At age 15, our son’s default mood was angry. Life seemed unfair to him. Like many adolescents, he was confused about friends, the future, the point of his daily activities, his family. No matter how hard his dad and I tried to reach through his adolescent funk to find the fun-loving, curious boy who used to live with us, we seemed to be thwarted at every turn.
And then one day in the car, my son started talking about Kurt Cobain. He opened up to me about his admiration for Nirvana, both the music and all that the band represented. Understand this was several years after Cobain’s death. As a high school English teacher, I had watched students write about the singer and Nirvana’s music before. But this was my son, who had only been a toddler at the time the singer took his own life.
My son was trying to figure out who he was and listening to Kurt Cobain helped
And now he was fascinated about everything to do with Cobain? I swallowed my fear, suddenly understanding why our son had taken to wearing flannel shirts and to not combing his hair. I resisted the urge to point out all of Nirvana’s flaws, and said instead, “Will you play some of their songs?”
“Sure,” he said, and so we listened. We listened that day in the car, and at other times through the ensuing months. I researched Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. I read their lyrics. I was scared, sure, but it gave me a stronger understanding about what was important in my son’s life at that moment. And I came to understand a little bit about how Nirvana represented so well adolescents’ desires to turn their backs on what they perceived as their parents’ culture.
And isn’t that the point of art in any medium? At its best, art helps us figure out who we are. It helps us define our feelings and share them with others. It tells us that we are not alone in the world. And Kurt Cobain, with his hauntingly honest voice, has spoken across the generations and reached confused fifteen-year-olds for decades now.
Parenting lessons I learned by accepting my son’s artistic choices
I learned many important parenting lessons by accepting my son’s admiration for Nirvana. First, I learned that he was trying to figure out who he was and what he believed. Through finding art that spoke directly to him, our son defined himself as a young adult with preferences not shared by the rest of his family.
I also learned that I could respect my children’s artistic choices, even if I didn’t always understand them. Kurt Cobain’s songs and tragic life made me sad, but I wasn’t a fifteen-year-old. I was looking at the world through the lens of a middle-aged parent, not an idealistic adolescent.
I came to understand that I shouldn’t pretend to like something just because one of my children did. My son didn’t need me to become a Nirvana fan; he needed me to understand why the band was important to him. As a parent, I learned to appreciate, but not adopt, my children’s artistic choices. I didn’t really like Nirvana’s music. That was my son’s world. I could share in it when I was invited, but I shouldn’t try to be the cool mom and become a fan myself.
The final lesson I learned was that I could understand my children more by paying attention to what they liked. What movies did they watch? What bands did they listen to? Favorite video games? Books? Youtube channels?
I looked for opportunities to be invited for a short time into the world of their chosen art forms, and even if they weren’t my choices, I always tried to say yes. I felt honored that I’d been asked. I tried to stifle my tendency to point out flaws with their choices. I also tried to fight my tendency to be afraid of the choices that scared me, like the hours my son spent listening to Nirvana.
Our son’s flannel stage only lasted a year or two, but I will always be grateful to Nirvana and artists everywhere. Art helps all of us make sense out of being human, even middle-aged mothers trying desperately to stay connected to their fifteen-year-old sons.
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Lori Stratton is the mother of three young adults and a high school English teacher. Find more of her work at lorijstratton.com.