Ah, holidays with teenagers…..
Two days after Christmas, Katja’s friend was having a bonfire in her back yard. Global warming has made Wisconsin winter this year quite pleasant, with temperatures above freezing, making hanging out outdoors possible. However, this bonfire friend often inspired some trepidation. She’s one of those social leaders who values and enforces loyalty, sometimes by manipulating people and situations. But with teenagers, you can’t ban a friendship, knowing that out and out prohibition invites rebellion. We gave Katja, 17, the car keys and she promised to be home by 11:00 PM.
The next morning, I got into the car to take Malachi to 8:00 AM basketball practice, then over to the yoga studio to practice. In the square compartment between the front seats where we keep loose change was a half eaten orange. Under the orange was a shiny glass bauble of blown glass.
What’s this? I wondered, thinking Katja and her friends had exchanged Christmas gifts, and she’d gotten some cool ornament. Looking more closely, I saw it was an artfully crafted tube of glass with a little bowl on the end. And it reeked of marijuana. Uh oh.
Somewhat shaken but still withholding judgment, I went over to the yoga studio, spent the morning lengthening and breathing and opening my mind, then headed home, where the rest of the family would be waking up. By now Malachi, the baby of the family at 14 years old, was home from practice, and had excitedly announced the news to his dad, and awakened his sister to tell her what I’d found.
Ed and I called Katja out of bed.
“So,” Ed began casually, “who’d you drive home last night?”
Katja sleepily rattled off names of three boys, two more passengers than she’s allowed to have in the car as a probationary driver. Hmmmm, at least she admitted she had too many passengers. And at least one of them was eating fresh fruit instead of candy.
“Look what I found in the car,” I said, holding out the colorful pipe.
Katja’s older sister, Meiko, 19, was home for the holidays. “Stooooooopid…..,” she muttered.
As the discussion continued, we discerned that the pipe, or “piece” as they call it, didn’t belong to her, that she had no idea whom it belonged to, that she hadn’t been smoking, and that she wasn’t aware of anyone at the party smoking. Everybody innocent. What a relief! We’re such good parents, we could reassure ourselves. We investigated, we found no evidence, we let it go. Right?
We live in a notably liberal community, home to lots of university people, professionals, and artists. A community called Shorewood with the nickname Shoreweed. I would characterize it as a place where underdressed kids in hooded sweatshirts instead of winter coats can walk at all hours unbothered and unsupervised. It’s the kind of place where parents trust their teenagers. I’ve had conversations with other parents wondering about this and that, trying to get a story straight, as the other parents pat my arm and say, “we trust our children.” Meaning any or all of the following: my relationship with my child is more important than my child’s safety; we practice the power of positive thinking; my child has no reason to lie to me; or I give my child the benefit of the doubt. And implying: you’re creating problems with your fear and suspicion. And even worse: I have a great relationship with my teenager, and apparently you do not.
Even though I’m politically left of liberal, this kind of loosey-goosey parenting of teens drives me crazy. It’s the permissive parent’s form of denial, this determination to believe whatever your teenager tells you and not disrupt the wonderful communication you’ve established in the family.
Here’s the deal: Teenagers lie. Not necessarily chronically nor compulsively nor maliciously, but as part of growing up, seeing what they can get away with, testing themselves out in the world. Sometimes they lie to protect a friend. Sometimes they lie by withholding a few details, just not telling the entire story.
And why should they tell us everything? Like everyone else, they need a bit of space and privacy. At the same time, they’re minors and inexperienced, and more susceptible than adults to substances, addiction, impulsive behavior, and peer pressure. So I’m all for the watchful eye, while admitting I don’t and can’t know everything.
“Well, if this is not your ‘piece,'” I tell Katja, “I need to call the other parents. I need to let them know what I found, and that their child was in the car. They can do whatever they want with the information.”
“No! Don’t call them,” Katja insisted. Even adding, “Punish me instead of them.”
Wow, what could this be about? Where is this loyalty coming from? Could this really be her piece? After much thought and observation, I sense that it’s not. I am wondering about her determination to protect these boys, who are not even close friends, but one of whom is the boyfriend of the bonfire host. Later, she changes the story to an even more unlikely one, saying no one was in the car after all and someone must’ve entered our car without her knowing and left the piece there.
We let the issue lie fallow for a few days. I do call the other parents, but not knowing them personally, I decline to leave messages on their voice mails. Katja succeeds at confusing us enough to make me drop the phone calls. We decide to prohibit her use of the car until the end of January.
On New Year’s Eve, folding mandu (Korean dumplings) together as we do every year, I ask her, “Doesn’t your friend who owns the piece feel sorry for you? Since you’re bearing the brunt of it all?”
“But not enough to come forward, huh?”
And we talk about how shit tends to happen around certain friends. She points out that she has just as much fun with the no-shit friends, and admits that she’s been wondering whether it’s worth it to hang out with some kids. I suggest that when drugs are involved, the loyalty is to the drug more than to a friend, the determination to continue the drug use more important than continuing a friendship.
I don’t say any more. Perhaps I’ve already said too much. We wet the edges of the dumpling skins and fold them into neat triangles, one after another.
Now I drive her everywhere, like I did when she was younger. As Katja points out, the punishment is more for the parents than for her. Or as Nietszche puts it, the function of punishment is to improve the punisher. But it means we spend more time together, and since she got an iPod car radio converter for Christmas, I get to hear what’s been blasting in her ears all these months, from Phish to Rufus Wainwright to Imogene Heap. We talk about school, college possibilities, the characters in “The OC.”
What does it mean for a parent to trust her teenager? Trust is a fragile, mutable pact that each of us will act honorably, safely, with consideration and common sense. We start small, then grow to bigger promises. Slowly, day by day, we will rebuild trust and Katja will get back behind the driver’s wheel.