Parenting Teens in Prime Time.

by Meredith O'Brien


I used to watch the Gilmore Girls (still do in repeats) and coveted the relationship between Lorelai Gilmore and her teenage daughter Rory. My 11-year-old daughter and I have spent many an hour bonding while watching episodes of the show, talking about how we’d handle the various situations that cropped up between the Stars Hollow ladies.


Sure there were times when Lorelai and Rory fought -- like the time when Rory and her boyfriend got busted for taking someone’s boat on a joy ride or when Rory temporarily dropped out of Yale and went to live with her grandparents over Lorelai’s vigorous objections -- but they always found their way to back to one another.


There really hasn’t been another chummy mother-daughter duo like the Gilmores since the show stopped airing new episodes in 2007. Surveying today’s TV landscape looking for shows which portray the challenges, joys and frustrations of parenting teens, I discovered that none depict a parent-child relationship like I’d seen on the Gilmore Girls. In fact, many of the currently airing shows have robbed me of the gauzy comfort I once derived from watching Lorelai and Rory cozy up on the couch together while cracking wise about bad TV shows and eating piles of junk food without getting fat.


Take, for example, the freshman NBC drama Parenthood. This show makes being the parent of a teen seem like a stomach-curdling, non-stop migraine of an impossible, Herculean task. It, frankly, scares me.


The “good girl,” Haddie Braverman, is 15. In the dozen episodes that have aired, Haddie had pot and lied about it after she and her cousin were detained by police. She had a secret Facebook account, a secret boyfriend and a sexy bra for said boyfriend’s benefit which she secretly ordered online (her mom Kristina thought it had been ordered by her husband as a gift for her). Haddie also racked up a huge cell phone bill, snuck to her boyfriend’s house after her father had told her she was grounded, and got into a shoving match with her cousin at school which landed them in the principal’s office. To cope with all of this, her parents, Kristina and Adam, have inconsistently vacillated between taking a hard line – grounding, taking away cell phone privileges, banning stuff – and a softer approach involving quiet, rational talking at night while perched on the foot of Haddie’s bed as they attempted to be empathetic. None of it seemed to be all that effective.



I think that parenting teenagers is exhausting. Physically exhausting because you have to wait up for them and be alert when they are out and come home. Emotionally exhausting because I think many kids are just like the kids in these shows, into things way sooner than we as parents wish they would be. Kids today are exposed to so much more through the media than I was as a child--I grew up watching The Brady Bunch, my daughter grew up watching Beverly Hills 90210. The people writing for the shows we are watching now are certainly younger than I am, and probably not very far away from the kids they are writing for. The situations, though mined for comedy, are what many teens are doing today and those writers know it, they've probably lived it. What I think is nice, at least on Modern Family, is how Claire is depicted as a parent--she's not trying to be Haley's friend or be cool (unlike her dad!); she's toeing the line and keeping it there. And I do believe that's what all teens, both of yesteryear and today, really want--a grownup who will set limits, stick by the limits, and keep them from spinning off out of control. I have way too many friends who spend their childrens' teen years trying to befriend their child and their friends. They dress like them, try and hang out with them, and try to be as permissive as possible. I think most kids want the mom to BE the mom, to dress like a mom (and not a 16 year old), and to act like a, well, grownup. To say No loud and often, and mean it every time. To listen respectively and still disagree. There will be lots of "I hate yous" and many more "you don't understand!!!s" and that's all good in my book, it means I'm being the mom.

My daughter is 19 now, and I can see ahead to the time when we really can be friends, but not yet. There are still some permissions not to be granted, times to close my eyes and let her fall down and help her up, but only if she asks. My other two boys are deep into the teen years, and I have those sleepless nights and battles ahead of me too. My younger son asked me if it was easier when they were little or easier now, and I definitely think it was easier when they were small--i put them to bed and they stayed there, i knew their friends and whereabouts, and they mostly listened to me. It's harder now because I know they'll do things like Haley (I'm sure they already have) and it's their job to try and my job to try and catch them and help them learn to make better choices. I love that Claire lied to Haley about what drinking does and how awful you feel every time. I think you do whatever it takes as parent to be the most effective you can be.

I still think the most realistic portrayal ever, of both teen angst and parenting teens angst, was My So Called Life. The fashions date the show, but the way it is portrayed--man, it cuts to the bone. I remember watching that show and thinking "that's the kind of mom I'll be"--the one who makes mistakes, misses opportunities, really does understand her daughter but is rejected every time she indicates empathy, but yet she's there to comfort Angela when it all goes sour. Parenthood on that show was a mix of mishaps, tears, funny moments, drag out screaming fights and tender embraces. And in my experience, that's what parenting teens is really like.