Axle-Deep in Parenting

A column from January 2009 about the special challenges of parenting teenagers, especially teenage boys. Axle-Deep in Parentingchevy-truck-stuck-in-mud

I was witnessing a classic teenager/father-of-a-teenager moment. A friend of mine out in Powhatan had called me for help, and now I beheld the situation in its full, awful and eventually hilarious glory. I was standing at the top of a hill under a power line alley, looking down through the fading light of a cold winter afternoon into a muddy, brush-covered valley.

Wedged into the bottom of the sloppy hollow was a big mud truck, looking like a half-dead dinosaur stuck in a tar pit. About halfway up the hill between me and the doomed monster was a much smaller pickup, wheels spinning in futility on slick Piedmont clay. A frustrated middle-aged man (my friend) sat half in the driver's side of the cab, looking back at a teenager (his son) as the young man pushed with all his strength on the back of the small truck.

The situation was immediately clear. The teenager had been out trail-busting the night before with his buddies when he got his truck stuck. Apparently the vehicle was in deep (and so was the kid), because you know that boy must have tried every possible way of getting the truck out before resorting to asking his dad for help. Eventually he'd bitten the bullet, and now the worst possible thing had happened: his dad had gotten his truck stuck trying to get down to the son's stuck truck.

I had been in the situation before, albeit not in my current, much more comfortable role. During my tumultuous teenage years and young adulthood, a significant percentage of my biggest mistakes ended up with Dad having to drive somewhere he didn't want to go. I won't list the places I made him come to, since it would immediately convey what my big mistakes were, and I'm still trying to fool my kids into thinking I was perfect growing up (the fact that they read my columns notwithstanding).

Suffice to say that each mistake was big enough that the guaranteed downsides of involving my father were outweighed by my need to have his help in extricating myself from the situation.

What I didn't realize at the time of my transgressions was that the situation was harder on my dad than it was on me. Sure, I was in trouble. I was going to lose car privileges or be grounded or have to pay possibly hundreds of dollars to make things right. And I had disappointed my parents, which at various times caused me varying degrees of emotional discomfort (I am ashamed to admit I wasn't always devastated). But my problem was one-dimensional.

From my perspective now as a father, though, I can see that Dad's situation was multi-dimensional and much harder. He was TICKED, absolutely, and he was going to make sure I was punished for my buffoonery. But he also likely was relieved – relieved that my idiocy hadn't gotten me injured or worse (this time). And I'm sure he also was not surprised. The unfortunate fact is that people do stupid things on a pretty regular basis, and teenage boys’ crimes of stupidity are pretty predictable.

It isn't easy to be angry, relieved and unpleasantly unsurprised all at the same time, and then to be able to act in a way that addresses the situation effectively. It completely explains the seemingly nonsensical statement: “Thank God you're OK. Now when we get home, I'm gonna kill you!” You are angry as hell and still love them. You are going to get them out of trouble and then they are going to be in a world of trouble. I get it now.

So I really felt for my friend's son, who in his obvious, red-faced humiliation had to help push his dad's truck out of the mud that he'd gotten his dad into. But I also felt for my friend, who was going to have to drive through some more complicated and conflicting issues. Fortunately for him, the current predicament was presenting opportunities for doing that. For example, it was made clear to the son that he'd be washing his dad's truck that night no matter how cold it got. And more than once I think my friend hit the gas, not to move the truck, but to throw some more mud back onto his son.

I wish we could make some New Year's resolutions for our kids that would keep them (and us) out of these situations, but I'm afraid we have to rely on our kids instead. We've done our best to get them on the right path, and now all we can do is pray for the best and be ready to pull them back onto that path (and make sure they pay a price) when they stray.

At the same time, it doesn't hurt to remember that while we parents don't get our cars stuck in the mud anymore (or not very often, anyway), we still screw things up, sometimes spectacularly. So perhaps our resolutions should be for patience with our kids, humility for ourselves, and a prayer for guardian angels all around.