I don’t mean making fun of the teenager because that can do harm when the young person feels belittled or demeaned. Laughing at oneself as a parent, however, and at the quandaries parenting adolescents can create, is a good example of the helpful use of humor. It can provide welcome perspective on the process, can lighten the challenges involved, and can keep undue seriousness at bay.
A recent conversation with a dad brought this saving grace of humor to mind. With some alterations, the scenario he described ran like this.
The man, who had hoped for a continuation of his child’s timely compliance with parental requests, increasingly encountered his adolescent son’s persistent postponements as a contest of Now versus Later that ensued. For the adolescent, the specific matter of doing as asked had become a symbolic issue about operating on his own independent terms, a cause for self-respect the young man felt was now worth investing in.
To show his son that the man meant what he asked for, the dad found himself matching will and wits with what he smilingly called “the dragon of delay.” According to him, he never slayed the monster, but could subdue into it submission for the moment by backing up his words with relentless pursuit that finally overcame the teenager’s persistent resistance. In so many words, the following was an example of the exquisite aggravation that he frequently had to endure.
“My fifteen-year-old just took a shower and there they are where he always leaves them: wet towels all over the bathroom floor. ‘Would you please hang up the towels,’ I ask? ‘Sure,’ he cheerfully replies. And I wait for what I know is coming next: ‘In a minute.’
“I mean it’s not like I haven’t been through this torment before—like about a million times. So I wait an hour to check the bathroom, and everything’s okay. No one has disturbed the towels. They’re resting nicely and probably so is he. So I poke my head into his room and remind him: ‘The towels. You said you’d pick up the towels.’
“He looks at me and shakes his head like he was the long suffering parent and I was the troublesome child. ‘I wish you’d make up your mind,’ he says. ‘I’m doing my homework. You’re always after me to do my homework. Can I do my homework without being interrupted?’
“Don’t ask me how he does it, but now I’m feeling on the defensive. ‘After you finish your homework you’ll pick them up?’ He just shakes his head like I’m some kind of defective and he doesn’t know how he puts up with me. ‘Yes. Yes. Yes. Now can I get back to work?’ I feel like I’m imposing, so I leave.
“Two hours later the towels (remember the towels?) are still where he dropped them and I find him watching TV. Now I have him dead to rights. This is indefensible, so I say: ‘If you have time to watch TV, you have time to pick up the towels.’ This is when he gives me this pained look: ‘Once a week, is that asking too much? Once a week I get to see my favorite program. The only one I care to watch. I’ve done my homework like you wanted. Now, can I watch my program? As soon as it’s over, I’ll get the towels.’ Well, he did get his homework done. ‘Okay,’ I say. ‘But right after it’s over, the towels. No more excuses.’ He nods agreement and impatiently dismisses me with a long suffering wave of his hand.
“An hour and a half later I can’t believe it. The towels haven’t been touched. I storm off to his room. His light is out. ‘The towels!’ I yell into the dark. ‘What? What’s the matter?” a groggy voice asks as though I’d woken him up? But I stand my ground. ‘The towels,’ I repeat. Silence. ‘You woke me up to talk about towels?’ he asks, implying that if there is something wrong, it’s certainly not with him. ‘You’re always after me to get in bed on time. To get enough rest. And now you wake me up for this? For towels? Can’t I get them in the morning?’ I’m tired too. ‘You promise?’ I ask. ‘I promise,’ he says. ‘Now can I get some sleep?’
“Next morning, there he is about to leave for school when I notice the towels from last night have been joined by more towels from today’s shower. That’s when I lose it. I scream as though I’d been betrayed, which is how I feel: ‘Your promise! What about your promise?’
“You should have seen the look of utter disbelief on his face. ‘You want me to miss the bus? You want me to be late for school? For towels? Which is more important: towels or school?’ Fortunately, for once in my life I made the right decision: ‘School? The heck with school! FIRST, YOU PICK UP THOSE TOWELS!’”
An act of passive resistance that empowers the young person to challenge authority and operate more independently, adolescent delay usually results in a working compromise. It’s like the teenager is saying: “You can tell me what, but I’ll tell you when; and when I get enough ‘when,’ I’ll do what you ask—partly.”
So according to the long-suffering father described above, the young man did finally retrieve the towels, except for the sodden one either overlooked or subversively left underneath the bathroom sink, perhaps as a reminder that the Game was still on.
“Five out of six is not a bad average” the dad smilingly concluded. Then, feeling delayed but apparently not defeated, he laughed: “Back to work!” He was resolved to pursue picking up the one remaining towel as the ongoing battle for and against timely compliance continued to run its seemingly eternal course.
In reflection, the man managed to keep his sense of humor and in doing so maintained a strategy of persistence and a sense of play that allowed him to treat parenting his adolescent partly as an ongoing game: “Make me as you can.” In this game, parenting was a process of move and countermove, win some and lose some, concession and compromise, but never giving up because he was playing for positive influence with his son.
Even when tired by the necessity for this pursuit, sense of humor lightened up his frustration. He never used it to attack his son with sarcasm or insult, and so observed this family rule about the safe use of humor: laugh when it lightens somebody up; don’t laugh when it puts anybody down.
So the man told me a story about his adolescent that was really a story on himself—laughing at his predicament and his own reactions, grudgingly admiring his son’s spirit of opposition. Not taking the problem personally, he used humor to create perspective and refresh resolve.
In the process, he reminded me of a valuable lesson: parenting is too serious to take every frustration seriously, because when parents do that they are likely to overreact and make minor matters worse.
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Fearful Excitement