I remember when I was around 15, and I was getting ready to head out on my first “car date” with a boy. We were going out for ice cream. It was my birthday. I was, as you can imagine, beyond excited. And nervous.
And my father certainly didn’t help calm those nerves. He was trying to find a middle ground between “tough, protective” dad and “I trust that my daughter can handle herself” dad. But one thing he said stuck with me—and now that I’m a parent, I know why.
He explained that the reason he was worried, the reason he didn’t trust any boy who picked me up (even if I vehemently defended them as “super nice!”) was this: he remembered “what it was like to be a teenager.”
There’s a lot wrapped up in that statement—teenagers are hormonal. Sometimes they do stupid shit. Sometimes they are impulsive and act without considering consequences. Sometimes they take unsafe risks.
My dad was also rational and knew that this was happening, whether he liked it or not. His little girl was growing up, was going to date, was going to get into boys’ cars, and was going to have to figure out how to handle any situation that came her way.
And truth be told, he also really liked a lot of the guys I was friends with, or dated, and knew that despite the raging hormones and not-yet-fully-developed prefrontal cortex, they were pretty good kids—kind, respectful, and usually responsible. But “good kid” or not, kids are kids, and as a dad, he knew full well what kids might do—including his daughter.
Now that I’m a parent myself, I know what he meant. I have found myself with similar thoughts as I watch my own kids navigate friendships and new experiences. They aren’t teens yet, so there aren’t car dates or curfews yet. I still have to drop them off and pick them and I always know who they are with and where they are.
But already, I think of myself, and the stupid choices I made as a kid, and it scares me. Because even though my kids are 10, 8, and 6, they are old enough to be motivated by the one thing that often drives kids to make poor choices. The one thing that definitely impacted my poor decision-making. And that thing is the desire to fit in.
I was a good kid—a really good kid. I never got in trouble in school. I was an honor student, class secretary, and had an academic scholarship lined up by the end of senior year to my dream college. But did I still do stupid shit? Yep. Why? Because sometimes, despite being a well-behaved, rule-following kid, I still wanted to fit in. I still wanted the cool kids to like me. I still wanted to be included in the inner circle. And sometimes breaking in meant compromising my own values.
Do I regret some of the choices I made? Sure, but I know that part of growing up is messing up. And I know that my kids are going to mess up too. I just wish I could instill in them a better sense of confidence so that their actions aren’t driven by the desire to fit in with a bunch of kids they won’t speak to or see ever again after high school.
I wish I could hold up a mirror to 14-year old me trying a cigarette for the first time or taking a shot of Jagermeister and thinking it was gross, but pushed me up a couple rungs on the popularity ladder. Or 16-year old me, whose crush finally noticed her and asked her out. I wish I could show my kids this beautiful girl who had so much to offer the world. I wish I could talk to her and stop her from placing all her self-worth and value in that high school boyfriend who’d end up breaking her heart a few months later. I wish I could stop my kids from going down that path—the path of following the crowd, the path of doing whatever kids need to do to feel cool or liked or valued, the path of making choices they know aren’t right. Choices that don’t feel right in their gut, but they don’t see another path because the “popular” one is so shiny.
I see it already, even in my 8-year-old. I see the way she watches other girls, specifically older ones. I want to grab her and hold her tight and somehow protect her from those insecurities I faced—insecurities that made me take risks, hang out with kids who broke rules and made me uncomfortable, and date boys who were the wrong boys for me.
So yeah, I know what my dad meant when he said “I remember what it was like being a teenager.” He may have talking about hormones, but he was probably also talking about the fact that most kids really do want to be “good kids,” but pretty much of all of them still mess up. And he was worried that one of those times of “messing up” would involve his own daughter. And that she might “mess up” too.
With each passing week, month, and year, I have to let go a little bit more. My oldest will be going into middle school next year. He’s a really good kid—the best kid, in fact. But he’s going to face circumstances where he’ll have make a choice. And that choice might determine his position in a certain social circle, or score him a spot at the cool lunch table in 6th grade. And my daughter is not close behind him; neither is their little brother.
So I guess all I can do is talk to my kids about their value. About their worth among friends, among boyfriends and girlfriends. Among the cool crowd and the nerds. Among the athletes, the band kids, the theater kids, and the book worms. All I can do is explain to them—in a way that they really hear me—that actions have consequences. And some consequences are hard to recover from. Some aren’t worth that momentary spot in the inner circle, surrounded by a bunch of kids who will have no bearing on their lives in 10 or 15 years.
I don’t have a magic mirror that can show them a nervous girl experimenting with things she wasn’t ready for. Or who let a high school broken heart shatter her feelings of self-worth. But I can take those memories to heart, just as my dad did, and parent my kids the best I can. And most of all, when they mess up, I can be there with love and forgiveness. They are just kids after all.