The Question at the Heart of Every Parent-Teen Relationship

His silence is driving me crazy.

For two months, we’ve been dropping him off at the local community theater for rehearsals. He has performed in the theater before, and always the routine is the same. For months, we wonder what sort of role he is playing, and for months, he refuses to even read lines with us. He won’t reveal the show as it is being formed, because he wants us to first experience it when it is finally performed. Maybe that’s a teen thing, but probably it’s just a human thing: at some level, we all wish we could present ourselves to the world finely polished and finally finished.

Now, it’s opening night. The spotlights are on. The seats are full. His mother and I sit in the front row, looking slightly upward at the stage. The waiting, for us, is over. I will finally hear my son speak. The play begins.

For about fifteen minutes, there is no sign of him at all.

parent teen relationships

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Then, he enters stage left. However, immediately, his character becomes frightened by the anger onstage and he runs wildly offstage again. The crowd titters. The scene changes. We wait. The scene changes again. We wait. Finally, he enters stage left once again. But once again, he becomes frightened right away and retreats offstage. The laughter at his antics is louder this time. I don’t laugh. I’m too busy wanting to hear my son speak.

His silence is driving me crazy.

A long scene follows, with no sign of him, but we get a little more information: his character has been mute since the age of five. Might we go through this whole night without hearing him speak? Then, once again, he is on stage. And, once again, he is silent, this time smiling, and handing an apple to another character, as the spotlight fades and the first act concludes in darkness.

His silence is driving me crazy.

After a brief intermission, the lights brighten once again, and he is sitting cross-legged, at the corner of the stage. From the front row, I can almost reach out and touch him. He listens to the dialogue of the other characters. Occasionally, one character will raise their voice, and he will flinch, but this time he does not run away. He sits quietly. The scene goes on for five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. He sits, listening. Flinching.

His silence is driving me crazy.

As I sit and watch, I become aware that I have not felt this way in a while. On this night, I’m desperate to hear my son speak, but I have not desired that so much lately. He is almost fifteen years old, and these days, I am more likely to wish him silent than to wish him speak. In the last couple of years, his words have become increasingly challenging, in one way or another. Challenging because they test the peace of our home and the peace of my heart. Challenging because they test my patience and my boundaries. Challenging because they test my character and my love and my deepest convictions. In the midst of all that challenging, I’ve begun, from time to time, to wish him silent.

And yet, tonight, his silence is driving me crazy.

Tonight, I remember a night when my almost fifteen-year-old was almost fifteen seconds old. Then, too, his silence drove me crazy. I held my breath, waiting for his first screams, his first howls, announcing that his lungs worked. Announcing his life was intact. Announcing my life was no longer intact; announcing that everything I had worked so hard to become was now subordinate to something he had just made me: a father.

There was a time when I longed to hear his voice.

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Why We Need to Wobble

I was accidentally sabotaging my daughter’s dream.

For two summers, Caitlin began the season dreaming of riding a bike. And for two summers, by the time the bees were on the buds and the cottonwood was on the air, that dream had been stashed away, along with her bike, in the back of the garage. I couldn’t figure it out. Caitlin is brave, but our practice sessions would always end in her fear and my frustration.

It turns out, I wasn’t giving her what she needed.

facing your fears

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A few weeks ago, signs of summer returned to our part of the world—grass got green and buzzing bees could be heard on the warming breeze—so Caitlin and I rolled her bike out of the garage, hoping for third times and charms. But, once again, the fear and frustration quickly set in. I began to wonder if a bike-riding gene had been deleted from her DNA. Then, the truth hit me. There was something missing, but it wasn’t a gene.

I wasn’t letting her wobble.

I was holding the back of her seat for stability, but I was holding on too tight. I was eliminating any sense of imbalance from her ride, so she would feel safe, so she could learn while unafraid. But, ironically, this had magnified her fear. Now, she wasn’t just afraid of falling; she was also afraid of the sensation of wobbling.

And wobbling is how you learn to ride.

