Lessons In Small Print: Act Your Age
Here’s a book you can judge by its cover. One glance at the jacket of Pete Johnson’s My Parents Are Out Of Control and we were hooked by this story for kids with hilarious, illustrated messages like ‘Mum and Dad dancing like mad people’ and ‘Mum and Dad bumping fists is SO wrong.’
Plunged into the crazy world of 12-year-old Louis, who suffers from “parent fatigue,” our book clubbers were fully empathetic. Here’s a boy forced to endure farcical parents, who are suddenly seized by the urge to be cool. They ask their bewildered son for tips on how to go about it, practising groovy gestures like bumping fists and aping pop lingo with words like ‘sick’ and ‘wicked,’ which apparently have meanings above and beyond what you’ll find in a dictionary.
This stand-alone sequel to Johnson’s earlier How to Train Your Parents continues Louis’s unique first-person narrative and tone—deadpan funny, with just the right amount of sarcasm to get kids laughing loud without malice. Brimming with candour and compassion, My Parents Are Out Of Control illustrates the pitfalls of trying too hard to score cool points with kids. The hero of the book handles his bizarre predicament with the best defense he has: a sense of humour.
With his friend Maddy, Louis acts as court jester, clowning around to avoid his parents’ clumsy attempts to be “with it.” Our young readers seemed especially unforgiving of his father, who wears a baseball cap backwards while his mother brightly announces, “45 is the new 30.” The last straw for them is the image of dad turning up at Louis’s school dressed like a rapper and declaring, “Yo everyone, I’m looking for my blood.”
We asked the kids what parental foibles they would rather not have to contend with. Indignation writ large across their faces, they revealed they sweat the small stuff the most. Parents try to share their style of clothes, music, and other entertainment interests: “Why pretend to be a Taylor Swift fan when you just don’t get her?” one asked, and then another lamented: “My mom makes me cringe, showing up in short skirts to hear people say, ‘Ooh, you two look more like sisters!'”
The message came clear: Quit trying to bop to our beat. Adults moan that kids today grow up too fast, too soon, but worshipping at the fountain of youth doesn’t seem to be the answer. A 50-year-old’s son said he squirms on evenings dad announces plans to go pub hopping with his boy gang—”I hate him pretending to be the life of the party.” Another kid consolingly pointed out that at least the dad didn’t friend him on Facebook, as his parents “creepily” do.
Psychoanalyst Nuzhat Khan once offered me great insight on this subject.
“We know kids will be messy, we know teenagers will be rebellious, we know our children will leave us, we know that all through life, we face losses we can’t control,” she explained. “Perhaps the refusal to age appropriately reflects our belief that by looking and behaving ‘young’ we may not have to face those losses.”
I shared this with the kids, along with some thoughts from Dr. Jean Magagna, a therapist in London, who is visiting Mumbai.
“Allow the young their youth,” she advised families. “Don’t denigrate the grace that fits older ages. Your child needs the parent in you, not friend. Kids have enough buddies. By superficially dressing and acting young, by taking on boyfriends or girlfriends closer to their children’s age, parents deprive kids of the wisdom they expect and actually long for from them.”
This rang true in our group—a couple of children admitted to having begged a parent to be more parent than pal.
“Were your parents as embarrassing as Louis’s?” someone asked Johnson at a signing event in the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.
“No,” he was firm. “My dad would say, if Top of the Pops was on, ‘Switch off that rubbish.’ But he’d never try talk about modern music or learn the latest teen words. This phenomenon of parents wanting to be ‘down with the kids’ is a new one, which made it such a topical thing to write about.”
At the end of this enjoyable ride, the author settles his high-octane story for kids with some relief and resolution. After the jokes sputter out, Louis realises that he has been far too smart-mouthed for his own good. A healthy compromise is struck, and the two generations do connect.