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Teens Still Need Parents In Lives

The news has been filled lately with Republicans taking a pass on running for president. Former Vice-President Dan Quayle, former cabinet members Jack Kemp and Dick Cheney House Speaker Newt Gingrich all spoke of being unable to raise money, or of a wish to fulfill job commitments.

But William Weld, the governor of Massachusetts, gave another reason: He does not want to be an absentee father.

How interesting, I thought. Here’s a man who says he wants to be available for his children.

I thought that he must have small children and that he realized how important those early years were in family life.

But then I read that not only does he have five children, but all of them are adolescents. He and his wife, Susan, who teaches ancient Chinese law at Harvard University, are the parents of David, 18; Ethel, 17; Mary, 16; Quentin, 13; and Frances, 11.

William Weld perhaps has discovered what I learned about teenagers several years ago.

They are big toddlers.

When my daughter was 18 months old, she was full of energy. She was feisty, independent.

She didn’t want me to hold her hand when we walked down the street. She didn’t want me to walk behind her as she navigated stairs. She could eat meals without me cutting up her food.

She was no longer a baby, and she resented my interference.

At the same time that I wasn’t to help her, I wasn’t to go far away. I shouldn’t hold her hand, but I shouldn’t leave her side.

I didn’t have to play with her, but I wasn’t to leave the room while she was playing by herself.

Her message was clear: Don’t help me, but don’t leave me.

And that’s the same struggle with independence that teenagers go through. We are not supposed to question their every move, monitor their activities or involve ourselves in their daily lives. At the same time, they desperately need to know that we are available, approachable and receptive.

With toddlers, our objective as parents is clear and simple and, for the most part, has to do with physical needs: feed them, clothe them and keep them safe.

With teenagers, the objective is more muddied. They can feed and clothe themselves. And we can’t keep them from all potential harm.

But the one thing that is constant and clear for both ages is the need for parents to provide love.

The problem is that teenagers are so confusing. Our sons are suddenly tall, they have deep voices and maybe facial hair. Our daughters are physically women with mature bodies and makeup concerns. They look like adults. And sometimes their behavior can be so obnoxious that we’re glad to be away from them.

For all these reasons, parents sometimes err in thinking that teenagers don’t need us as much. I used to think that if I provided rides to the mall and money to spend once we got there, my daughter would be satisfied with my mothering.

So it took me a while to realize what my daughter was trying to tell me when she would call me at work after she arrived home from school.

“When are you coming home?” she’d ask.

“Later,” I’d say, explaining that Dad would put the meatloaf in the oven and bake potatoes if I got home late.

What my teenager was saying was, “I want you home. I don’t care that Dad can feed me or go over my homework. I want you at home, with me.”

Just because kids’ bodies are mature doesn’t mean that their emotions are. My teenager needed me as much as any toddler would have. She didn’t need me to microwave her potato. But she did need to know that I cared enough about her to be with her.

I commend Gov. Weld for placing fatherhood so high on his priority list. Truthfully, if I had five adolescents in the house, I think I would prefer a job that required five nights on the road.


Tags: Commentary