My advice for mums of teens

STEPH BOWE
Last updated 05:00 03/03/2013
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DARREN JAMES

Teen counsel: Teenage author Steph Bowe.

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JULIAN KINGMA
Steph Bowe: In 40 years we’ll be complaining about the grandkids and their “devil music”.

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I’m a nightmare to live with. I’ll admit it. I’m amazed my mother has tolerated me for so long. I’m not a perfect daughter, and I couldn’t possibly represent all teenage daughters, or advise on how to be a good parent, but there are a few things I know about the universal teenage experience that I’d like to share.

I’m 19 and the eldest of two teenage daughters. 

The only thing I binge drink is peppermint tea. I’ve always been a good student, and am a published author and public speaker. I like to think I’m a kind and considerate person as well. I think most people would agree that my mum has done a pretty good job.

Trust and making mistakes

I’m not much of a fan of sweeping generalisations, especially grandiose statements about the younger generation being the most immoral and out-of-control youths ever to have lived, or how parents are just plain irresponsible these days. Everyone likely said the same thing about the last generation.

Adults seem to quickly forget what they were like in their youth: their mistakes, their curiosity, their desire to figure out who they are and where they belong. Forty years from now we’ll all be talking about how well-behaved those Generation Y and Z kids were, and complaining about their grandkids and their blasted devil music.

Your teenage years are a weird time, struggling towards independence and a sense of identity, and a lot of young people take out their frustrations on their family, even when they love them dearly. Especially when their parents are trying to set boundaries for them when they think they should be able to decide for themselves. Generally it takes a few years, the gaining of some perspective and perhaps moving out of home to realise and appreciate what your parents have done for you. 

In the moment, you don’t see that you should be grateful. You’re just annoyed.

It’s important to give teenagers room to make mistakes. This is how we learn. This is how you learned. Even if you say, “Learn from my mistakes” they probably won’t. Unfortunately, most of the time you have to learn these lessons firsthand. I think it’s vital, as they get older, to have respect for the fact that your daughter is her own person, and you have to trust her to make the right decisions for herself. 

I think if you have an honest, communicative relationship with your daughter, that’s the most important thing. This will see you through the inevitable misunderstandings or breaches of trust.

Sometimes parents make mistakes, too: my mother, who is not a hairdresser, cut my hair and gave me a fringe the evening before school photo day when I was 12. Fringes don’t suit me, especially not weirdly thick, choppy ones. It was a mild disaster, with photographic evidence, but we managed to get past it. I still let her cut my hair on many occasions after this. Sometimes I trust my mum slightly too much.

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Control and “questionable material”

A huge frustration of being a teenager is a lack of control over your own life. A lot of mothers perceive the world to be darker than when they were growing up, and think that if their daughters are exposed to the wrong things, they will be permanently corrupted. So there’s this tendency to want to ban certain things, or control a teenager’s access to the internet, or films or books they deem inappropriate. This is going to make a teenager even more curious. This isn’t a new phenomenon.

Exposure to ‘questionable material’ is inevitable. Rather than denying the reality of the world it is so much more important to initiate conversations about difficult topics. Exposure doesn’t equal corruption if one has context, and the capacity for critical thought, and the ability to formulate independent opinions. Being able to communicate openly with my mother, and discuss my thoughts with her, even about sensitive topics, without being judged, is something for which I am extraordinarily grateful.

And the internet is not entirely evil. But don’t be offended if your daughter doesn’t add you on Facebook. She’s probably just worried you’ll leave embarrassing ‘love you’ messages on her page. If you live with her, you might as well just tell her that you love her in person. I am Facebook friends with my mum, mainly so that I can embarrass her by posting ‘ILY’ messages on her wall while she sits in the next room. My parents are the cool ones in my family; I get to be silly and embarrass them. It’s really a lot of fun.

Expectations and the pressure to succeed

Articles about how to raise an especially successful child terrify me. Like “make sure your four-year-old takes part in eight different extracurricular activities”; “play Mozart to your pregnant belly”; “it’s never too early to teach your baby the Periodic table”! And I say this as someone who was a successful child, without my mum needing to hover over me and shout, intermittently, “Be smart, child!” This sort of paint-by-numbers version of raising a prodigy probably won’t work, except to generate a child who is overwhelmed by endless activities, and a teenager crippled by the expectations of others. Achieving this ‘success’ is not going to guarantee a happy or well-adjusted child.

It is always a bad idea to live vicariously through your child, and they’re probably going to rebel against you as a teenager. It’s probably also a bad idea to tell your teenager they should study medicine or law if they have no interest in either. It’s always a bad idea to tell them that what they are passionate about has no money in it, or that it’s too competitive, or the field is about to collapse entirely.