Wobbling on a bike is the only way to learn balance. When you wobble one way, you lean your body in the other. When you overcorrect, you learn to recorrect. Eventually, you learn the skill of making countless minute adjustments to keep yourself upright and moving forward. Wobbling is how you learn to ride.

Wobbling is also how you learn to live.

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Dear Young Author (A Dad’s Letter to His Son About Writing and Living)

young author

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Dear Son,

Already, at age ten, you are a decorated author.

I’m proud of you—at your age, I had neither the courage nor the persistence to enter a young author contest. And, of course, I’m thrilled for you—it is a joyous thing when a writer’s risk is rewarded with some recognition. But I guess I’m also concerned for you, because in my short career as a writer, I’ve learned something about writing and about living:

Why we write is why we live.

I don’t mean that we live to write. As Stephen King wrote, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” What I mean is, while we are writing, we are also becoming. While we are writing, we are entering into a space within ourselves, and when we are done writing, we go out and live from that space. So, if you write honestly, you will live more honestly. If you write tenderly, you will speak more tenderly. If you write bravely, you will love more bravely.

And if you write to make your dad proud of you, your whole life will become a pride project.

Dear Son, not all reasons for writing and creating—and doing anything, really—are created equal. Don’t write because it gets my attention or anyone’s attention. Don’t write because you want to be popular or admired. Don’t write to make a name for yourself, and really don’t write to make money for yourself. Approval, attention, admiration, affluence. These are not bad things, but they are temporary things. Terrific things, really, but also transient things.

Don’t write to achieve temporal things; write to approach transcendent things.

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How to Recognize Where You Truly Belong

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment.

Or maybe, for the moment, I’m just feeling humble enough to hear the answer. Either way, on a random Sunday afternoon, I ask my oldest son, Aidan—a teenager with plenty of insights and opinions about our family—what is the most unbearable thing about having me for a father? His answer:

All the sighing.

family belonging

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My wife corroborates his report. She says I’ve been walking around sighing a lot. I know there’s some truth to it. Plenty. So, I start paying attention to myself. For the rest of the afternoon, I catch myself sighing more than a dozen times. In part, I’m trying to relax, but more often than I’d like to admit, the sighing is communicating something.

It’s communicating that I feel burdened, not by the stress inside of me, but by the stress around me.

So, here’s my son, in the midst of his adolescent search for a place to belong—a place where he is embraced, not because he is easy but because he is worthy—and hoping to find that place with his father. Instead, all too often, rather than finding belonging, he hears a sigh.

How can we recognize the places we truly belong?

We belong where our worthiness is not dependent upon our easiness. We belong where we can be a burden without feeling like a burden. We belong where we can be needy and still feel wanted. We belong where we can be messy and loved, broken and embraced, complicated and celebrated.

In other words, the place we truly belong is where our humanity is not met with a sigh.

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The Real Reason Back-to-School Makes Us So Emotional

back-to-school

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The summer is fading—and the sun is rising—as I drive my son to his summer job.

At thirteen-years-old, Aidan has spent his summer riding a bus into the cornfields, along with other teenagers, walking row after row of corn, and pulling the tassel from each stalk, so the rows can pollinate each other. As we cross a river, he looks to the west, where the night is slowly giving way to day. He says it’s beautiful how you can see the layers of night disappearing in the sky. We talk about how, even farther west, there are people still sleeping in the dark, unaware of the passage of time.

This image haunts me.

It haunts me long after Aidan boards the bus, long after the sun climbs into the sky. Because that’s how most of us live—myself included—asleep in the dark, unaware of the passage of time. Or running to and fro under a midday sun that hangs so high and steady in the sky you can almost convince yourself it isn’t moving. Hurry is its own kind of sleepwalking. The noisy bustle obscures the ticking of the clock.

The passage of time is only unmasked in the boundary lands.

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The 3 Reasons You Should Not Try to Make Anyone Happy

We are shoveling mulch like our lives depend upon it.

