You Don’t Need to Be Perfect: Accept That Things Change, So You Can Be Authentic
In the spring of 2004, my 13-year-old son, Adam, had a job as a senior pool attendant. I can’t remember the exact moment, but I’m pretty sure my heart sank. My son had committed to the summer, and suddenly he wasn’t coming home. Could this really be true?
Within minutes, he called to say he needed to give up swimming—it wasn’t a fun job anymore. He wanted to spend more time with friends, get more involved in sports, and become more involved in extracurricular activities.
For the past eight years, Adam has been a full-time student at a community college where he studies to become a mechanical engineer. Every year, he does something after swimming, like interning at a local automotive plant, which helps him feel like he’s contributing something worthwhile and useful. He wants to “finally do something that I am good at,” he says.
All the while, Adam is reminded by friends of all ages that he is still a teen. As he passes others on the way to the pool, he looks into their eyes, thinking, “Do you know what a bad influence I was? Or what a terrible influence I still am?” The feeling remains with him everyday.
When I hear that word, “bad influence,” I’m reminded of my own teen years. I was a teen myself. When I was 16, I worked as a waiter, selling paper napkins (you know, the kind you use to cover your plate at the table? A seller who would push rolls of paper napkins down and offer up to guests as souvenirs?) in the ancillary lounge of an upscale hotel.
My co-workers hated me. Our boss was a dandy—a gentleman doctor who could seemingly not walk more than one floor without being complimented on his clothes or on the way he dressed. Every day we would pass by his office window and be astonished to see his assistant with a tray of drinks and goodbyes ready, and the word “teens” stared out of the office. Everyone assumed that I, a teenage girl, was not welcome there. “I haven’t accepted the fact that you should be part of the team,” his assistant would tell me, feeling like she was forcing her manager to employ her.
Clearly, she was right.
A happy reality is that as our kids grow older, they start to push back against the strange nature of their youth, exposing their pain. It’s an emotional response to the hurt they sometimes feel. As teens, we often withhold permission to show love or attachment to others, thinking that we’re just being “awkward.” (Sometimes we’re not.) The minute they realize that they’re a different person, and that they are no longer in their teens, they realize that you, as parents, don’t need to be perfect. Maybe you can say to them, “I know that you sometimes get lonely, so I’m not going to go around hugging and kissing you like I used to, but I’m going to wait for you to feel the way you know you should”—and watch them pause for an awkward moment as they release you from the tug of adolescence.
Even though it’s probably true that they still get left out because they were so popular their first year or two, as parents, you need to be true to who they are now. To speak up and support them. Try to be more supportive rather than anxious.
“I’m going to tell you something you’re going to never understand,” said my boyfriend—who was also my bass guitar teacher—when I told him my son was going to quit swimming. “It’s so obvious you have to do everything to please everyone.” By doing that, he explained, he was sacrificing himself.
At least for a while.
Translated, this is my secret weapon, the never-knowing-what-you-can-and-can’t-do attitude I have about the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Before I knew it, I was learning how to relax and let go.