People have been talking about the death of books for years, and I have been told many times that it’s impossible to be published, or that teenagers can’t write, or that hardly anyone makes a living as a writer, and yet, here I am. Because I had my mum there, telling me to do what makes me happy. Not to be successful and impress people. Just write because I enjoy it.

When you’re in the later years of high school, everyone is constantly asking you what you are going to study, and what you are going to do for a career, and if you say the wrong thing, or you say you don’t know, everyone looks disappointed. Did they have it all planned out at the age of 17? Does it really affect them, whether any given teenager they know has a five-year plan?

When you’re at school, teachers constantly talk about how very important everything is, how it will decide your life, how you absolutely cannot slack off. They’re trying to motivate everyone. I’m sure it’s all very well-intentioned, but after a time it just makes kids freaked out and fearful. Which I can’t imagine are good emotions to be feeling when it comes to exam time. If you do poorly in your final exams, or don’t know what you’re doing with your life by the age of 18, you are not, as some would have you believe, a failure, destined for a life of misery and quiet desperation as someone who works cleaning chewing gum off footpaths.

I think it is vitally important that mothers don’t just say the same things as everyone else in a teenager’s life, and instead let them know that there is a lot more to life than objective success and wealth, that even if they do poorly at school there are always routes to become what they want to become (and not what everyone else thinks they should become), and that being perfect is both impossible and unnecessary.

Clothing and judgment

There is this really terrible concept that a lot of people seem to have that your manner of dress somehow dictates your character and worth as a human being. These sorts of character judgements are especially targeted at young women. Every couple of months on a current affairs program, they will bring out a story on the moral depravity of today’s youth, with a bit of footage of 18-year-olds stumbling around on a night out, and with a social commentator telling us that girls who wear short skirts are trollops (they don’t tend to speculate as to the sexual promiscuity of young men).

So this judgement from others in the world is unavoidable, but I don’t think it’s really necessary for mums to take part. Giving younger girls some concept of how the way they choose to dress may affect how they are perceived is enough, but remind them that items of clothing do not have some innate moral value attached to them. I think it’s important mums allow daughters to choose how they want to dress and present themselves (at least most of the time), as it’s an important part of self-expression and figuring out one’s identity. For an entire term of Grade Five [Year Seven], I wore three-quarter-length bright orange board shorts under my school dress, as well as Paris Hilton sunglasses and occasionally a fedora (Justin Timberlake had made them seem incredibly cool). My mother didn’t even try to stop me. I’m not sure I’m grateful for this.

In 10 years time, we’ll all look back on photos of ourselves in jeggings and hi-lo fluoro tops and wonder how we ever thought them acceptable to leave the house in, but this is entirely inescapable. If you don’t have an opportunity to cringe at your past fashion faux pas, it’ll feel like missing out on an important rite of passage. 

In terms of self-expression, I think there’s one thing you should strongly encourage your daughters on: don’t get a tattoo the moment you turn 18, just because you can. Maybe think about it for a bit. Your body will still be there in a few years time, honest.

This too shall pass

For some odd reason, there are all these strange adults who talk about their teenage years as if they were the best years of their lives. Or better yet, they’ll tell a teenager directly: “Your teenage years are the best of your life.” Which just sounds depressing, frankly. I worry about these adults. They should be enjoying the rest of their lives as well. It’s okay to have a rubbish time of being a teenager, really. Lots of people do. You feel awkward and insecure and frustrated and uncertain, and that’s just normal teenage stuff.

It’s very easy to look back on your teenage years, or your time at school, and see clearly and objectively that all the stuff you thought was majorly important was not, that the boy you went out with and who insensitively dumped you was an idiot, or that your mum was being reasonable when she encouraged you not to hang out with those dodgy friends of yours. (Time also allows you to see which friends are the good ones.)

There’s this feeling, as a teenager, that you need to have everything right now: freedom and independence, a clear idea of what you’re doing with your life, good marks at school, the right group of friends, a perfect body. Then if one thing goes wrong, it feels like everything is wrong, and nothing will ever be all right, because everything’s a mess. Because you have not got everything sorted, but lots of people around you seem to be cool and in control.

This is important in a mum: someone to let you know it’s all going to pass and doesn’t just tell you that you’re being ridiculous and melodramatic because she can remember being a teenager herself; someone who can be relied upon, when friendships can be unstable; someone to tell you that no one really has it worked out, and everyone’s just doing their best, but that it’ll get easier with time. I don’t think being a good parent to your child and being their friend have to be mutually exclusive.

Trust your daughter, talk to your daughter, have patience. I think most daughters would be happy with that. 

Steph Bowe, 19, was born and grew up in Melbourne and lives on the Gold Coast. She wrote her first novel when she was 14. Her new novel is All This Could End (Text Publishing, $26). 

- Sunday Magazine

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