One of the unlooked for joys of working with teenagers is watching them believe, with the utmost certainty, that they know better than you.
It’s not really their fault. Being so young they have no real frames of reference for the consequences of their actions and so their attempts to embrace the agency of adulthood are not mediated by the often painful lessons of experience.
To the young people I teach, I must seem like a grumpy old man waving my fist in the air and complaining about the ‘yoof of today’. To be fair this is at least partially true.
This thundering lack of understanding often manifests itself as an arrogant swagger which is best summed up with one word.
If a teenager wishes to express their utter contempt for the voice of experience, knowledge or common sense they’ll, with varying degrees of emphasis, cock their head to the side, raise their eyebrows and – accompanied with a little shake of the head – say ‘whatever’.
“If you don’t submit your essay by Wednesday you’ll fail the diploma!”
“Do you realise that the amount make up you have on gives the impression that you’re wearing someone else’s face?”
“Guys, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, sniffing glue sticks really isn’t going to get you high.”
Whilst a part of me will always be annoyed by their sass, I understand that they are going through a hell of a time and to respond with a quick ‘whatever’ allows them to gain kudos from their peers which, to an adolescent, is often worth far more than any academic qualification.
What I don’t understand to the same degree is why my oldest son has decided to get in ten-years early and adopt teenage levels of backchat.
We were sat having dinner the other day and the wife asked him to make sure he ate his greens or there would be no TV time.
“Yeah, whatever mum” he said, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
We both sat open mouthed.
“I beg your pardon?!” I said.
Thinking that we hadn’t grasped his meaning, he repeated himself – this time slower and with a double eye-roll.
We spoke to him about how the words he uses can make people feel angry or sad and he needed to be careful when thinking what to say. He nodded in understanding, looking genuinely upset. We congratulated ourselves on another rapid in the river of parenthood successfully navigated.
Of course this was somewhat presumptuous on our part.
Over the last few weeks our eldest son has become addendum to my job, exhibiting the same levels of unthinking disregard for my own personal opinion as many of the people I work with.
We had ‘a chat’.
And once again, the wife an I congratulated ourselves on the dynamic style of parenting we’ve somehow developed, wondering if maybe we should write a book on it and make millions.
My eldest son no longer says “whatever”. Now he just grunts.
His idea of a cogent response to anything he disagrees with, which is currently a significant amount of the matter in the known universe, is to say ‘uh’ and slouch off.
Sometimes he doesn’t bother to open his mouth, just nasally humming his displeasure like a primate discovering that someone has eaten the last biscuit.
If we do manage to elicit more than guttural noises we are treated to an argument delivered in a superior tone that linguistically confirms our status as indentured serfs.
These arguments are triggered apropos of nothing, over things that have never been an issue. Everyday procedures such as putting on shoes turn into a five minute debate loaded with phrases such as ‘I think you’ll find’ and ‘but I think’.
Please just wear your boots, it’s wet outside. Do we really have to hold a socratic circle on the relative merits of boots versus school shoes every time the milk’s run out?
He will gleefully correct us when we aren’t doing things in a way which he considers to be proper. This includes my wife’s handwriting, apparently it doesn’t have the appropriate ticks and flicks. My wife is an artist who gets paid for her calligraphy work.
This contempt for those who might, just possibly, be correct and/or better can cause amusing levels of braggadocio. For instance the eldest has just taken up gymnastics and, to encourage him, we showed him a video of Kōhei Uchimura’s Olympic silver winning floor work.
“That’s easy” he says before throwing himself on the floor and rolling around spasmodically.
I guess the only difference between him and the teenagers I work with is that his Mariah Carey levels of unrelenting dismissal are juxtaposed by moments of pure joy at things like making fart noises by blowing into the crook of my arm.
Perhaps that’s what happens when children get older. Over the next 8 to 9 years we will witness a steady decrease in those happy moments, my limb-based trumpeting eliciting ever limper chuckles until eventually, a permanent nihilistic ennui sets in. In this state he will exist, rather than live, in our house pausing only to comment that everything – up to and including us – is shit.
Then 18 years of age rolls around and he leaves home.
Still, at least the younger one is a bit more cheerful.