(Originally published April 2014)
Don’t blink. I repeat: DO NOT BLINK. All you parents of tween/teenagers: stock up on the Visene. Because if you blink, even for a second, you’re going to miss something. And it’s not something cute that you'll want to jot down in their baby book. It’s something like: phone apps that hide what they don’t want you to see, a decoy login code that self destructs the data within, drugs with 30 nicknames, sex - unsafe and earlier than you thought possible, sexting, bullying of the cyber kind, and music that’ll make your heart melt (but not in a good way).
With a family of four boys from 1 to 16, I’m engaged in an all out tactical strategy to safeguard them from the world, and themselves. My Google search history is littered with questions like: “What is Snapchat?” and “how to discuss pot legality between states” and “do teen fathers have to pay child support?” and “do juvenile detention centers offer tours?” Psychologist, housekeeper, nurse, and playmate - these roles I was prepared to accept as a mother. Private Investigator, well, I’m just now warming up to that one. So here are a few lessons from my investigation findings that you don’t want me to keep to myself (even if you kind of do): Don’t Look Away From What Might Totally Freak You Out. One of my sons used to play hide and seek with better intentions than strategy. “Mommy, come and find me!” he’d cry gleefully, flat on the ground in the middle of the room with only his face covered by a bean bag. Just because he couldn’t see me, he thought I couldn’t see him. Even when it’s not that obvious, you instinctively know where your kids are, or if they’re hiding something. It’s what you’re underpaid and overworked to understand. And that doesn’t change when they can elude your reach for a kiss, duck a moistened fingertip aimed at the spot on their cheek. When they outgrow you, you know them still. You must. Even if you’re scared. Scared in the way you are when you push a hand all the way down into the couch cushions, cringing in anticipation of what decaying thing you might find nestled here. Scared to open that door to a bedroom they claim is off limits. Scared to click on that link that opens the door to their words. And this, this is where parents make their fatal mistake. They let fear win. And look the other way, because, certainly, it’s ‘not my kid.’ Even if it’s “Not” YOUR Kid… These kids are up to something. Of COURSE they are. (Weren’t you?) And if not your kid, then their friend or friend’s friend - however far out you need to draw the circle to make yourself feel comfortable, draw it. Then walk around the perimeter and see what you can see. Now, my 16 year old step-son is officially a ‘good’ kid. High school athlete, good grades, shakes your hand and looks you right in the eye, big-brother extraordinare, eats with his mouth closed. He has neither illegal tattoo or piercing, never snuck out the window, never snuck a sip of beer, never... Never? If my mother compared her list of “she never” to my list of “oh yes I did” - I can tell you they wouldn’t match up exactly. And I was a ‘good’ kid too. Trust Me, They Want You to Look Recently, we picked our teenager up from a school event where the parking lot was filled with patient parents waiting in their cars for the kids to come out. It took about a millisecond for me to jump out of the car and go inside to see what I could see. When I found him and tapped his shoulder, he turned with an automatic "Hi," thinking I was just a friend. Then recognition kicked in... “Oh it’s you.” But, still, he smiled. (Which did turn slightly into a horror-filled “I-may-spontaneously-die” grimace when his father also appeared behind me with a cheerful: “Hi guys!”) At first, the friends that were gathered around him scattered like goldfish when you tap the glass, but then slowly came back in, curious, preening a little. You see, these kids, they don’t want to hide. They want to be seen, to tell you things, to see if you approve, to have your eyes on them when they get it right. That scary kid behind the locked door with a “Keep Out” sign, isn’t she the same one that watched you from across the room as she took her first step, eyes linked with yours, knowing you knew how big this moment was? She is. And she’s still yours. When they’re little and make a goal/get an A+/sing a song, they say: “MOMMY! DADDY! WATCH ME!!” They’re still begging to be watched now, I promise you, they just phrase it differently. They may shrug and say they don’t care. But they want an audience. Even if it’s you. No, especially if it’s you. And if I’m not their audience, I know that when I turn my back, dangerous things call to them more and more loudly. So we simply cannot stop trying to reach them to find them out - the good and the bad, with words that make them stand up straighter, that say “good job” or “let’s try again.” My favorite exchange of late with my stepson is when I ask him a question, oh hypothetically, “Is she or isn’t she your girlfriend?” and then I stare him down. And he tells me no. Then laughs while I keep looking and says, “I hate when you do that.” But he looks back, full eye contact. He knows that I know that he knows it’ll go on this way. Sometimes I won’t see the truth, sometimes I will. But I won’t look away. And when I don’t, he keeps talking. He tells me, “well... maybe.” Be in charge, because (NEWSFLASH) you’re in charge Did you forget you’re the parent? Legally. You are in charge of a minor. That means if you don’t want your kid to get a lip ring at the age of 14, guess what - you don’t have to let them. Not to mention, you don’t have to drive them there, pay for it, then walk defeatedly though the mall while they trounce ahead of you with their underpants (that you also paid for) hanging out of their jeans, screaming at you to give them more money for ice cream with sprinkles. Here’s a starter script for you: “Sorry Jr, I know you want a spike poked through your face and a tattoo of tears dripping down your cheek, but hey, it’s not me who made the rules. Write your congressman. (Or text, I know, I know - I’m cool like that).” And while you’re on a roll, here are some other ways to take charge, because you are in charge (say it with me now, with FEELING!): Be Noisy: When you drop off/pick up your kids, employ the honk and wave technique. Very useful for letting the kids know you are not just the silent chauffeur type. (Also good for building up thick skin in a child.) This approach boldly says, “Hey there kids lounging nonchalantly against the wall, I see you, you see me. Let’s all wave politely like our mamas taught us.” Random Drug Tests: Well, hello there, drug test kit. I see you too, all inexpensive and eligible for Amazon Prime. Oh, you didn’t skip this one, did you? Yes, I know... ‘not my kid.’ That’s fine. But did you ever think that some kids don’t really know how to incorporate the ‘Just Say No’ t-shirt into their wardrobe? It can be really useful for a teen to say, “Sorry Teenage Drug Lord, I really don’t want to fail my parents random drug test and be sent to military school this week.” PS: go in the bathroom with them to ensure they don’t taint the results. (Yes, they can do that.) And don't forget your handy at-home-breathalyser! Be a Huge Know-it-All That unsettling twinge you can't shake that something's not right? No - you are NOT crazy. Start investigating. Kick things off with a spontaneous review of the phone content. Just take a deep breath and dive in.
