Everyone with teenagers please raise your free hand. And by “free” hand, I mean whichever hand isn’t either guarding your wallet or refrigerator door. For parents without a free hand because you are guarding both, don’t worry; we can see it in your eyes. It’s that blank, pleading stare recognized and shared by all parents with teenagers.
It’s a look that says, If not for over-the-counter medication and America’s Got Talent, I would curl into a fetal position until my kids turn 20.
Part of what makes raising teens so challenging, aside from mood swings that raise the bar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, are the lengths parents will go to avoid doing things their teen views as “totally embarrassing,” such as breathing while in the presence of someone they might know from school. Or making eye contact with them anywhere outside of the home. Or referring to them as “Pookie” or “Scooter” while standing in line with other parents and teens during school registration.
Some of you are probably saying to yourself, Wait… that last one IS embarrassing! And you would be right. Especially if you happen to be one of our three teens, all of whom registered for school last week — and each of whom received that shot across their bow. It was a subtle reminder that, as loving and supportive parents, we can take them down at any moment. It could come during a sporting event, when we stand up and yell “THAT’S MY BABY!” from the stands; it could hit a little closer to home during a sleep-over, when I ask if I should read “The Poky Little Puppy” like I do every night; or it might take place while helping chaperone a school dance, where we suddenly realize no one has ever danced The Macarena to a Pit Bull song before.
Like many parents, we made the mistake of trying to be extra sensitive when our first child stepped through the proverbial Doorway of Teenagerhood, which meant, among other things, we couldn’t step through the literal doorway of the bathroom for hours at a time. We reasoned it was a necessary transition into adulthood as she discovered her fashion identity. This began to change once I expressed my own identity as someone unable to put nature’s call on hold for more than 30 minutes. Next came the realization that many of the things we had always done as parents to express our love and genuine affection — such as hugging, waving, smiling or anything suggesting our shared lineage — suddenly caused our daughter the kind of emotional distress generally reserved for a skin diver during Shark Week.
That’s when we decided enough was enough. In that moment the power paradigm shifted as we embraced our natural, God-given ability to be a complete embarrassment to our children. Discovering and harnessing this power was similar to any superhero who must learn to use his or her new-found abilities without swinging into the side of a building or accidentally ripping the door off of the family car. Our first attempts were awkward and clumsy. And while I initially regretted doing “the worm” at our daughter’s Sweet 16 dance party, once I was loaded into the ambulance I could see the look of concern on her face as she thought to herself: My parents are freaks, and my only hope for survival is to treat them with the respect I would give Dr. Evil.
As you can imagine, having our other three teens witnesses all this has made it relatively easy to instill the fear factor in them. It has not been necessary for us to show up at their school on Valentine’s Day dressed as giant hearts, or to enlist the help of classmates to sing happy birthday in Elvish, or volunteer to share parenting stories in their child development class. However, we do give them subtle reminders from time to time, like yesterday while school clothes shopping, when I pretended to teach our school fight song to mannequins at J.C. Penny’s. Though we were shopping out of town with no real danger of being seen by anyone they knew, it was clear we’re not above waiting until we’re at our local supermarket and having them paged to the customer service desk where “Mommy and Daddy are waiting.”
So parents, embrace being an embarrassment to your teenagers with both hands! Just make sure not to let go of your wallet or refrigerator while doing so.
(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation and a member of the writing team at Long Awkward Pause. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. Disclaimer: Even if you choose Ned’s book for summer reading, you should still use sunscreen.)