When I started writing this column, my oldest son was 12. Last week, he turned 22. In a month, the middle one will be 19. The youngest, at 17, has just a few months left before he becomes society’s problem. Until recently, I’ve suffered from an embarrassment of teens, but suddenly I find myself facing a looming shortage.
As with any phase of parenting, one masters the art of raising teenagers – in my case, teenage boys – just in time for it to be of no use. But I have learned a few things over the past decade. A very few. These are all of them:
1) Every aspect of parenting a teenager stirs up memories of what it was like to be a teenager. This doesn’t happen with younger children – nothing about looking after a five-year-old reminds you of being five. But your adolescence clings to you like an old injury; you’ll be obliged to relive your shameful mistakes as your children repeat them. This sense of perspective is not as much help as it sounds; it just leaves you with feelings of sympathy that you must do your best to hide.
2) Adolescent boys have an overwhelming need to reduce their father from a figure of authority to a figure of fun. In particular, they spend a lot of time repeating stupid things you’ve said in what they think is an amusing approximation of your voice. This can be dispiriting, to say the least. Life got much easier once I realised it was part of my role as a father to allow my sense of humour to fail me on these occasions.
3) It is vital to create an atmosphere in which your teenagers feel they can be totally open and honest with you, because they are amazing liars. You may remember being a proficient liar at that age, but your children have grown up in a post-truth world you barely understand, and they know the value of persistent falsehood. If you think you can tell when your 16-year-old is lying to you, it’s only because that’s what he wants you to think.
4) As children progress through secondary school, your authority over them gradually diminishes, until you find yourself parenting on a consultancy basis. You may well recall this phase from your own relationship with your parents: the era of unsolicited advice. Now that I am the parent, I have come to realise that the tiresome lectures I keep feeling obliged to deliver are not simply a doomed attempt to reassert lost authority. They’re a punishment.
5) Even when your authority dries up completely, you still have money. A 19-year-old will jump through a lot of hoops for a tenner.
6) On occasion, teenagers do seek out firm parental authority in a bid to counteract peer pressure: they long to be told they can’t do something, because they actually don’t want to do it. But, as a parent, you have to learn to parse the subtext of their words, as in the following conversation:
“OK, so I’m off to that illegal rave now,” the teen says.
“Have fun,” I say.
“Not sure of the address, but I guess I’ll just follow the police helicopter spotlight.”
“Good luck,” I say.
“Anyone seen my fake ID?”
“Just tell your little friends I said you weren’t allowed,” my wife says.
“Thank Christ,” he says, taking off his coat.
7) While there is no single secret to a happy life in a houseful of adolescent boys, I cannot overstate the importance of colour-coded underpants: white for one, grey for another, NY Jets-themed for the third. I somehow got stuck with horizontal stripes, but at least I know they’re mine.