When my son was a toddler, he went with me to tour an open house. Within minutes he found the fireplace. Awestruck he stared at the flames and time slowed as I watched him stretch his small hand toward the hot glass screen.
“Don’t touch,” I warned.
He touched it.
“Ouch!” he squealed and looked at me as if I’d divulged a top-secret to him. I could see his little brain spinning. Oh she does know something. I kissed the boo-boo and I told him to never do that again. And he didn’t.
Fast-forward ten years.
[More on what parents need to remember about teens here.]
He got stupider.
Together with his best friend, he decided that they were going to build a tree fort in the woods at the bottom of our neighborhood. They rummaged for scrap wood, borrowed tools, and planned their construction project.
“Don’t touch the poison ivy,” I warned. “Wash as soon as you get home.”
“Do I look like an idiot? I won’t touch poison ivy.” He rolled his eyes and huffed.
Twenty-four hours later, my kid has an eye swollen shut and a nasty rash all over.
After a massive dose of salt baths, steroids, sleepless nights, and scratched-open wounds, he conceded, “Mom, you were right. I shouldn’t have touched the poison ivy.”
Fast-forward another four years.
[More on how the teen brain works here.]
Now my teenage son is as dumb as they come and he thinks I’m even dumber.
As we enter his seventeenth summer, the combination of warm nights and endless possibility makes for a dangerous, intoxicating cocktail. I wish through some sort of magical-telepathic-osmosis I could pour everything I know into him, along with a heavy dose of forethought and caution. But his hormones are raging, his friends have driver’s licenses, and his prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped. The world is stretching out before him with no horizon in sight.
And I fear for his life.
Here’s what I’m going to do to try to keep my teenage son alive:
1.Talk to him.
He barely speaks anymore. His music and social media are more important. But at bedtime, after his phone’s been put away and I am completely exhausted, he’ll sometimes turn chatty. I will get out of my comfortable bed, go to his room—I will talk—and hope something sticks.
I’ll sneakily try to drill home my Don’t Do It List: do not chew tobacco, don’t drink alcohol, don’t get in a car with someone who’s been drinking, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex, once you get your license—don’t text and drive, don’t dive head first into he quarry lake, don’t forget to wear your seatbelt. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. But if you do something stupid, do, do, do know I’m your mom and I’ll always help you.
2.Keep Sunday dinners together a top priority.
Once a week no matter how busy, I’m going to invite my parents over to have dinner with us—three generations sorting it out, helping each other, connecting, creating tradition—and grounding us in love.
3.Enlist help and communicate with other parents.
It takes a village, right? I’m putting everyone on notice—I want to know all the bad stuff my kid is doing. (I can’t believe I just said that. I’m cringing already—don’t put in the blog comments, private message will suffice.) Ignorance is bliss and my happy days are over. But if that’s what it takes—okay. I can’t police the situation if I don’t know what’s happening. Maybe him knowing that we’re all on the lookout will keep him and his friends on their best behavior.
Dear Parent of High School Junior