he does things differently than I do, it doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
Sometimes disagreements arise because I don’t know have all the information I need to give an accurate answer. Like most boys his age, he tells me only what he wants me to know, holding back information that to him seems extraneous or unimportant. But I’m learning that information often holds important clues to his behavior, a kind of code underlying his decisions.
If I’m nagging about getting his project done early so we (and I use the word “we” deliberately) won’t be stressed about the deadline, the fact that the teacher said it was only a rough draft might be relevant. Or if the band teacher decided not to hold regular rehearsal on Thursday, he will have more time to be on his computer than planned. Or if he says he doesn’t want to go to the Homecoming dance, it might be because the girl he likes already agreed to go with someone else. But I don’t know that.
So I react. And sometimes, I react badly. I wish I could say I’m always patient, calm, and accepting, but I’m not. I don’t think many moms actually are, despite what they want you to think. Sometimes I say the words to him and I want to take them back immediately, like erasing that tiny cartoon bubble of speech before he hears it. But I can’t.
To get past the disagreement, the inevitable outburst of “You don’t understand!” and my reaction, I’ve learned to pause. To take a breath and listen, really listen, to the words and the spaces between the words, as he explains. I hear his point of view, his description of the circumstances, and why he is doing things the way he is doing them.
Then I understand. I don’t have to have all the answers. It’s better when I don’t, actually. He needs to know how to do things on his own, and more importantly, he needs to know I respect that. So I’ve learned to apologize.
Catherine Gentry is a writer living in Houston, Texas. She retired from practicing law to raise her three nearly grown children, and her writing has been featured online at Literary Mama, Grown & Flown, the “Voices” section of the Princeton Alumni magazine, and in the Houston Chronicle, as well as on her blog, “Words Count“