Parenting Teens: A Brief History Of Fear
We don’t like to talk about it much, but a large part of parenting is actively putting the Fear of [insert relevant Thing] into your children.
Humans have a long, glorious tradition of scaring the jeepers out of their children. The aborigines of Australia have the Yara-ma-yha-who, a miniature, red-furred frogman, with long octopus arms and a toothless mouth. Whew, toothless. Oh, but don’t relax yet. He swings down from trees, swallows you whole, then regurgitates you smaller and covered in red hair! England has the Black Annis, who wore the hides of naughty children as a skirt! My favourite, though, is the German Krampus, who accompanies Santa Claus to deal with the children on the naughty list. People have attributed all sorts of things to the Krampus, including Germany’s efficient work ethic and thriving economy.
But times are changing.
Parenting manuals are disappointingly vague about when we rejected traditional methods of imparting Fear. The bogeyman was banished. We tell fewer scary stories, and I know zero mums who can overcome their nausea at the inherent sexism in old fairy tales. We’ve clocked how they uphold patriarchy and splinter the sisterhood with their cruel stepmothers, evil witches, and uniformly beautiful princesses needing handsome princes to rescue them. Bippity-boppity-booyah.
But we’ve got nothing to replace those with. The fact is, if you tell a freaky story, you could achieve blind obedience and less risk taking. You could modify behavior externally until the frontal lobes developed enough to foresee consequences. At least that was one theory.
But theories evolve. I think it’s okay we don’t scare little children anymore. Waking up to a 5-year-old screaming is no picnic with Ryan Gosling. Also, it is too easy. Scaring a preteen and a teenager, though – one of whom is 2 inches taller than her mother with the upper body strength of a flyweight boxer – now there’s a challenge.
We 80’s kids had the Cold War for bedtime worrying, so I tried to induce deep thought in the girls by bringing up the Sixth Mass Extinction. Trouble is, I’d already earlier blamed global warming on all the detergent I had to use for their mountains of laundry. Then I attempted to invoke fear of the Rise of the Machines by suggesting their apps were controlling their minds and recording their behavior for future OverLording. Times may have changed, but an eye-roll is still an eye-roll and it’s no expression of fear.
Not one to give up, I considered messing with their minds. In my late teens, the concept of cosmic loneliness rendered me catatonic. “Alone in the galaxy, and fighting amongst ourselves?” Horror! Then, in a post-religious milieu, the crisis of faith was replaced by the crisis of ideals. “I believed this to be true. Now it is not. What else am I getting fundamentally wrong?!” Distress!
After that, “Let’s talk about Free Will.” Anguished mewling.
I have to admit, I lost the nerve to go through with it.
The thing is, we don’t really need to scare our teenagers when the world is already so terrifying. The air is awful. The food has additives. The oceans have a continent’s worth of plastic. And right here, in India, we have our peculiar blend of First and Third World problems. Our little women and men are swimming against a potentially violent, virulent, atavistic, misogynistic tide—and they know it. They open the newspapers. They hang on the outskirts of our adult conversations. They hear us discuss whether a political drift, a Supreme Court decision, a global economic reality will impact our country, our city, our ’hood or the bus ride to school.
Last weekend, two young women we know, aged 15 and 17, came over. They are being raised liberal and feminist by a feisty mama in a very conservative community in a conservative neighbourhood. Their eyes flashed with wicked humour, their voices were assertive, their tones were measured but with an edge. They told us about what careers they are choosing, what challenges they’ve faced. Then, they talked of how their environment reacts to them, their clothes, their hair, the fact that they play football in the building compound with all the neighbourhood’s teenage boys.
The younger one looked at me, a smile playing at one corner of her mouth, “They called up Mama and asked, ‘Do you know what your daughters are doing?’ Mama said yes, and that horrified them even more. But really, if it’s so scary for girls to play with boys, I told Mama to tell them, better to keep the boys at home. Because we’re coming down to play.”
I looked over at my own two daughters, 10 and 14, as they giggled and watched those girls, bright-eyed and star-struck. I realized I’ve probably got it horribly wrong. There will be no scaring these young people. We’re bringing them up to buck conventions, investigate everything, be comprehensively informed. They’ve been raised fair-minded and fairy tale free.
Look at them! Every day they’re bigger, better, braver.
They’re fearless. All will be well.