This is roughly when the schools send out their information about class lists, hot lunch programs and school supplies. It’s usually a week or two after our annual mid-summer camping trip, and once we’ve finished washing, folding and putting away all those items, my mind begins to drift forward to the next set of looming responsibilities.
We try very, very hard not to let the impending start of school ruin the last bit of summer, but it can be hard. Our main strategy is to plan some really fun, special activities with friends, like amusement parks or waterslides. Trips to the farmer’s market. Dinner in Chinatown. Also some sleeping in, lazing around in pyjamas and swimming in the lake after dark.
Now that my older girls are preteens, I also make a real effort to get in some one-on-one time with them. When you have more than one child, it’s so easy to group them into neat categories. I often pair the twins together, because they are so easy-going and can seem very similar in their likes and dislikes. But they have very distinct personalities despite their identical genetic profiles, and really need to have that uniqueness validated. And my youngest assumes the role of the family fireball, grabbing the spotlight and thriving in it, but she is also so much more than that, and has different relationships with each of her sisters.
When you’re parenting, the easy thing isn’t always the right thing. We need to see past the labels, the thumbnail summaries, the established patterns.
This week I’ve taken advantage of the August downtime to host an 80’s teen film festival with a couple of their friends. First they watched Sixteen Candles, then The Breakfast Club. Since they are so enthusiastic, I’ve got Say Anything for tonight (“Mom, why is he holding that huge box radio over his head?” Try and explain ghetto blasters to the iPod generation!).
The reason I’m mentioning this is that I was once again by struck by that resonant line of narration from The Breakfast Club, “We think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”
The lovely twist to that film, of course, was that the characters (the jock, the brain, the criminal, the princess, the basket case) come to realize they saw themselves and each other that way as well, exactly like the adults who just don’t get it. In that one magic day of detention, they learn that they each have a bit of each other in themselves.
People are complicated. Multifaceted. It may not seem like rocket science, but this is one of the bigger revelations of growing up and it’s a familiar theme in young adult fiction of all kinds.
Seeing this movie again made me think about how hard we need to try to see beyond the labels. Especially in preteens and teens who are growing and changing every day, who struggle to see themselves as simultaneously similar to everyone else and unique individuals. We need to give them room to surprise us, to defy expectations, to be anomalies, contradictions. To try on different hats.
In these stories (and many other kinds of YA fiction), adults are generally depicted as one-dimensional, disconnected characters, incapable of comprehending the angst and emotional turmoil of the teens around them. They are stuck in their own adult funks, driven by their own agendas and the teens need to figure everything out on their own. Makes me think of incoherent voices of all the grown-ups in the Charlie Brown cartoons. I understand how this is a convenient plot device, and I also get why this disconnect would resonate with teens, but I see it as a challenge to go beyond. We need to work very hard to maintain that dialogue with our kids. Leave our agendas aside as much as possible. Listen instead of lecturing.
So in the last few days of summer, I’m going to spend as much time as possible with each of my three girls one-on-one, letting them pick the activities and drive the conversation. As they head off to start their own high school memories with friends they haven’t yet met, I’m going to challenge myself — and them — to look beyond the surface and let them talk about whatever crosses their minds.
As challenges go, this one is also a privilege. I’m really looking forward to it.