Welcome to Survivor, in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.
Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.
My 10-year-old quit chorus and didn’t tell me for three weeks. For three weeks, we dropped her off before school for it and for three weeks, she chose not to tell us she wasn’t going. I wanted to lose my shit and tell her every bad thing that happened to every person that wasn’t where they said they would be in the history of the human race so she could understand why mom is acting like dropping out of chorus at 10 is a gateway drug to juvy. What should I have done?
I read your question to my kids, and my 17-year-old was, I think it’s safe to say, triggered. “Remember when I wanted to quit chorus?” he said, and yes. Yes I did. He’d been 9 at the time, and he blurted it out, what I took to be this sudden, bolt-from-the-blue desire to quit the most ecstatically wonderful activity anyone had ever done. When I said, “But you love chorus!” he burst into tears and said, “No, Mama. You love chorus.”
And I had to wrestle with the fact that this was true. I did love chorus! Blindingly so, as it turned out. Because when they sang “Jerusalem,” those swelling little voices filled my eyes with the kind of misty tears that obscure your vision such that you can’t see your unhappy little singer unhappily singing. And also anxiously yawning in big wide-mouthed gulps of air, like a fish out of water. I opened my mind to this truth — you could probably hear the horrible, stuck door in my brain squealing on its rusted hinges — and saw my child as he actually was, not as I wished for him to be. Better late than never. He quit chorus.
In this case, you were not presented with the opportunity to do the wrong thing, as it was preempted by your child’s assumption that you would, which sucks. So let’s start there. My kids are in heated agreement that the first thing you should ask your child is, “Why did you want to quit chorus, and what did you imagine I would do if you’d told me?” Because both of them feel like the main issue here is about trust, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Kids will often create major long-run problems for themselves to avoid conflict in the short term. (Actually, my kids’ father is similarly inclined, but that’s a conversation for another day.) “Foster an environment where they don’t have to lie to you,” the 14-year-old said, wisely but also annoyingly, like she was talking about adding banana to a smoothie. Oh, just that? Just fostering an environment where our kids trust us completely? Done.
But of course, she’s right, because it’s chorus now, but later (take my word on this) it’s honors classes and after-prom parties and driving and sex and drugs and other issues we haven’t even gotten to yet in our family. Grand theft auto, maybe. Prostitution. And we need to trust that they’ll tell us stuff — and they need to trust us to tell us. So, ask about the not telling you, and listen carefully. If the answer does not present itself clearly, then ask this follow-up question: “How can we change our relationship so that you’ll feel like you can trust me?” Listening better might be part of it. Being less judgmental, more open-minded. Easing the pressure. Behaving more calmly, if you are prone to angry flare-ups. Whatever it is, you will want to do that. And you can make clear that trust is not the same as everyone getting what they want. Maybe in your family, this person will have to finish out the year in chorus because once you start something, you have to see it through. OK. But there should at least be open, fearless dialogue about it. And your daughter should feel confident that her voice — even her not-singing voice — will be heard by you.
My daughter — damn her and her level-headedness! — also felt like you should describe your fear with an I statement so that you’re not accusing. “I felt scared when I realized I hadn’t known where you were all those weeks. I want you to be honest with me so that I can help keep you safe.” Nice. And here’s what I would add: “Moving forward, let’s be sure to solve problems together, and I’ll try to be as open as possible so that you don’t have to dread talking to me. I promise you we’re on the same side.” Whatever you think your most important work is as a parent of tweens and teens — setting limits, cultivating values, making sure your kids are safe and happy — you’re not going to be able to do it very effectively if your kids don’t see you as an ally. So make that job 1. (Just peel it and pop it right in the blender with the milk and strawberries! Easy-peasy.)