by Meredith O' Brien
This is the year in which my eldest two children – boy/girl twins – will officially become teenagers. And I’m, frankly, petrified . . . not because I think that the moment they turn 13 some switch will go off in their heads and they’ll suddenly become strangers who’ll hate me until they move out of the house, but because pop culture tells me I should be scared out of my mind.
While the show the Gilmore Girls  attempted to convince me that a harmonious mother-teen relationship is possible (though there was a period of estrangement when Lorelai Gilmore’s daughter Rory was in college), most other TV shows tell me otherwise. In fact, they tell me that I’ll have little to no control over what my kids do at all.
Not that I can “control,” for lack of a better word, my kids now. For example, while I can make my 9-year-old take a winter hat and coat with him to school, the moment he’s at school, I realize that that’s where any “control” ends. I know this because I’ve sat in the drop-off lane at school and seen him remove his outerwear when he gets to the playground and thinks I can’t see him. When the admonishing e-mails from the school principal roll in pleading with parents to have their children wear weather-appropriate attire, at least I can say that I told him he should wear the stuff and made him take the items with him.
On two primetime shows recently, TV parents were flailing around trying to figure out how to do the right thing for their teenage children and, largely, failing. And if I have issues now with my 9-year-old, what’ll happen when he’s 17?
On NBC’s Parenthood , two conscientious parents, Adam and Kristina Braverman, accidentally found out that their 16-year-old daughter Haddie was dating a boy named Alex who ran the local community center/food bank so they invited him to dinner in order to get to know him. Haddie hadn’t told them she was seeing Alex and, in fact, lied to her parents one night prior to the big dinner together, saying she was going to a friend’s house when she was really heading to an AA meeting with Alex.
Alex arrived at the Braverman home neatly dressed, presented Kristina with flowers, said dinner smelled delicious, was extremely genial and spectacularly forthcoming about his life: He’d become legally emancipated at age 16 after growing up poor. His substance abusing father had been unable to care for him (his mother had died), he himself became an alcoholic but sobered up six months ago. He now lived in his own apartment, aspires to get his GED and works at the place that helped him out when he was in need as a way to give thanks.
Although Adam and Kristina were impressed with his honesty, intelligence and poise, they decided that his situation was too intense and mature for their naive 16-year-old daughter. The following day they demanded that Haddie break up with him and refused to listen to what Haddie had to say. Haddie vigorously objected and, if the last episode was any indication, plans to flout her parents’ directive and keep seeing Alex in secret.
What’s the “right” answer in this situation? Is there even a “right” answer? As my husband and I watched the show, we agreed that an outright ban on seeing someone (friend, boyfriend) should be reserved for something truly dangerous (current drug/alcohol abuse, physical/emotional abuse, reckless behavior). But even if the parents attempted to create some parameters for such a relationship, how would they be able to make sure that Haddie wasn’t sneaking into Alex’s apartment and having sex or doing other things Adam and Kristina might not want their teenage daughter to do. Should they want to make sure they knew what she was doing?
Over on TNT’s Men of a Certain Age , a middle-aged dad named Joe (played by Ray Romano) stopped by his townhouse in the middle of the day and found a partially naked teenage boy in the bathroom and his daughter Lucy half naked in the hallway after the couple had clearly had sex. Later on, Joe tried to speak with his daughter but she kept darting away and ducking, literally, to avoid him. They got into an argument because she wouldn’t engage in real dialog about the situation so, in a fit of anger, he grounded her.
Her mother and Joe’s estranged wife Sonia, in whom Lucy had confided, ungrounded her when Lucy got to her mom’s house. Joe later learned that his soon-to-be ex-wife knew that Lucy had been having sex with the boy and never told him about it, as though his opinion was of no consequence. He was stymied about what to do and if he should do something about any of this. Clearly he had no power seeing that his wife disagreed with his decree that Lucy not sneak into his house and have sex, and countermanded his punishment. So how can Joe parent his daughter under these circumstances?
Both of these shows reminded me of the eloquent and searing canceled drama Once and Again  which featured a divorced mom of two and a divorced dad of two who wound up dating then marrying. Some of the most intense scenes involved their teenage children whom they were trying desperately to help and guide, only most of the time the parents felt ineffective.
Rick Sammler’s teenage daughter Jessie developed anorexic in the second season, hid food in her desk and even fainted at school. Rick’s ex-wife Karen was the one who demanded that they take her to a therapist, but even then, the parents realized they couldn’t force Jessie to eat; they could only take away her privileges until she ate something. Meanwhile their teenage son Eli did exactly what Lucy did on Men of a Certain Age: Snuck into his divorced dad’s place to have sex with his girlfriend, only to have his dad walk in and then insist that the girlfriend go home. Later Eli independently decided that he wasn’t going to college. In one poignant scene, Rick admitted that he never realized how powerless he really was when it came to trying to persuade his son to do what Rick thought was “right.”
But perhaps parenting teens isn’t or shouldn’t be about control at all. Maybe parenting is about shaping and guiding. Maybe parents are supposed to serve as a flesh and blood guardrails, trying to keep their kids going in the right direction and on the road but they must come to terms with the fact that the driving is largely up to the children, just like wearing that winter hat during recess is up to my 9-year-old.
Whatever the case may be, these shows are making me hope that the Gilmore Girls scenario is more likely to appear in my future than, say, the Parenthood one is, with the daughter lying and sneaking around. Though there was that one episode where the mom Lorelai walked into the house when her college-aged daughter was having sex with her married, ex-boyfriend . . . that didn’t turn out so well.