I’ve raised four kids, two of them stepchildren, none of them alike. But with each of them, I could distill my experiences down to this: parenting is a years long process of allowing your child to take one more step away from you each day. First you let them walk across the room, then across the house, and eventually, you allow them to go as far as the front porch. But from there, the process is much more fraught. Once they leave the figurative and literal safety of your home, parenting becomes much more complex.
My youngest child turned seventeen this summer. And as we stumble our way toward autumn in the northern hemisphere, he is racing into the autumn of his childhood. While society would like to view eighteen as a magical line that separates childhood from adult life, any parent will tell you that simply isn’t true. My son will continue to be dependent on us both financially and in other ways for a few years to come, but his time as my boy is nearing an end. And true to youngest children everywhere, he’s somehow managed to give me a pandemic for his senior year in high school.
There’s a lot being written and discussed about the challenges of parenting young children during this global crisis, but parents with older kids know our families face unique challenges. The mental health of teens is something that those of us parenting them feel as a pressing issue each day. I’ve watched my son see-saw between days of angst and days of boredom and days of plain old anger throughout this ordeal. He’s an honor student, and a very good kid, but even for him this is a challenge. He’d had a driver’s license less than a year when lockdown began, barely having achieved that vaunted freedom that teens throughout America dream of, and then it all ended.
When our state did begin to reopen, an entirely new set of problems developed. Would I allow him to see one friend at a time? Two? Three? Would they have to be outside the whole time or could they go inside to play video games with masks on? Could they eat inside a restaurant or only outside? Should I let him have a summer job? What would he do if he didn’t have one? Was he allowed to date? If so would they have to meet up so they didn’t ride in the same car? Was there really any point to a rule like that when they might be kissing anyway?
Every activity, every event, every interaction has been a process of negotiation and concern. His frustration level has been high, and sometimes mine has been higher. In no parenting manual ever has there been instructions for how to raise a happy, healthy teenage boy in the midst of a pandemic.
At some point my husband and I had to face the reality that as the parents of a seventeen-year-old we face a greater risk during this time than some others–because there is no way to keep a kid that age locked down. Even introverted teens will have a service industry job or a church youth group or a school sport to attend. And those who do socialize are out there in the broader world, exposing themselves and their parents to whatever is in their community.
That reality means I’ve had to allow my son to do things that I’d prefer he didn’t: a group of eight on a camping trip, a new girlfriend who works at the local ice cream parlor, gaming at his best friend’s house. I make conditions for these activities–sleep in your own tent, drive your own car, only eat outside, masks on in the bestie’s house–but the reality is, I don’t know if my son follows my rules when he’s out of my sight. Which is the case always with teens, but a deadly disease makes those stakes seem higher.
The bottom line of parenting a teen during a pandemic is that you’re experiencing a compressed and more intense version of parenting teens generally. And when your kid is entering the autumn of his childhood, the simple fact is, he’s taking that step from your front porch into the rest of the world. While the pandemic has made me want to keep him safe here forever, I know I can’t. So I make decisions one day, one event, one interaction at a time, and I hope that he knows how serious the stakes are now, and how much trust I’m putting in him at a moment like this.
Eventually this global ordeal will end, and parents around the world will breathe a collective sigh of relief that will be heard on the moon. And maybe at that point the parenting manuals will once again be useful. Maybe then our decisions will have more logic and less fear. Maybe then we’ll be able to look at our kids and relax when we see that they’re more resilient than we ever give them credit for.
Until then, I’ll be standing on my front porch, hoping for the best, waiting for my son to come home.