Jim Hickey (SERMCAP) on 21st-century fatherhood.
I’m a remarried father whose children have grown into interesting young adults, but my daughter, whom I call ‘Cakes,’ evinces an attitude toward the world–basically ‘no limits, thanks very much’–that her mother refuses to tolerate any longer.
Thus, I find myself with custody, at least for now, of a 16 year old senior who is smart enough to have skipped two grades, sophisticated enough to think about many things in a powerfully adult fashion, and arrogant and ‘untouchable’ enough to be constantly on the verge of spinning utterly out of control. Just recently, I ‘rescued’ her from a sleepover nightmare, the upshot of which was grand theft, angst, and a barely suppressed rage among all and sundry at the party, who were uniformly suspicious of everyone else there.
My girl tells, for me, a harrowing tale of drugs and violence among the partying pupils at, and occasionally even in the halls of, what purports to be Georgia’s best public high school. What I proffer here is less, by far, than just the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg.’ The social reality that she describes belies many aspects of what we pretend to believe about the young adults whom we continue to call ‘our children,’ as if infancy somehow holds sway even as puberty and all that goes with it has its way.
If my girl is a virgin, I may be the virgin Mary. I blanch to put the matter so baldly, and I know that many moms and dads bridle at anything other than a stern attitude toward the ‘facts of life.’ I have a longer view; still, in a world of rape and AIDS and mayhem, I cannot help but feel strong misgivings when I know personally how ‘edgy’ my youngster can be.
On the night of my marriage vows to my second wife, when my young one was merely fourteen, I found myself standing in the shadows of a Hot Springs, North Carolina street while the girl whom I’d sent to bed at midnight flirted with a pack of five very drunken kayakers on a holiday jaunt. Only when I stepped from the darkness to announce a fatherly concern did I avert a closer encounter among these six youth than I wanted to witness. ‘Cakes’ laughed at my worry: “Oh, daddy, I had everything under control.”
At school, and on Facebook, my daughter and her denizens are brazen in their bohemian ways. She asserts that, in her semi-elite senior class, “I can count on two hands the people who haven’t been sleeping around or having sex with their ‘S.O.’s.'” I am relatively certain that she is referring to her cohort instead of to the general population. Nonetheless, this ‘fact’ that she so confidently advances puts a crimp in any notion that our ‘protection’ of ‘children’ from sexual exploration is succeeding.
Moreover, she and her crowd are all possessors of fake I.D.’s and regularly party with recent graduates, college students, and other adults. Every time that I read about ‘sex offenders,’ tagged for life for ‘violating’ the innocence of underaged maidens, I thank God that at least I will never have to face the stigma of saddling some college kid with a statutory rape label due to my daughter’s wildly cavalier perambulations.
The most recent incident of larceny from which I plucked her, almost certainly an instance of such ‘perambulations,’ was the doing of “junkies,” according to ‘Cakes.’ I was aware that at least her ten closest friends were smoking marijuana regularly, though she is discreet enough in my presence to avoid being busted. But harder drugs came as a shock. I asked her if she knew what she was alleging.
“Chyeah!!” she blurted. “Timea’s friend shoots up at least twice a week, and two of the losers from(a competing high school)are, like, total addicts.” When I just gawked, she continued, “I know it was them who stole our stuff.” She casually suggested to me, then, a certain way to tell whether a thief was alcoholic or a drug-addict. “A drinker just says, ‘I didn’t take your shit,’ but a junkie’ll help you look for it, even when it’s obviously hopeless.”
So I asked why such colorful but costly characters had a ‘place at the table’ of their libations, as it were. She was silent. And I asked if, perhaps, their ready access to and willing supply of ‘good drugs’ might explain the otherwise paradoxical welcome mat to ‘known thieves and junkies.’ Again, she was silent.
While many adults in my position would be raising Cain with school authorities and trying to lower the hammer on, or somehow rein in, their urchin desperadoes, I am chary to pursue such a course for a bunch of reasons. My ex-wife, a vastly better manager than I am, gave up seeking to bridle our progeny. ‘Cakes’ is quite capable of taking a bout in ‘Juvie’ in stride, emerging even tougher and more inappropriately socialized than she currently is. Most pertinently, I recognize that the ‘War on Drugs’ guarantees this sort of situation, unless we are willing to institute a police state in order to stop it. My child has already twice faced ‘Minor-in-Possession’ charges in regard to alcohol, and in both cases she smoothly navigated the attendant ‘schooling’ about the evils of demon rum without so much as batting an eyelash. Though I am well aware that she could end up in jail or the morgue as a result of her behaviors, I am also cognizant that incarceration is one of the few ‘growth’ industries of the past decade, that heroin’s ready availability is directly connected to this nation’s military incursions in Southwest Asia, that rational societies do not proscribe alcohol use among older teenagers. In short, I am perfectly conscious that America’s policies regarding youth and substances are out of alignment with human history and the social reality that my daughter illustrates.
CONSCIOUSNESS & VALUES
Many people would excoriate me as libertine, irresponsible, and worse. I don’t see things in such a light. I have studied these issues, since I was in high school myself–where two cheerleaders had affairs with coaches, one ending in pregnancy and abortion, where my brother ran pot and smack for organized criminals who gave him a motor scooter when he was twelve, where my attitude of horror at the ‘evils of pot’ met clinical reality when my sophomore year debate topic was legalization of cannabis. I have extensive files both literary and scholarly on these matters of sex and drugs and rock and roll. I am familiar with both the anthropological literature and the anecdotal stories of fiction and non-fiction alike.
My perspective suggests that the path of proscription, at the very best, is fraudulent and ineffective. At worst, and in times like these the worst is always much closer to the surface, policies that prohibit the sorts of things–such as sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll–for which nature has made us range from the delusionally psychotic to the criminally conspiratorial. No matter what, I will bear witness that a different possibility exists, whatever the cost in personal reputation, whatever the aspersions cast by those who adhere to notions that are fantasy.
A world full of violence and fraud and delusion will inevitably see in the mirror of its children all of these qualities, even as most youngsters are simply trying to do their best–to live, to make sense of themselves and a world gone insane, to find a way toward something decent. In some sense, our only jobs, as parents and adults, involve providing some guidance about how our offspring can achieve something decent from mostly ‘doing their best.’ This is what I am doing too, whenever I convey to ‘Cakes’ either the possible costs that inherently accompany her choices, or the possible benefits of caution, delayed gratification, or a general approach that is slower, mellower, less impulsively immediate.
When I most recently rescued my girl, I retrieved her from the upscale home of one of her buds, where I met this other young woman’s father. A businessman, he shook my hand and, without further adieu, noted “I’ve never seen it as bad as this,” referring to the economy.
He pointed to his son, scrolling through shopping sites on a 20 inch flat screen MacBook Pro. “They know nothing.” I listened and offered my own notions, to which he at one point responded, “Obama–he may be a prophet too. He is trying to tell us the truth.” I don’t know about all that, but I do know that if we can set aside our fears and guilt enough to see our children as they really are instead of as some twisted distortion of our own fantasies for what we want for them, then we can learn a lot from the young ones’ struggles now–about ourselves, about the errors of our ways, about what is actually possible to do in the name of progress.