My three kids are loading wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, and I’m hauling and dumping and spreading and sweating. Eventually, my nine-year-old son Quinn asks a completely reasonable question. “Why are we going so fast?” I tell him I want the flower beds to look beautiful when his mom gets home. To which he responds with another totally reasonable question: “Because you are trying make her happy?”

The word “exactly” is on the tip of my tongue. But then I bite my tongue.

codependence

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I have an opportunity here to save my son a lot of heartache, disappointment, resentment, and conflict. You see, many of us spend our whole lives trying to make our loved ones happy. Years of believing our worthiness can be tallied by the number of smiles we put on the faces of other people. Years of bitter disappointment, as our success rate remains frustratingly low. And when we don’t get the results we’re looking for, we get ashamed of our failures.

Or we get resentful, thinking of our loved ones as hopelessly ungrateful people.

The truth, though, is that they are just people. Ordinary people, with their own inner world. Their own moods and wounds and worries and hang-ups. Ordinary people who are responsible for their own ordinary emotions, just as we are responsible for our own.

When it comes to ordinary people—all of us, in other words—there are at least three good reasons we shouldn’t try to make anyone happy:

First, you can’t do it. I can barely make my kids brush their own teeth; what are the chances I will somehow figure out the trick to rearranging their inner world, with all of its heart and soul and neurotransmitters and synapses? If they don’t brush their teeth, they get consequences, and that helps a little. Have you ever tried to give someone a consequence for being unhappy? It backfires.

Second, sometimes, what makes someone happy isn’t even good for them. For instance, if I gave my kids everything that makes them happy, they’d sit in front of televisions and iPads all day long, eating popcorn and chocolate, drinking juice and soda. We’d probably have to catheterize them. If you’re primary goal in life is to make someone happy, you will often harm them in your effort to happy them.

Third, sometimes, what makes someone else happy isn’t good for you. For example, if someone is only happy when they’re “right,” and you stay silent so they can feel happy, while all of the good and lovely and important things you have to say remain trapped inside of you, then trying to make this someone happy is the last thing you should be doing. There are a multitude of ways to slowly wither and die inside; doing so while telling yourself that you’re doing it on behalf of someone you love is a particularly insidious one.

So, Quinn is waiting for an answer, but instead I respond with a question.

“Bud, when you’re in a bad mood, and you’re determined to be grumpy for a while, is there anything I can do to make you happy?” He looks thoughtful for a moment, and then admits with a rueful smile, “No.” Then, I tell him this:

You can’t make anyone happy; you can only do your best to increase the odds of their happiness.

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A Father’s Love: It’s Complicated, and Quite Simple

“Daddy, is there going to be music for us to dance to, or did you just trick me into coming to a party?”

It’s our first Daddy-Daughter Dance. In the corner of the gymnasium, one particularly stressed-out father is fidgeting desperately with an iPhone and the big speaker to which it’s attached. The speaker remains silent.

father's day

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Meanwhile, the rest of us dads stand in a ring around the gymnasium. We’d prepared ourselves for the awkwardness of dancing in front of other men, but it turns out talking to each other is just as awkward. While we pretend to be comfortable in our own skin, our daughters are turning the gym into a beehive of little girls and pink, popping balloons. Caitlin is right—it doesn’t look like a dance; it looks like a party. On meth.

Caitlin is seven and I’m 40. Yet, 33 years of additional life experience have left me no less confused than her about the nature of this night. She’s now wondering if it’s a dance or a party, but from the beginning of the night what I’ve been wondering is this:

What is my job here?

When your little girl goes out with her momma to get her hair styled for the dance and walks in the door, looking at you with a big expectant smile on her face, do you gush about how adorable she looks—because she does look adorable—or do you tell her that her truest, most enduring beauty lies on the inside, where time is powerless to make it fade?

What is my job here?

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A Therapist Explains Why We’re All So Ticked Off in Social Media

Parenting fail alert.

A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday night, my thirteen-year-old son Aidan forgot to finish his chores. I’d relocated some plants in the yard, and I’d asked him to water them. He didn’t. I immediately decided his work ethic was lacking—probably because of YouTube—so I told him he was grounded from his phone.

