Paul Andersen: Oh, the youngsters these days!
The horror stories are revealed. Now that my peers have teenage children, dinner conversations feature one-upmanship in the abuse of doting parents by their once loving children. If there was ever a case for retroactive abortion, some parents are making it now.
One couple recently described their 13-year-old child in what sounded like a synopsis for “The Exorcist.” The little darling has a Janus face that morphs at the slightest provocation from cherubic angel into Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera. Frightful adolescent behavior makes her more like Medea than Martha Stewart.
My wife and I have a 10-year-old boy who is still mostly in the innocent phase of childhood. Even at 10 he can be a sour little cuss when the need arises, i.e. when he doesn’t get what he wants. But there are redeeming moments when he is still warm and cuddly, i.e. when he gets what he wants.
Occasionally I find myself mired in cynicism for my parental role as chauffeur, cook and butler. I know I should be effusive about the joys of parenthood, but it’s tough cheering on my child when his emergent acerbic qualities are aimed at his primary caregivers.
Psychologists say it’s all part of a healthy maturation process. Our little tyke is merely showing his independence, which he will need when he grows up, gets a job, marries the right girl and yells at his own children.
Pity he couldn’t just hold the mood of tenderness he had when, as an infant, he gurgled blissfully over a bottle of warm milk. Something dreadful happens between infanthood and the teen years that takes a child from warm and cuddly to prickly and abusive. Our son is currently somewhere in the middle, but the writing is on the wall.
This spring, we backpacked through a desert canyon. I wrote about our son finding a pottery shard, but omitted the fact that after I had admonished him for pocketing the shard, he wept long and bitter tears. His plaintive wail echoed through the canyon like a banshee yell.
We got through that, but emotional residue stuck to the family dynamic like dog-doo on a Vibram sole. Since I had worked him over on a guilt trip, he pressed me on another issue.
In the desert, water is a valuable commodity that shouldn’t be splashed around in like you’re at Waterworld. Water is sacred, and when you find a good spring, it becomes a hallowed place.
As the primary water boy on our camping trip, I pump-filtered water by the gallons, filling the needs of three thirsty hikers. My son, however, could not leave the water alone. He was drawn to it irresistibly.
At our first camp, there was a cool, deep pool fed by a burbling artesian spring. I was pumping water when my son produced a long stick and stirred the bottom of the pool. A large cloud of silt muddied the water, and I strongly suggested that he leave the water alone. Some whining ensued, but he listened to reason and left the spring alone.
The next day, at another spring, I was crouched down dutifully pumping water when my son announced that he wanted to soak his feet in it. My answer was a firm “No.” He then insisted that he wanted to wash his face. This was way out of character, and I knew he was goading me.
“Go somewhere else,” I bluntly told him, and he sulked away to cry on mom’s shoulder, complaining that dad was being an ornery old cuss whose sworn duty it is to “spoil my fun.” After round two of Water Wars, I felt my position had been clearly established and that future debates were precluded.
Our final night in the canyon was spent at a beautiful, serene pour-over where a spring dripped from the back of a cave and flowed across the slick rock into a series of limpid pools. The water was beautifully clear and cold, and the scene was idyllic as the setting sun cast golden rays across the canyon walls.
As I was cooking dinner, I heard the sound of splashing water. Turning, I saw my son blithely peeing into the spring. Out of my mouth sprang loaded phrases that echoed my father’s histrionic reprimands at me when I was 10: “What are you, stupid?!” and “What’s the matter with you?!”
In retrospect, I should have scooped up a pan of this urine-tainted water and offered it to the boy for a refreshing drink. Instead, I exploded, then fumed to myself about the thankless job of parenting. Now both of us were pissed.
By morning, our psychic wounds had healed. With my wife’s coaching, we said our apologies and had a great hike to the ranger station. The paternal roar had upbraided the errant child. Boundaries were re-established. Peace returned, and the springs of that desert canyon are safe again.
Paul Andersen wonders if boarding schools are nice places. His column appears every Monday.
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