As our children are neck-deep into adolescence, I’m trying to pay attention to what this developmental transition does to our family relationships.
We are pretty early in the game. Son is 16, daughter is 13. We have gotten here relatively unscathed, moving through most of middle school with solid parent/child connections, positive opinions of one another and every body part accounted for (not counting wisdom teeth, sports injuries or general repairs). But lots has changed, and what has changed is worth noting.
1. We know less and less about our children’s lives at school. Moving from a single class room in elementary school into the maze of middle and high school meant an immediate and dramatic change: I don’t know my children’s teachers. I have gone to what passes for parent-teacher conferences in our district only to spend about 10 minutes per subject talking to each teacher about my child in their class. A few of the teachers stand out in their effort to talk to me about my children, and that has made a difference in how I talk about them at home, and how at ease I am in communicating with them. Some really do a great job keeping in touch with emails, but most have as much substance in my consciousness as ghosts. I wouldn’t know them to stumble upon them. I am no longer the advocate I used to be for my kid’s educations. I have little to no real information on these teachers, and they me. That seems a huge loss for my family. I don’t think of the teachers in my children’s lives as people I share my children’s education with. They have it during the school day, and I have given that influence up.
2. We know even less about our children’s friends and their parents. One of the more interesting things for me to observe in our family life is how friendships evolve. When the children were small, and we drove them everywhere, dropping them off for play time or events, we would spend time in the front halls of these homes talking with other parents and getting to know them personally. None of us would think of simply letting our 7 or 9 or 11 year old stay overnight with a family we hadn’t at least met face to face. And that circle of friendships was relatively small and interconnected. But as our children have grown older, and their friendship circle wider, we have loosened our expectations about knowing the parents, and focused a bit more on trying to know the friends. We’ve learned that the apples don’t fall too far from the trees, so if the child is solid and steady, we tend to believe the family is that way, too. This isn’t always the case, of course. I know this well, both in theory and in fact, some children are more steady than their parents. And this has occasionally caused some real drama. But in general, we have shifted from a parent-centered to a peer-centered assessment of where our children spend their time.
3. Our children still need us to be their fierce advocates, but in more subtle ways. Just when I think that our children no longer need me to do for them as much, to speak for them, to argue, plan or problem solve for them, I’m proven wrong. There is an adult they need to speak to, and they want me to do it. There’s a plan they need to make, and it didn’t get made, would I make it? There’s an appointment, a game, a tryout, a field trip form, a PSAT, youth group, lunch money, library book, driver’s ed class, special purchase, problem, or phone call that needs my help, my advice, my money, and my signature. Usually at the last minute, and often at my least flexible moments. But I have to hop to it, because in some ways, I am now the cleanup team. They have outgrown their childhoods, but haven’t quite grown into their adult selves. And it’s now my job, our job, to bend and flex in our parenting as they are in their development. We still defend and protect, just not so often and not so obviously.