I've been walking around with my 14-year-old son's non-working iPod Shuffle in my jacket pocket for a few weeks now. On the back, he had it lovingly engraved – "Agent 0.2." This is his moniker, the image he likes to project to the world. In his mind, he's Secret Spy Agent Washington Wizard Gilbert Arenas. In reality, he's a teenager who is trying on different skins until he finds the one that fits. Unfortunately, that particular shopping expedition requires a lot of unwise decisions along the way. He is currently grounded for an array of things -- fun times in our house.
I rub the Shuffle between my fingers. I’ve kept it there ever since I brought it into the Apple store to find out that it is dead, irredeemable, might as well buy another. But it reminds me of my son about a year ago, when he was eagerly saving up for this big purchase.
He decided to buy a Shuffle along with the iPod Touch, the real prize, because he didn’t want to take the Touch to school. When they arrived (both engraved with his marker), he was happier and more excited than I have seen him since the Chuck E. Cheese birthday party he had when he was six. Having been barred from owning electronic devices until he was 13, these iPods represented new-found freedom and a new level of adolescent attainment.
Sometime in the first three months, he left the Shuffle in his pants pocket, as he does with many items. Need I say that went through the wash? Bye bye, Shuffle. So now it sits in my pocket, a talisman of better times.
As Halloween approaches, and ghouls and witches begin to adorn our streets and my younger kids obsess over their costumes, I sense that an alien invader has entered my teen's body, wriggled its way up to his brain and set up camp there for a while. There’s a new person living in our house, one who keeps secrets behind a closed door and is bucking authority at every step. He doesn’t even need a store-bought mask – he has one already that's permanently affixed to his face.
I have always loved Halloween. It’s the ultimate in parenting payback. Everything about it is a resounding "yes." Can I dress up in a costume dripping with blood? Yes! Can I run outside at night without a coat on? Yes! Can I eat my candy? Yes! (as long as you give me all the Hershey’s Special Dark miniatures – that’s the one rule of Halloween in our house.) All the no-ness of our daily lives drips away for one magical, moonlit night. The smiles and giggles and tummy aches are our rewards.
But these days, all we seem to be saying is "no." No to requests to go out. No to electronics. No, no, no. We are a big bundle of negativity, and it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. We are in alien territory, with an alien child.
So maybe we need to take a lesson from the Halloween witches and werewolves and add some "yeses" to our repertoire. Maybe it’s yes, you need to begin to take responsibility for yourself. Yes to making your own mistakes, yes to creating your own failures and learning from them. Yes, we love you and want the best for you, but you have to figure out the path.
We live in such a high-intensity parenting community, and so many of the messages we get as parents are that we hold ultimate responsibility, with our power and our resources, to affect change in our children's lives, and that we should be at the helm all the time. Maybe so, but at what cost to our children?
So this year I will be donning the mask of a parent who is going to let her teen loose on the neighborhood – and the world – and will try to let that alien being taking up residence in his brain steer the ship a little more independently from now on.
Agent 0.2 – I hope you fly high.