by Melodie Davis
for release June 30, 2000
Ran Out of Childhood
I looked at the excuse on the "Late sign in" list at middle school and laughed. Under "reason," one harried father had scrawled, "Ran out of morning."
As children enter their adolescent years and we parents suddenly realize we only have a couple years left when we can hope to have much influence on our children, sometimes we desperately feel we will soon "Run out of childhood." But don't despair or turn in your resignation too soon.
In a new book, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Laura Stepp reveals encouraging findings from following 18 families for two years. The book is titled Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Adolescence (Riverhead Books) and explores what it meant to be an adolescent today and what influence parents can hope to have. Are all adolescents terrors by day and threatening suicide at night? Do we have to resign ourselves to pink hair, nose rings and raging hormones?
Stepp talked about taking a day off from work to go to a park with her eleven-year-old son. They rented a small boat and she watched "in amazement as he lugged a thirty-pound motor, attached it to a small skiff, and for three hours steered us in and out of narrow inlets marveling at fall foliage and great blue herons. We ate turkey sandwiches and chips, talking about kickboxing, TV commercials, and the ups and downs of friendships." They followed the boat ride with a round of miniature golf. "Thanks, Mom, I had fun," her son said as they pulled in at home.
A bit later she reminded him to get to his homework. Their idyllic day was shattered by "Why don't I ever get to decide things for myself! You're always telling me what to do." As their argument escalated, he shot, "I hope you know how much I hate you right now."
After studying and interviewing kids and families in Durham, No. Car., Los Angles, Calif., and Ulysses, Kan., Stepp reported that while adolescence is a time of great growth and change, most kids do not experience prolonged emotional turmoil. "Over time and with help, they blossom rather than decay.
The buds can first be seen in the early adolescent years: intellectual growth, expanding creativity, moral awareness, and other wonderfully human traits." She points out these positive adolescent developments are often overshadowed by TV images of teens gunning down their classmates at school.
I think there is a certain amount of "Terrible Two's" syndrome at work in the adolescent years. Expect trauma and tantrums in the adolescent years, and you get it. However, expect change and wonderful new growth and personality emerging, (with some trauma), and you get that. As Stepp points out, there are always exceptions to that. "We probably all know a couple of scoundrels whose parents did everything they could to raise them right. We can also probably name several sensitive, accomplished adults who were either ignored or abused growing up. It's impossible to know how any child will turn out. But it's also unthinkable to leave it to chance."
Therefore she encourages parents to grab the adolescent years as "the last best shot" at shaping and guiding their children. "Parents and other adults ... do nurture these seedlings. Biology is not destiny." Hormones don't have to drive everything. The earlier that we hang in there with our adolescents, the better (i.e. it is easier to influence at 11 than 15).
In early adolescence, our kids are beginning to ask who they are, what they believe, and what they have to offer the world. They tip toe ever further from home's shelter, encountering opportunities for drugs, alcohol, and sex. Parents don't need to run scared, but rather exert guidance and influence.
I liked Stepp's conclusion: "Early adolescence is partly about loss. Our kids lose their innocence, their unquestioning faith in adults, their certainty about themselves and their place in the world. And it is about loss for us as well. We lose their adoration, their physical need for us, and our sense of control. But adolescence is also about big gains. In giving up their old roles, our kids take on new ones, and we have front row seats."
Front row seats in watching beautiful, ever-maturing persons emerge. What a show it can be if we manage the careful balance between wise guide and applauding audience.
For a free booklet (appropriate for children ages 5-12), "Talking to Your Kids About Right and Wrong," send to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 750 words; end material = 105 words
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