Monday, July 27, 2015

Paper Towns, Teenagers and Remembering What It Was Like

Every summer, I come up with a list of books that I plan to read with the kids. I try to pick books that have all been (or will be) made into movies, so that they can compare and contrast the books with the films. I also try to mix up the material throughout the summer so that there are some classics, some new books, some science fiction, some YA fiction, and so on.

You can get it on Amazon here.
This year, I chose the book Paper Towns, not knowing at all what it was about. I chose it for a few reasons, the biggest of which is that it is written by John Green. I read The Fault in Our Stars with my daughter last year, and it spoke to me on a level I'm not even sure he intended as the survivor of a couple trips to cancer-land myself. 

His books are about teenagers, sure. There are lots of books out about teenagers these days. Most of them are dystopian novels set in some post apocalyptic world of strife and struggle. Green's book are infinitely more real, more present, more likely to strike a nerve.

The best part about them is that, unlike far too many writers (and far too many parents of teens), he seems to really have a handle on what it was like to be one. 

He actually remembers.

I think too many people forget what it was like, especially once they have teenagers of their own. The trend towards hovering parenthood, the strange attachment and simultaneous disinterest of this generation of parents has been interesting for me to watch, certainly. I've seen far too many people out there who seem to think that they truly can micromanage the lives of their children, that they can dictate from the mountaintops what their children want, who their friends should be and so on. What I see less of these days is the parenting that guides from a distance, that tries to equip them with life skills and then sets them free on the world to make their own inevitable mistakes. 

I try every day to be that parent, the one that teaches and trusts, guides and releases. It is excruciating at times, don't get me wrong. But it's important.

I want my kids to feel like they can make their own choices in this world. That they have the set of skills necessary to make those decisions. That they will screw up, but that I'll be here to cushion the fall when it happens. 

I can't prevent those mistakes. I won't even try. They have to learn.

I had one of those parental pangs just this morning as I dropped my oldest child off at school for yet another band event. As he got out of the car and flipped his hair to the side, checking his phone as he waved goodbye to me, I hardly recognized the man he'd become. This six foot tall being can't possibly be the same little boy I just remember starting kindergarten, can he? 

He is starting high school in a few weeks, already planning to work at summer camp next year. He'll be gone for most of the summer, and there is a dull ache in my heart forming already at the thought of it. I struggled to express what was bothering me the most about his wanting to do this, and finally I blurted out to my husband, "but we only have him for a few more years and then he will be gone and I'm not ready".

And he is growing up. I know this. I'm not ready now and I won't be ready then, but I'm going to do my damnedest to make sure he is.

Anyway, as he was getting out of the car this morning, I lamented the fact that I'd only had my daughter read Paper Towns, and resolved to have him read it in the next few weeks before high school starts. The story centers on the friendship of three boys as they near the end of high school. Much of the message in the book is about realizing what is important in life, about grabbing the joy now, about refusing to let fear make our decisions for us, about the value of true friendship. 

Forever is composed of nows. ~John Green

I mean, yeah, there's the whole romance girl quest for love thing, but it really isn't the most important piece of the story. I promise. 

I want him to read this book now, before he starts these four years. I want him to know that I get it, that I remember what it was like to feel all those feelings, that you can wish for something to last forever and hurry up and end at the same time. I want him to understand that sometimes teenagers do crazy, irresponsible things, and that I'm the kind of parent that he could call halfway through a roadtrip like that and get the support he needs. (Not that I'm saying I want my kid to drive 1200 miles totally spontaneously, mind you...)

I want him to know that these years are going to fly by, that some of the relationships he makes now will shape who he becomes, regardless of whether that person stays in his life long term or not. I want him to see people for who and what they are, not the illusions created. 

Mostly, though, I want him to live. I want him to enjoy it. I want him to work his ass off and learn as much as he can. I want him to fall in love and have inside jokes with friends and find the joy in little moments. 

A few years ago, I wrote about how I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that he liked middle school. I hated it, I felt like most people hated it...how was it possible that he didn't? I couldn't reconcile it in my head. I had to come to terms with the fact that nothing about my experience had any bearing whatsoever on him. He had to have a chance to make this life for himself, and if he loved every second of middle school, then I had to let him. 

I had to let him. I had to let him live his life without being ruled by my memories or my fears or my worries. 

I had to remember what it was like to be a teenager so that I could let him be one himself.

And therein lies the trick of parenting teenagers. 

I have to let him be.

First, though, he has a book to read.

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