Know where they’re going.
Call the parents.
Call them back in case a kid was pretending to be a parent.
Show up early.
Show up late and sneak around the corner.
Track their texting-while-driving and speed with your own secret GPS app.
Check their backpack, pockets, purse, behind the pictures on the wall.
Enlist other parents to be on your neighborhood watch. If you’re lucky, there’s someone out there that will yank your kid out of the path of danger if you’re not there watching. (Like this guy did.)
Get to know their friends, invite them over, make them like you and not want to disappoint you. But, no, do not be the parents that buy the kids a keg and feel righteous when you collect their car keys in a fish bowl. Oh, and no closed doors.
Know their passwords to everything. If they protest that their messages are private, hand them a journal with a key and a stack of notebook paper and tell them to go retro. Have them sign a social media contract.
Ask uncomfortable questions until it feels comfortable.
Ask them again.
(Note: if you share custody of your child, here’s where a great working relationship between families comes in really handy. In fact, this article idea was given to me by my stepson’s mom. Make sure you share information and are on the same page so the kid can't slip through the cracks.) Don’t Worry About Them Hating You “But. But.... if I do all these things, my kid will hate me!!" So. To. The. What. And you might be surprised. I asked the resident teenager (who, incidentally approved this message - really! take a look) why he still likes us when ostensibly, a time or two, we’ve ruined his very existence by grounding him ‘forever.’ And this kid with the strict and nosey parents sits across the table from me and says, “I couldn’t be mad at you. It was me who did something wrong.” Sure, maybe he’s angling for a car, or a pony, but he chooses to hang with us, never (rarely) slams his door, and doesn’t bemoan his lot in life because we didn’t let him get those earrings freshman year (which now he thanks us for. Kind of like how I now thank my mom for never letting me get a perm). The Eternal Will Keep You Safe So now what? You have the passwords, monitor Twitter, Facebook, texts... and still, there is the 2.56 minutes between classes, the sleepovers that don’t guarantee parents are as vigilant as you, and you will miss things. Then there will be things you inherently know without being able to catch or prove. The thing that’s the hardest of all is to unfurl the fist, letting these toddlers spring from the center of my palm into a world that will trip them, call them names when they fall, and be offered drugs, rebellion, sex from another child who has a worried mother too. But, in the end, I must let them fly, to see what they can see. My dream for them is to (one very far day in the future) be tucking their own child into bed, covers in around the chin, without too much regret for decisions made, regret like weeds that chokes out good growth. But how, how do you teach a child the concept of preempting regret? I’m still trying to teach my young ones how to eat with a fork. Then I remember He who gave them life before He chose me to play a part in their story. He’s the one who taught me not to turn away. And I must trust that when they’re down on the ground somewhere, during a time hidden from me - He watches on. And, they, like me will hear His voice even when they're on a mad dash the opposite way - tripping over other things He tosses in their path, waves on a beach, a relentless friend, a memory that reminds, a cooling shade. “I look up at the vast size of the mountains—from where will my help come in times of trouble? The Eternal Creator of heaven and earth and these mountains will send the help I need. He holds you firmly in place; He will not let you fall. He who keeps you will never take His eyes off you and never drift off to sleep. What a relief! The One who watches over Israel never leaves for rest or sleep.The Eternal keeps you safe, so close to Him that His shadow is a cooling shade to you. Neither bright light of sun nor dim light of moon will harm you. The Eternal will keep you safe from all of life’s evils, From your first breath to the last breath you breathe, from this day and forever.” -Psalm 121
Be the Tissue If your baby has a cold with a constantly running nose, what do you do? You grab a box of tissues (with infused lotion and aloe if he’s lucky) and you wipe the snot off his face. It’s just what you do. So when exactly is the point in time you stop doing that for the kid you love? When do you abdicate the responsibility to wipe the dirt and grime off the soul of your child and say “I can’t look.” My stepson is an excellent kid, of whom we are wildly proud. And still, still.... he has and will again trick us, and his three younger brothers will too. Something little (we pray, along with the brilliant Tina Fey), or something big (we pray not)... but it will come. And we will be fooled or find out. But we will be looking. Listen, I know it’s almost impossible to watch. But to watch is to love. Perhaps that’s why our teenager doesn’t pull away from our attentiveness, but feels safe under the shadow. Don’t be afraid of the immediate discomfort, be frightened of the long term consequences of closing your eyes. You were born to look. Your child was born to be watched by you. Don’t, do not, blink. RESOURCES: What is Snapchat How Kids Can Hide their Apps Decoy Password apps Drug Test Kits Buy a Breathalyzer How kids can falsify Drug Test results Good apps for parents to track teens The Brilliant Tina Fey Social Media Contract example Teenagers approving this message (bribed only with Italian Ice)