“Be a Better Teen Parent: Teaching English Composition has Taught Me to be a Better Parent” ©
by Jacqueline M. Lyon
Parents should covet my job not because I teach students that writing with poor grammar is like playing baseball without cleats; you can play the game but not very well. Instead, parents should covet my job because I have the privilege to climb inside the minds of their eighteen and nineteen-year-old children through writing and class discussion. Having two teenage daughters who torment me with that special monosyllabic mumbling of teen-speak, I appreciate the rare opportunity to understand why girls actually "want" Chris Brown or why guys actually want to hook-up with one of the Kardashians. If you’re not familiar with Chris or Kim, I've made my point. My privilege of teaching college students doesn't stop with testing their pulse about MTV stars. I am lucky enough to see the fruits of your eighteen years of hard labor in real time. I observe and probe your little Zach or Kahley to figure out how your parenting style made them so great or, sometimes, not so great. So, beyond Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Four Lokos, and Lady Gaga, what are a few of the lessons that your kids have taught me about parenting?
Firstly, I have become better at disciplining and setting boundaries. My students repeatedly tell me that they want us to think that they hate rules, but secretly, kids rely on them. I've learned that kids use our rules to protect them when tested by peers. Your son finds it much easier to blame your rules than take his own high road when he tells his buddy Tyler to get out of the car with an open beer can. “My mom would kill me” or “I’ll be grounded for life” can be your kid’s best friend, or so they tell me.
Secondly, I stopped worrying about being my daughters’ friend. This was a tough lesson to learn because I was a single mom when my girls were little, and I cared too much about them always liking me. As parents, we always hear but may not accept, “Don’t try to be your kid’s best friend,” but it’s true. My students tell me that they make fun of the parents who try to be “one of them”; they find it creepy. Kids don’t want their parents to be their friends; they want their parents to act like parents. That’s their security blanket. They’ve got their own friends. So, the next time you sit down to play beer pong with your teenager, think twice. The kids are not laughing with you; they are laughing at you.
Thirdly, I stopped expecting perfection and learned to promote excellence. Academically, I drove my daughters pretty hard through primary school, but when Margo was in the 6th grade and Grace was in the 8th grade, I put on the breaks after I read a student’s essay about her mother whom she hated. Based on her daughter’s account, the woman demanded absolute academic perfection. The young girl became suicidal because of the pressure and was hospitalized on more than one occasion. That’s when I realized that perfect isn’t excellent. There are minor caveats to this rule, though. Recently, my daughter Margo received an 85 on a science test. She was angry when I grimaced at the grade, and she retorted with, “A B isn’t bad, Mom! I don’t have to be perfect!” I reminded her that I didn’t expect her to be perfect. I expect her to be excellent, and that meant remembering her science folder the night before a test!
Fourthly, I stopped worrying about my kids’ popularity the day one of my students told me that her best year of life was during 8th grade and that everything had spiraled downward from there. How pathetic, I thought. She was the most popular girl and best athlete that year. High school threw tough competition in her face that she couldn't handle. She was the “mean girl” who couldn't cope with girls just like her. Fate dropped this student in my lap when Grace was in the 3rd grade. At the dinner table one evening, Grace drew a triangle and divided it into three horizontal sections. At the top of the figure, she put the “mean cool girls;” in the middle, she put the “nice but cool girls;” at the bottom, she put the “regular girls”. In the right, bottom corner of the status pyramid, she put herself and her one little friend, Madison. The picture broke my heart, but I quickly remembered my “cool girl” student whose "total" life ended in the 8th grade. I told these frowning little faces with teeth too big for their mouths that they were ahead of cool-- that cool follows them. I told them that one true friend is better than the whole third grade. Neither of my girls are athletes, so by definition, Margo faced similar bumps in the road, but we've held onto the “ahead of cool” philosophy. As teens, Grace and Margo still have never made it to “cool” status, but they are independent thinkers and have a small circle of close friends. I’m happy to report that the other little girl in the triangle’s corner remains to be Grace’s best friend, and they continue to be ahead of cool!
Lastly, for now, I hug my girls as often as possible and always ask about their day. This sounds like a pretty simple lesson that no mother needs to learn. However, it is also a policy I won’t forget. A few years ago, I had a student who was awkward and antisocial. She told me that her mother never touched her and that she could go an entire week without a person talking to her, including her professors. From that point on, I began memorizing every one of my students names on the first day of class so they, at least, receive a greeting from me. Even though teenagers don’t love excessive hugs and invasive questions like “How was your day,” I irritate my girls with these probes, because sometimes they actually hug back or tell me about their day.
Climbing inside the mind of a nineteen-year-old can be frightening yet enlightening. I thoroughly appreciate the lessons in life that my students have taught me. Celebrate all the wonderful gifts you give your children. I often ask students to select their hero and write about them. More often than not, students write about a parent. I’ve read about fathers who have lost their jobs to a grandmother who was the queen of an African tribe; nonetheless, they are all parents who are heroes in their children’s eyes.©