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  • Writer's pictureaeraustol

Teenage Date Nights and the Left-Behind Barbie

Parenting is one long goodbye. The college app process brings all the layers of this fact, the culmination of all the years of tiny, practice goodbyes, front and center.  When my first born was six weeks old, I cried because she had outgrown her newborn clothes. When she was eight and declared sheepishly that she wanted to be cool - and according to Cooper, the popular kid, leggings were cool - I began to grieve a little for her and me. For some reason this felt like a distancing, the first awakening to the fact that my child was part of a bigger world, a soup of opinions and perspectives beyond my influence. It sparked a realization that my children would strive for acceptance from groups of people I wouldn't curate for them and that they would sometimes experience rejection and hurt. I said a micro goodbye to my perception as a mother, when my middle child told me I didn't understand him, before upstairs, each of his steps landing with the weight of a universe. When my youngest stopped wanting me to read to him; one night I was snuggling next to him with a book above our reclined, giggling heads and the next night, he was too old. 

The goodbyes keep rolling in like waves and even more dramatically between the 7th-10th grade. And then senior year comes and we parents are fully flayed open to the reality that began the second our babies - no matter what age - were handed to us. We are faced with the stark reality that these people we've poured our full liquid hearts into, will leave.

The problem is our children need us - to some extent -  even as they are pushing us away. Well, it's not really a problem because pushing us away is part of their process. Still, there are things they go through, dangers from which they need  protecting and cautionary tale wisdom that could be useful in their moments of decision-making.  A teenager's insistence on figuring things out on their own, makes helping them with college applications or gap year or planning for whatever they want to do next, nearly impossible. And sometimes what is perfectly normal developmentally carries a cost.  Sometimes it's appropriate to let them fail, to not remind them to grab their barbie doll at the restaurant*, to not intervene when they miss a deadline or choose not to study for their French test. At other times, we decided the cost is too great NOT to intervene. These quandaries have no clear answers. We do the best we can. Sometimes the best we can do is ask for help.

No matter how close a child is or safe she feels with her parents or guardians, it's completely normal for her to pull away and resist guidance or advice. In my house, at times, even the slightest hint of a cautionary tale from me is met with feigned listening, to slight annoyance to outright dismissal. It can make you feel useless and obsolete to the child who once needed you to check the closet at night or to feel the temperature of their forehead with your lips. It's maddening and heartbreaking but know that you aren't alone...and yet, you are alone to figure out the balance of stepping in and forcing action or holding back and allowing natural consequence to do the teaching - which as we all know, is the best teacher. 

So how, as parents do we establish some agency in this college prep process in which we sometimes feel systematically shut out of because of the strong rip current of our children's need for autonomy? The fact is, no matter how much help you get from someone like me or from your child's high school college counselor, you do need to have some input on the who, what, when, where, and how. Not only because you are paying the bills but also because, at the end of the day, you have witnessed your child's unfolding and are uniquely equipped to offer feedback along the way. And because you've lived a few more years than your kiddo and probably made a lot of the same mistakes your kid is at risk to make, which is part of why we so desperately want to intervene. If you're like me, you probably find yourself trying to offer your opinions in a subtle way like you don't really care - like an aloof ninja parent but those teenagers who live with us know us so well. They are onto us just as much as we are onto them. 

Although I don't have magic, full-proof answers, I do have some decent ideas that I think are useful when broaching topics that our children are resistant to or that have historically created one of those conflictual moments that leaves everyone involved wondering what just happened. Laying a foundation for teenagers to tolerate a discussion about college or future planning should ideally start younger than their junior or senior year. But whenever you start, set up a goal setting or long-range planning evening or team huddle or simply COLLEGE PREP DATE  once or twice a month. Depending on the timing, you may need a once a week date night with their favorite meal or a Saturday morning trip to a coffee shop or a walk around the block or a "gentle" game of basketball. Whatever works for you and your child. Unless your child just can't get enough of talking about his future with you, make that time the only time you talk about ideas about their life and their future and approach it like a co-creative conversation, not an "I'm the parent and I know everything dump." For one, we don't actually know everything and because we were kids once, and we know how demeaning and limiting that approach feels. 

Ok, so to recap, here are some guidelines for establishing regular check-ins:

1. Depending on the age of your kid, set up a once a month, bi weekly or weekly chat that is purposeful and geared toward future planning.

2. Decide what your purpose is. Again, purpose, goals and urgency will depend on how old your kids are and how much time you have before your child's lack of decision-making will have consequences he or she might not like. 

3. Approach the meetings like conversations, not lectures. Think of your time as Co-creating a vision for your child's short-term and long-term future.

4. Ask respectful and thoughtful questions - some specific, some broad. Experiment with what types of questions elicit a more meaningful, less defensive response. Guide the convo but do more listening and asking, then telling. Often, I find myself giving random bits of advice, it's out of my own fear and anxiety. Check in with that anxiety before the meeting date so that you are aware of what you could potentially leak into the conversations. It's better to be upfront about it.

5. Remember it's not your life. You are not parenting a mini-you. It's actually freeing to embrace this truth.

6. Stick to your commitment to keep these conversations in the sacred container of your "dates."  Don't sabotage a perfectly peaceful ride to school or catch them off guard just when they've settled into a video game or an episode of their favorite Netflix show. Or after they come home from a social outing and you can tell they are already emotionally dysregulated.

7. Generate some type of action item or to-do list at the end of the date/meeting.

8. Create an incentive that you both enjoy. Not just like throwing peanuts at the elephants. Your kids will enjoy the time more if they can see you are genuinely delighting in their company or at least genuinely enjoying the cup of tea and chocolate you are sharing. 

If any of this discussion resonates with you or if you have questions, let's chat. Book a time on my calendar for 30-minutes for free. I love to talk about this stuff, listen and/or offer a word of advice and encouragement even if your kiddo doesn't end up working with me.

And by the way, I did knowingly "allow" my daughter to leave her Barbie doll on the booth of a restaurant. I wanted to teach her to gather her things when she leaves a place, and it may have had something to do with my ambivalence about her playing with Barbie at all.

Parenting is one long journey of triumphs, mess-ups, clear answers and walking in the dark with a headlamp kind of clarity. But we press on, trying like hell to do better when we mess up, find our way and help our kids to the same. We make small steps little by little to maintain our sense of sanity, to help our kids face the crossroads and decisions in front of them, and we might even be surprised by joy in the midst of it all.

SIDE NOTE: In case you find yourself on this newly reoriented Water Leaf Blog wondering where my more personal essay/poetry/story writing will be, check out my Substack account and feel free to share this blog with friends who have 9-12th graders!

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