A few nights ago, I was sitting around with two other parents of teenagers doing what parents of teenagers do in such situations: talk about our teenagers.
We are all proud of our teens. They are “great kids with great heads on their shoulders.” They know that it's bad to drink and drive, and that nothing good can come out of snorting cocaine or having unprotected sex. They occasionally surprise us with acts of loving kindness. They can be exceedingly mature and generous.
But then one of the parents, a mother of two teens, decided to rain on the party and blurted out: “Jared said to me today ‘you are being an ass.’ I wish that was the worst thing he’s ever said to me but it’s not. It really gets under my skin. I would never in a million years have said that to my father!”
The other parent, a prominent doctor and very involved father, sighed, acknowledging without saying as much that his teen had also called him an ass. “I would never have even thought such a thing about my father, let alone called him it. I just had too much respect for him.”
“Did you have an open relationship with your father in the way that you do with your boys?” I asked.
“No,” he admitted.
Is there a tradeoff between preventing your kid from calling you an ass and having an open and honest relationship with him? And if so, which is better, being called a bad word but open with your teen, or being revered but closed?
One of the worse things that can happen is for your teen to call you an ass in front of your parents or in-laws. That does not go over well. Your parents will lecture you endlessly, as if you were the teenager, about the need to instill respect in your teenager.
Your parents have been off the parenting circuit for a very long time, going on cruises or playing Bridge with their friends in Florida. They are not accustomed to the adversarial behavior of a teenager. Their selective memory romanticizes your teenage days. Never mind that they allowed you to get away with ten times more than their parents allowed them to get away with. They value deference and respect. They don’t realize that the culture of parenting has changed, just as it had changed from the time they were kids to the time they became parents.
Indeed, allowing your teenager to get away with calling you an ass is really a function of larger change in our culture. Our society is much more irreverent to authority today than it was a generation ago. We see such irreverence on TV, film, and the internet. Our kids see it in how other parents and kids interact. We parent within the parameters of larger cultural norms. No parent is an island, notwithstanding the usual parental drivel “I don’t care that Mikey Smith’s mom gave him an iPhone.” Parents care a lot about what other parents do and say, whether we admit it or not. We have become more tolerant of being called an ass because our friends and neighbors have as well.
Some decry the decline in reverence, but it’s really just a sign that society is beginning to place a higher value on independent thought and creativity than on compliance. Many parents have come to realize, based on their own experiences at work, that being compliant or obedient is not all it’s cracked up to be. It may get you a job but it won’t get you ahead. These parents have ceased instilling blind obedience in their children, but then feel guilty for allowing their kids to speak to them in a way they wouldn’t have spoken to their parents.
I'm sure there are more than a few parents out there who think I’m out of my mind for countenancing such disrespect because their precious teen would never call them an ass. They credit their skillful parenting for their kid’s upstanding behavior. But those of us mere mortal parents with mere mortal children have a tough choice to make when our teenagers mouth off at us. We can go to war with our teen in the hope that she won’t dare do it again, and risk creating a chill in the relationship and shutting down conversation. Or we can simply and calmly tell her that we don’t appreciate the disrespectful language and move on, and risk producing a kid who…. Ummmm…Will be disrespectful her entire life? Is that really a risk? Seriously?
No, it’s not ok that your teenager calls you an ass. Yes, you can live with it.