I’m scared of having teenagers. I know it’s coming, which makes me want to lock them in their rooms until they’re old enough to make good choices, to fully grasp consequences, to not be swayed by the opinions of their friends. It isn’t because they aren’t good kids — I’m trying to raise them right, and I hope at least some of it sticks — or because they’ve proven in some way that I can’t trust them.
It’s because I think of myself when I was a teenager and how little anyone knew about how my life really was at the time.
For the most part, I looked like a wholesome kid: good grades, gifted program, honors classes, student council, track and field, polite and respectful, popular and outgoing. Nominated by my peers for homecoming royalty three years in a row. I went to church every Sunday. I got one detention in all four years of high school — for talking during an assembly.
But my mother was a single mom, working two jobs and going to school to better our lives. She was gone a lot, and I didn’t send up any red flags to indicate that she needed to keep a closer eye on my behavior. I was accountable at home. I never missed a curfew.
And that’s what frightens me: Someone should have intervened, but no one knew it was necessary. I made appallingly terrible choices, engaged in all manner of risky shit, and am frankly lucky to have made it to adulthood unscathed. Yet somehow I was so good at hiding it, at being the responsible, low-maintenance kid my mom and my teachers needed me to be.
I’m scared because I lost my virginity before I even started my period — to a man who was not only old enough to vote, but old enough to drink. I’m scared because I thought it was cool, and because I didn’t even realize that no normal adult would be sexually interested in a prepubescent girl.
“Let me get you pregnant,” he’d breathe heavily into my ear, beer-scented steam because he drank while I was at school. I thought it was romantic, his way of telling me he wanted to be with me forever. I’m scared because it didn’t even strike me as wrong. I’m amazed that I didn’t end up with a baby at 14.
I’m scared because at almost 16, I passed out at a house party and woke up groggy, with a hand clamped tightly over my mouth and my knees being wedged apart, too incoherent to protest. I told myself later it wasn’t rape because I was acquainted with the guy, and that I’d brought it on myself by being drunk and by lying to my mom that I was spending the night at a friend’s house. I’m scared because I was too naïve to know that it doesn’t have to be a stranger, and that rape is never the victim’s fault.
I’m scared because I hung out at the houses of older friends where felonious amounts of drugs, of all kinds, were snorted and smoked and sold. I’m scared because by the time I was 17, I had tried most of them. I’m scared because I saw one of these “friends” so coked up that he shattered a series of windows with his bare fist. Crash. Crash. Crash. Crash. Invincible and unconcerned about the trail of blood he was leaving behind or the jagged shards that studded his knuckles like glass porcupine quills.
I’m scared because my kids may not have a best friend like mine to help keep them out of trouble. My best friend was honestly the good one. Her parents mistakenly thought she was a delinquent, but she always stayed sober, probably to keep track of me. I’m scared because before she got her license, we thought it was totally okay to ride in the car with whomever had been drinking the least.
I’m scared because my kids are growing up against a whole new backdrop, where anyone can film any stupid stunt or bad decision, and where one moment of poor judgment caught on video can ruin a person’s life.
I’m scared because I realize now, in hindsight, how incredibly fortunate I was to have escaped serious consequences from the bad choices I made. I’m scared that my kids won’t have the same kind of luck if they fall prey to the same flawed decision-making skills.
My kids’ teen years are looming ahead of me, and I’ll have to face the fears head on. I can’t keep them in a bubble; I know this. I can’t pull the covers over my head and sleep until they’re adults. I can hope that they join the chess club and develop a gardening hobby, but even that doesn’t guarantee they’re staying out of trouble — I need look no further than my own teenage “double life” for a prime example.
All I can do is be honest with them about my fears, tell them how I hope they’ll remember my words of wisdom, and pray they’ve actually been listening all this time.