As my last post probably demonstrated, I was kind of an intense 11 year old. Puberty was relatively kind to me in most outward ways: I didn’t go through any awkward new growth spurts (I’d already been a foot taller than everyone in my class since kindergarten) and my complexion didn’t do anything especially revolting. No, for me, the principle change that puberty brought on was something health class did not prepare me for: it was dissatisfaction, with myself, my life, and the way I fit into the world.
Children are understood to be narcissists, and people a generation or so older than me are especially fond of talking about the entitlement of people my age and younger. It’s sort of like the baby boomer generation realized that it was kind of hurtful when their parents’ stoicism prevented them from expressing love and pride and encouragement, so they compensated by saturating their own kids with daily, hourly affirmations of worth and affection. Then, when those kids grew up and didn’t thrive for one reason or another, their parents took it as a personal insult: “But we did everything right! Unlike our parents. I guess we just loved those kids too dang much, and now they’re unprepared for the real world.”
I don’t know. It’s possible that I’m on to something, or it’s possible that I’m attributing my own fucked-up family dynamics to American parenting trends in general. I do that sometimes.
The point is, normal childhood narcissism isn’t quite the same thing as little kids thinking they’re the greatest thing ever. It just means they don’t look outwards—they don’t make comparisons. They don’t realize that their own lives and families aren’t the universal norm. Puberty is when that changes. They look to their peers, rather than to their families, for examples of the kind of person they want to be.
I hear rumors that, for a lot of people, puberty is when the first rifts begin to appear in their relationships with their kids. The kids appear to go through secret transformation sequences that turn them into surly, oddly-dressed strangers overnight. The parents, suffering localized amnesia about their own adolescence, assume that their kids are being brainwashed by nebulous “cultural” forces that want to sell their innocent babies black hair dye and loud, frightening music. This is how the stereotypical family drama plays out on TV, anyway. Most of the people I knew in school (including myself) were actually under such enormous pressure not to move more than a hair or two outside the role their family had prescribed for them that they didn’t really undergo any visible outward transformations.
Just in case any confused parents with children on the cusp of adolescence happen to be reading this, let me make something clear: you might breathe a sigh of relief when your kid turns thirteen or fourteen and doesn’t radically alter their style of dress or taste in music. You might be tempted to congratulate yourself on some A+ parenting, because your kid looks and acts exactly the way you hoped/expected they would as teenagers. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that a lack of outward display means your kid isn’t turning into a whole new person. I guarantee you that the shorter human being in your house is nurturing a secret inner life, one in which they think and feel all sorts of things that you didn’t give them permission to think or feel. Every single teenager on the face of the planet is plotting a revolution. But if they’re intimidated by you, or even just afraid of disappointing you, they’re probably doing it by stealth.
For evidence of this, I present to you Exhibit A: me.
When I hit puberty, I’d been in private Christian schools my entire life. I had also been miserable for as long as I could remember, but it took the brain changes of puberty to make me aware of it. Once they hit, my rebellion was inevitable. The form it would take was determined by something a little less predictable.
My parents had made a point of breaking their backs financially to send me to Christian school precisely so I would never, ever interact with another person who wasn’t exactly like them. As a result, none of the people I admired had piercings or unnatural dye jobs. Everyone wore slacks and knee-length skirts. No one listened to popular music. Stuff like smoking, drinking, and sex was so far removed from my little world that they might as well have been behaviors only documented in certain species of extraterrestrial life.
When it comes to the inevitability of adolescent rebellion, the only real variable is what you’re going to rebel against. Kids who’ve been bullied at school are as likely to act out against their peer group as against their families. But in my case, even though the school I went to was horrible, it was a secure environment compared to home. You risked getting hit with a wooden paddle if you marked on your desk with crayon, but really severe bullying by other students was not tolerated. In other words, I was never going to rebel in a way that would jeopardize the good opinions of my teachers or classmates. My parents were safe from displays of independence that involved a risk of pregnancy or overdose. For the same reason, I also wasn’t going to rebel against the religious beliefs my family used to justify almost all of their abusive behavior. (People can end up feeling entitled to do virtually anything to their kids between “spare the rod, spoil the child”, “honor thy father and mother”, and “train up a child they way he should go.”) I was so thoroughly hemmed in that when my desire for individuation finally took form, it was pretty much guaranteed to be kind of weird.
In the end, I rebelled by getting really invested in art history and classical music. Yes, at the age of eleven, I was basically Willow Rosenberg.
Xander: Hop off the outlaw train, Will, before you land us all in jail.
My reasoning process, inasmuch as it was conscious, went a little like this:
- I was unhappy.
- I was unhappy because of my family, therefore, I wanted to be different than my family.
- There were only so many ways I could afford to be different from my family without also being different from people I didn’t want to be different from.
- My family were uneducated, didn’t read, and had no interest in or awareness of literature, art, or music.
