In search of Parent Role Models (Teen years)

The best way to keep children at home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant, and let the air out of the tires. – Dorothy Parker

Watching an episode of House yesterday, I couldn’t help but think that Dr. House has the perfect personality to raise a teenager. He knows the desired outcome and digs in like a snarling bulldog with all teeth locked on tight. House doesn’t care what you think of him, he just knows he has a life to save. With each new symptom, you can see the determination in his face, as if he were talking directly to the illness itself, taunting it: “Bring it on, bitch. This patient is not dying on my watch.”

Kevin’s brother Pix and his wife Kelly remind me of House. Kelly was a tough and tenacious step-mom to Pix’s 3 young boys, who grew up to be responsible, amiable adults. As if that weren’t impressive enough, they then adopted a troubled teen named Amber. They provided the right balance of tough love, structure and support to a kid they’d never even met until they agreed to step in after her grandmother died. You would be blown away to hear stories of what Amber was like in high school. Today she is charming, dynamic and level-headed. I’m fascinated that Pix and Kelly played such a pivotal role in her transformation.

Amber, Brian, John and Jason

Amber, Brian, John and Jason

Pix and Kelly

Pix and Kelly

Unfortunately, I’ve seen parents for whom the road of teen parenting was not nearly as smooth. Some parents suffer enormously to keep their teen in line, and are often forced to resort to special boot camps and therapy programs, only to have the wayward youngster stray into drugs or law trouble after returning home. I cannot begin to imagine the love and fortitude these parents have to muster every day to help their teen become an independent adult. But when they do it, it’s an amazing thing, and I respect every parent that keeps locked on and doesn’t give up.

Not every parent’s teen experience is fraught with intense obstacles, but it is still extraordinary to observe a teen blossom into to a thriving young adult. My sister Lora and brother-in-law Phil had a comparatively easy road with Mary Catherine, who was mature and respectful at an early age. I once asked Lora how she raised such a great teen and she refused to take credit. “She came to us this way.” I think their parenting style had a lot to do with it, though. Lora and Phil are both kind people who expressed clear expectations of their daughter. Their efforts paid off; Mary Catherine is a delightful human being.

Lora, Mary Catherine, Phil

Lora, Mary Catherine, Phil

In terms of parental struggles, our experience with Forrest rests somewhere in between.  Although he is a good kid at heart, he always seems one step away from a bad decision. Over the years, we have been called in to address any number of transgressions, including fighting with other kids (mostly verbally), skipping school, traffic tickets, bad grades, sexting, and smoking cigarettes. Each time I learn of a new issue, it feels like a punch in the stomach. Emotions of concern and disappointment swirl together in a vortex that leaves me feeling overwhelmed. And I’m just the late-entry step-parent. Kevin takes the brunt of the burdens; I really don’t know where he finds his strength.

The fact of the matter is that good parenting is hard work. Telling your teen the word “no” means you are willing to suffer more whining than a dog afraid of thunderstorms. Like House, Kevin is not deterred: he is quick to call teacher-parent meetings or seek advice from school principals. The parents of Forrest’s friends are required to call Kevin, so we can be assured that Forrest is not visiting in an unsupervised home. He mandated that Forrest go to court instead of just paying his traffic ticket fines, so that the young driver could feel the full weight of his mistakes. Kevin is determined that Forrest will experience consequences when he makes errors in judgement: Forrest has had plenty of times when he had to live without his phone or his car or seeing his friends, because he did something to warrant these punishments.

The good news is that Kevin is as quick to praise Forrest as he is to discipline. Kev has an app on his phone so that he knows class grades at all times and is always ready with words of encouragement. He pays for anything Forrest needs for sports or academics, whether it’s a laptop, golf clubs, or tutors. He does it for the same reason all parents make these sacrifices- he wants Forrest to have a solid foundation for a happy life. Kevin didn’t go to college, and hopes more than anything that his son will know opportunities that he did not. Kevin has had to work so hard for his level of success, and his options have been limited. Like any parent with an overflowing love for their sprout, he wants less struggle for the next generation. Kev is the first to admit this dynamic is part of the problem, because Forrest is a bit spoiled as a result of all this focus.

Forrest, Kev, Ang

Forrest, Kev, Ang

Raising a teen boy sometimes feels like dating a person who cheats. You find yourself questioning everything, doubting everything, and always sensing that they’d rather be somewhere else. You don’t want to be the person who looks through another person’s emails or dirty jeans pockets, dreading the worst, but it’s hard to keep the faith. All you can do is be as determined as Dr. House trying to find the obscure illness of his dying patient. You never give up, you’re willing to try anything that has a remote chance of helping that person, and you’re not afraid to be considered an asshole in the process. The end result is just too important.

So thanks to Lora, Phil, Pix, Kelly and our own parents for being good role models. With Kevin watching over him, I have no doubt Forrest will become a remarkable young man- the foundation is already there. I am honored to be a small part of the process. This kid is not going to fail on our watch.

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