He got angry.

I sent him to his room.

Because when my kids are sad I want to hold them, and when my kids are scared I want to encourage them, but when my kids are angry I want to punish them. I don’t want to listen to it; I want to squash it.

When they get angry, I get angry right back.

anger

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This is natural: our brains are wired to experience anger as a threat, so we reflexively return the threat. And then some. Not to mention, we tend to think of sorrow and fear as relatively harmless emotions—if they do damage, it is only to the person feeling them—but we tend to think of anger as an unhealthy emotion. Bad. Destructive. Most of us have been wounded by someone’s anger, and we want to put an end to the wounding.

So we send anger to its room.

And yet.

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The Kind of Trophy Every Kid Should Receive

These days, every kid gets a trophy.

A lot of people don’t like that.

And I understand. Trophies are about performance. They are meant to honor hierarchy, to differentiate winners from losers. And they’re supposed to prepare our kids for a dog-eat-dog world, where simply showing up isn’t the same as working your way up. Like I said, I get it.

So, why do we keep doing it?

self-esteem

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In Loveable, I tell this story:

…when the other team scored against us, I sprinted for midfield. I was waiting for my team when they arrived, and gave high-fives all around, as if we had scored the goal. Because when a bunch of six-year-olds fail and then look to you, they’re never wondering how they did; they’re always wondering who they are. They’re not wondering who gets the biggest trophy; they’re wondering who gets the biggest hug.

Trophies are like golden hugs.

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Dear Daughter, You Don’t Need to Act Like a Man to Become a Strong Woman

Dear Little One,

Last week, we arrived at the theater early and, before a movie about beauty and beasts, we saw a preview for a movie about men and machines. We came for a story about love and we got a preview about war. I’m okay with that—it’s the world we live in and I’m used to it.

What I’m not okay with is the young girl we saw in the preview.

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She looked directly into the camera, covered in sweat and dirt, and she said, “Some kids used to tease me…they’d say, ‘You run like a girl, you throw like a girl, you fight like a girl.’ Fight like a girl? Yeah, I fight like a girl. Don’t you?” Then, for the rest of the preview, she exuberantly participated in the blowing up and destruction of everything.

I felt like that little girl had punched me in the gut, too.

Because I looked over at you—seven-years-old, eyes wide behind 3-D glasses, already wondering what it means to be a girl—watching the not-so-subtle message that to be a strong girl, you have to fight like the most violent of men.

Little One, as your father, I want you to know, this was not a message about how to become a strong woman; it was a message about how to become an extinct woman. This was the message of a war-riddled and violence-obsessed hyper-masculine culture, hell-bent on victory, knowing that the only way to have victory over your womanhood is to erase it.

After all, what is the most effective way to eliminate the other? It’s to make them exactly like you.

Don’t fall for it.  

We have enough ego-driven, angry, aggressive, and violent men on this planet. We don’t need you to become one too, just so you can prove to those very same men that you are a “strong girl.”

No, Little One, the way to become a strong girl is to resist your assimilation into the worst elements of masculinity. The way to be a strong girl is to grow into the best and strongest parts of your femininity.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to push others down; you simply refuse to be pushed around yourself.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to relish aggression; you simply resist it.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to use violence; you just need to use your voice, steadfastly, resolutely, and unceasingly.

But most importantly, you don’t become a strong woman by acting like a man; you become a strong woman by acting like yourself. 

At the center of you is your soul, your heart, your truest self. It is the least tangible part of you, yet the most indestructible part of you. It is the least violent part of you, yet the part of you from which you will fight most resiliently.

You don’t have to be like a man, you only have to be like you.

You won’t become your truest, strongest you by struggling violently against others. You will become your truest, strongest you by struggling to love the world in the very specific, very unique, perhaps ordinary, but always beautiful way that only you can love it.

Little One, if we all loved the world with that kind of beauty, the beasts wouldn’t stand a chance.

Peace to you,

Daddy

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Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.