- My primary behavior models were characters in 19th century novels who might or might not be rich but were at least “cultured”.
- I could safely individuate myself from my family without alienating my peers too much by developing a whole host of really ugly class issues, attributing all my parents’ failings to the fact that they were hillbillies with very little formal education.
- The easiest way to do this, since I had no money, was by listening to classical music and looking at pictures of old paintings.
My school exerted a great deal of control over what we did in our own time and in our own homes, and they had very specific standards for what kind of music we were allowed to listen to. There was a general feeling that anything “old” was safe, because the church that ran the school pretty much operated on the principal that everything had gone to hell after Elvis Presley first started gyrating on national television, and we should all do our best to ignore any changes or trends in popular culture after 1950 or so. This worked for me, because my emotional life pretty much centered around books set in the 19th century. So without any kind of guidance or background to educate my choices, I started spending my paltry allowances on random classical music CDs and books with old paintings in them.
(Mary Cassatt, “The Loge”. Not pictured: the author razoring it out of her art history book.)
Since this was the same period in my life when I was crying over Anastasia Romanov, dead in the snow, my first classical CD was selected on the basis of the fact that I knew Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer. That was all I knew about him, and as it turned out the whole CD wasn’t even Tchaikovsky, but a sampler of different composers, including Dvorák and Beethoven, but I still listened to it on repeat, every day. Which is why I can’t listen to the 1812 Overture or Slavonic Dance no. 2 now without first preparing myself emotionally for time-traveling back to 1994. All that year, I would shut my bedroom door and put myself into a kind of trance, listening to the music over and over, staring at a cheap book of prints of Impressionist paintings. I pretended that I belonged to a different era of history, where people might still be cruel sometimes, but at least my house wouldn’t smell like frying grease and cigarette smoke, or be filled with the sounds of screaming and bad TV programs turned up to full volume.
(I didn’t really know that much about history, obviously. In the 19th century, my ancestors were starving and freezing to death in the Appalachian mountains, not embroidering fine linen or drinking tea out of Wedgewood china. But I hadn’t really grasped the intergenerational nature of poverty at that point in my life.)
The really funny thing is, most parents would be thrilled if their kid chose to launch their adolescent rebellion in a way that involved so little social embarrassment. But my mother was canny; she couldn’t articulate why, but deep down, she knew exactly why I was putting on airs and wrinkling my nose at her crude hillbilly ways. What it boiled down to was distance—me, distancing myself from her in the only ways available to me. I dressed it up in classical music and Impressionist paintings, but the absolute value of my rebellion was dissociation. I couldn’t physically run away from home—I’d been too thoroughly cloistered to have enough knowledge of the world to even want to attempt it—so I ran away in my mind instead. And my mother reacted as if I was pricing nipple piercings. She thought that the intense, self-hypnotizing way I listened to music was weird, and if she heard it playing in the background when she called me from work she’d tell me I wasn’t allowed to listen to it any more that day. It didn’t matter to her that my rebellion was so deeply internalized that nobody else even knew it was there. I wasn’t allowed to want distance from her; I wasn’t allowed to have thoughts and feelings and passions that she couldn’t understand. I especially wasn’t allowed to need things she wasn’t giving me, or hide away in my head instead of supporting her emotional needs. There was no call for that; she was a good mother, as she took pains to remind me every time we got into a fight.
I’ve never really wanted kids, beyond occasional fantasies in which I prove my superiority to my own parents by raising a happy, intellectually nurtured child to adulthood without saddling them with a ridiculous name or a mental health disorder. As I am now about the age my mother was when I was born, I should probably be feeling new waves of sympathy for her, but mostly what I feel is a kind of outrage over the fact that she set herself up as an infallible authority when she must have known she was anything but. How could anyone, at the age of 32, think they’d lived long enough to be wise? Where was the self-awareness and humility that should have enabled her to understand that if I was trying to hide from her, she must be doing something wrong?
I can only assume that it must be very hard for some people to grasp the fact that children are human beings. I don’t even just mean abusive parents. All parents must be prone to it, and for understandable reasons. I can’t imagine what it would be like to produce a squawking pink humanoid animal, entirely lacking in higher reasoning skills, to love it and protect it from everything, including itself, only to have it turn on you twelve or thirteen years later and criticize your taste in music while correcting your grammar. I really can’t. I’m pretty sure my reaction to that hypothetical kid would begin with the phrase, “Listen here, you little shit.” I think all kids are probably little shits, deep in their souls.
But they are also people. And while it is very, very hard to protect a person without also trying to control them, it is even harder to control someone without de-humanizing them. Even with all their other failings, if my parents had ever manage to grasp that, I think my childhood would have been a very different thing. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t still be able to hum all fifteen minutes of the 1812 Overture from memory, so I guess it wasn’t all bad.