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Griping Teens

“Wow, It’s so vulnerable to hear what my daughter says about our family!”

This was a mom’s email right after class. I know that feeling. Kids can talk like their homeschooling Mom lays around eating chocolates on the couch - because the kids do ALL the dishes, vacuuming, and laundry through her ruthless systems of delegation. One girl said “My mom doesn’t cook or clean or even do much homeschooling. We do it all ourselves.” Clearly, this girl emerged from the womb knowing how to do everything and no one built those systems.

And some kids say they pretty much NEVER do ANYTHING interesting as a family. Like never, because Mom doesn’t decorate for holidays, cook fun meals, plan puppet shows, or take them on weekly roller coaster rides the way “all the other moms” do.

I try to hide my smiles when I hear this in class, because I remember being that curmudgeon kid. They mean it, they aren’t lying. They FEEL like they do all the work. But I know what they are not seeing. There were lots of things we didn’t do as a family; and of course I took for granted the things we did do. I read, drew, baked, sang in the choir, explored our neighborhood, painted and wallpapered and did projects around the house. Most important, I spent enough time with my siblings that we’re still on good terms - all of us - as adults, and the family text loop bursts every weekend with food and nature and kid pictures.

These kids in my classes who say they don’t do anything? Rarely true. It turns out that they go camping, ride bikes, run 5Ks with mom, decorate cakes, swim all summer, have pets and hobbies, travel to National parks, and have dozens of family traditions that are like the air they breathe.

Maybe their criticism hits your heart because you wish you could do more. Kids smell guilt like sharks sense blood. Maybe it got *real* for a few years - with pregnancy, postpartum, death, illness, move, job loss, marriage, in-laws - and you know they bore some of the weight. Maybe it’s still too much and too real. You had to draw boundaries, compromise, make concessions that they couldn’t (and shouldn’t) know about, but felt. You missed things. You did “good mom” and “fun mom” things without enjoying them because you were struggling with burnout. Now they are old enough to see all the chinks in the armor, all the holes in the life you’ve worked (harder than they can imagine) to make for them. And they are focused on those chinks even as you try to patch them up.

They may struggle to have the kind of lighthearted approach to life that some of their peers have. I know I did. So when I hear these kids in class, a little burdened with life’s cares, a little fatalistic or Eeyore, sometimes I hear in the background a family that’s been touched by life’s fires, and a teen that is still making sense of it. Looking back, I see that the other teens with this kind of experience were my closest friends. Not that we were dour together. Just the occasional conversation about a parent’s depression, struggles with addiction, death of a sibling, and the remark “I like how I can tell you anything.” These friendships last. I still talk to people I knew at 12, and they call me on my attitude when I slide back into curmudgeon and take myself too seriously. Meanwhile, much as I griped about family life as a teen, I was having tons of fun with my friends, and I loved coming home from school to the little brothers who crowded around me like I was a rock star. I still have tons of fun with my friends. Last night I ached with laughter as I caught up with a college friend about our kids, husbands, holidays, siblings, and parents over Thai food. As Willa Cather says, “There is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon.”

Your complaining kid may be working through memories and feelings, afraid to let on how much she truly enjoys, or think it’s cool to be sarcastic and cynical. Or all of the above. It’s not charming, but it’s also not as bad as it feels to the parent to hear it. You're fighting a battle for generational progress, and sometimes the forces seem against you. Sometimes you get a truly raw deal for a while, and everybody feels it. It takes time to work it out and feel like life is ok; you didn't fail, you just all need time and water under the bridge.

Later, much later, they will have a more nuanced perspective, and in the meantime, it’s not quite what they say it is. People keep it all inside when they feel truly scared; this everyday griping, this residual cynicism, comes from a place of security, whether they know it or not. You can encourage them to be sweeter and more positive on the outside, like they are already becoming on the inside. But they are headed that way.

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