islandparent Parenting Tweens & Teens High School Confidential

High School Confidential

I’m likely not the only parent to experience a Rip Van Winkle moment recently. You know the feeling. That strange sense during the first few months of the pandemic that time had slowed nearly to a stop. Then suddenly you wake up one morning, shake the cobwebs out of your COVID beard and realize the world around you has changed.

For our family, it was this September. After we returned from summer holidays up-Island, I looked up from my breakfast and noticed we now had two high-schoolers in the house—which explained all the empty cereal boxes scattered around the kitchen.

Yes, I know. I should have seen it coming. It’s the one pearl of wisdom that every experienced parent offers to first-timers: “They grow up so fast.” Hospitals ought to print that slogan onto birth certificates because it still seems to surprise new dads and moms.

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It certainly tripped me up. During the day, my Facebook feed recirculates “memories” of our kids as chubby-cheeked toddlers in short pants and as sporty adolescents stumbling across a ball diamond or soccer pitch. Above my desk, I’ve pinned similar adolescent moments frozen on corkboard.

Then—boom!—the door swings open and in walks two tall and lanky teens to take over our backyard with a posse of friends, or to empty our fridge and flick through their phones and gossip and gab. Their worlds are busy and self-contained and increasingly alien to my ears and eyes.

As a parent, we’re used to being the rock-solid centre of someone else’s world. And yet with every year, our gravitational pull weakens and our kids spin away further into orbits of their own. In a blink, it seems, I’ve gone from pedaling the kids to daycare in a double bike-trailer, to being the on-call Uber driver for endless after-school activities and birthday-party drop-offs, to watching as they now ride off on their own to school and sports and new jobs.

Part of my ambivalence at this new stage in their lives comes from my own checkered experience of high school. The first day of grade nine, I remember sitting nervously in an auditorium, forced to watch an upbeat ‘80s film about how high school was going to be “the time of our lives”—and then spending the first few weeks fleeing in terror from a gang of grade-twelves who wanted to haze me with shaving cream or worse. Good times!

I also remember years of teeter-tottering between boredom and excitement, between the anxiety of due dates and peer pressure, and the joys of meeting new friends and overcoming new challenges. And I know, for better or worse, I didn’t tell my parents half of what I was going through. So why should I expect a flurry of teen confessions now?

Parents of high-schoolers must negotiate an ever-changing balance between Need to Know and Too Much Information. Teens need the independence to solve their own problems and to advocate for themselves—and yet parents can’t help wondering what is going in their heads, in their lives, or even in the undergrowth of their messy bedrooms. (That last mystery only applies to one of our kids.)

As parents, we all survived (more or less) the rollercoaster of high school—minus the new pressures of social media, a climate crisis and a global pandemic. So we must have some wisdom to compensate for our aching backs? But finding the right time and the right way to impart these life lessons can be tricky.

For now, our high-schoolers seem all right. I don’t know if they’re having the “time of their lives” yet… whatever that might be. But they’ve found camaraderie with friends and inspiration from teachers and outlets for that restless teen spirit in the post-vax re-opening of after-school activities.

All they seem to need, at least for now, is some shaving cream—and only so they can start shaving. Come to think of it, so do I.

David Leach
David Leach
David Leach is a professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria and author of Chasing Utopia.