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Off the Grid: The unexpected teachings of teenagers

By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

Raising teenagers these days is not for the faint of heart.

I recognize that for generations, parents have been absolutely convinced the teenagers they are raising are a far fiercer, frustrating, ungrateful and hopeless breed than the teenagers they once were.

“Kids these days,” we say, “they have it so easy they have to make up their own problems. And pronouns.”

I suppose if I was going to be approaching midlife and childbearing years while the world food supply chain was getting scorched, I’d be trying to make up my own problems, too. Those ones might seem as though they were within my power to change.

I stand back horrified when my teenage daughter shows me a high-heeled combat boot in patent leather and her eyes are lit up like she just discovered electricity. We’re standing in the shoe aisle and I am fingering a pair of suede loafers, probably with a little stability cushion in them. Loafers are my response to the family saying I cannot buy anymore clogs, as if all clogs were alike or something.

“What the hell,” I think, “nobody ever changed the world wearing a pair of loafers.” Or maybe they did, but they probably didn’t feel as sassy as my kid was going to. I buy her the shoes.

A week later, she’s strutting through town in those kicks like she was born in them. She’s marching down the street explaining to me the proper way to use they/them pronouns (it’s a grammatical leap for me). She notes the works of Mark Twain and the use of pronouns in the German language. If we can learn German and fish can be “she,” surely we can adapt our language to accommodate present-day humanity. I’m not sure whether to be more impressed with her choice of literature or her astute observation.

I see her boots on some lady in a music video. If anyone here is out of touch, it’s me. I remember combat boots and Doc Martens and boys wearing eyeliner. My parents rolled their eyes at me then like I roll my eyes now. I turned up the Sex Pistols, swooned to Morrison poetry, and smoked oregano I thought was weed. I spoke loudly about issues that mattered to me: gay rights, the AIDS epidemic, gender equality. All while smelling like an ambitious pizzeria.

It made people uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder if that is the whole evolutionary point of teenagers. They remind us that the weight of the future is on their shoulders, that we put it there, and they’re going to figure out how to manage it on their terms. Oddly, I trust them to do that.

Sometimes when my 14-year-old is trapped in the car with me, I ask her questions to gather some insight into the modern teen’s brain. I think her guard is down and maybe it’s an opportunity to impart some of my hard-won wisdom. I ask if she’s going to try drugs like her peers.

“Marijuana impacts the brain’s ability to produce dopamine,” she answers. “I don’t think I’ll try drugs until my brain is further developed.”

The information highway she has access to seems to be far more useful than the D.A.R.E. pamphlets I was raised on.

Also, she’s clearly much smarter.

Her friends have conversations over the phone about “trauma-dumping,” boundaries, vulnerability, authenticity. They join the Human Rights Club and the e-sports club. They read Amanda Gorman and drool over Studio Ghibli. These kids are years beyond me. They understand and integrate concepts that have taken me years of therapy to grasp.

Our youth are inheriting a unique set of circumstances, the hubris of the unique set of circumstances we were handed down. We rebelled and adapted in our own ways, remember?

They have awareness, resources, emotional capabilities that we certainly did not have. They brandish a vocabulary of progress and conscientiousness of the future. They do things differently. That’s not a bad thing.

I hear us resisters to change label them as “soft.” Perhaps a bit of tenderness is a kindness the world could use these days.

If we cannot learn from them, we will lose our relevance.

Some of those lessons are new, like when my daughter shows me how to get off a group text. Others are ones I forgot, like when she struts proudly as herself and says, “These boots make me feel so cool.”

I put the loafers back and ordered some patent leather Birkenstocks. I might still be straddling, but I’m going to feel cool while I do it.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at

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