By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
This morning as I was driving home after dropping the kids off at Vacation Bible School, the perfect song came on the radio – the kind of song that took me out of my grown-up, responsible minivan and back to 1982. The song was “Jack and Diane” by John Cougar Mellencamp, that instantly recognizable rock anthem about “two American kids growing up in the heartland.”
Since I was driving alone, I cranked up the volume and belted out the familiar lyrics in a way that would have made the kids think I was nuts.
The song had perfect timing because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about teenagers. Even though we’ve already been that age – or maybe precisely because we’ve been that age – most parents are a little terrified of teenagers. My oldest kid is still five years away from “teen-dom”, but I’m already worried about how it might change him and how it might change us as a family.
Perhaps the thing that bothers me most is knowing how inevitable certain things are when you hit that phase, like making bad judgment calls, getting your heart broken, and stubbornly shoving away from your parents’ protective wing. I don’t want him to get hurt in any way, and yet I know he almost certainly will. And even though I understand how the bumps we hit during the teen years often help us grow and mature, I can’t help cringing even before we feel the impact.
The other day a friend and fellow mom told me that, when the doctor performing her ultrasound told her she was having a baby girl, her mind immediately jumped 16 years into the future. She panicked a little, wondering if that distant teenage daughter would love her or torture her or both. It took her a few moments to calm down and remember that the baby wouldn’t be born wearing miniskirts and asking for the car keys on Saturday nights.
One of the reasons parents get so nervous about teenagers, other than the fact that we remember our own dumb mistakes, is because we hear a lot about the teens who find the most trouble. Sometimes they even make national headlines. And let’s face it: There’s an increasing amount of trouble to find for a kid who’s inclined to test the limits. When the song “Jack and Diane” was popular in the early 80s, nobody had ever heard of texting, “sexting,” or cyber-bullying because it didn’t exist. Today’s teenagers are swimming through uncharted waters.
What hasn’t changed, though, is that natural, hard-wired desire to carve out your own independence. And that familiar push-pull of needing the security your parents offer but also wanting to call your own shots. I know my kids will feel it just as I did, and I hope Tom and I know how to handle it when they do.
But here’s a fact that doesn’t get much press: There are some really good teenagers out there. They don’t make the news nearly as often, but they’re there. Last weekend I saw some of them in action. We went to a concert given by a group of high school kids who were traveling across three states to various churches. Our niece, Abby, was in the group which included several vocalists, guitar players, a drummer, keyboard players and someone who knew how to work all the sound equipment.
The music was great, but the people making it are what impressed us most. Here they are, at a time when they’re naturally craving independence and their brains are bathed in a tidal wave of teenage hormones, and yet they’re doing much more than many adults. They’ve given up a week of their precious summer break and even paid money to travel around, lug instruments and heavy speakers into churches, and perform in front of strangers. And despite all the teenage drama that you know they deal with internally, they looked like confident, happy, poised teens. I wanted to find all their parents and demand to know their secrets immediately.
Perhaps teenagers are a lot like fireworks. Sometimes they can blow up in your face, but often they soar into the night sky and bloom into a shower of light. This is an explosive, exciting time of life, and all we want for our kids and for ourselves is to experience it without getting burned.
From my family to yours, Happy Independence Day.