October 6, 2002
IT APPEARS THAT I am not popular in high school. Again.
According to an informal poll of the junior class, reported to me by my daughter at the top of her lungs, my "favorables" are very low and my "negatives" are very high.
This is apparently true even when factoring in the hugs and smiles I receive when I run into her friends at the football concession stand or in the mall.
High school is still high school - even when it is your kid who's enrolled and not you - and high school is still about popularity. And it still hurts like hell when you're not.
All these years later, the sting is just as sharp when the popular girls stop talking when you walk into the room. It hurts just as much when the really cool guys roll their eyes at you when they think you aren't looking.
Why don't they simply confront you in the hall and tell you that you have been voted out of the group and end your suffering?
The problem for parents of high school students, I think, is that we are all still in high school ourselves, if only in our too-sharp memories. And the wounds we suffered in the name of fitting in are astonishingly fresh, considering the decades that have passed since then.
How awful to realize that we are in a Groundhog Day version of high school, condemned to repeat those years over and over until we get them right.
If you want a reason why parents of teen-agers are doing such a lousy job of controlling their children's high-risk behavior, this might be it. On some level - and it is a level very close to the surface - we want to be liked by our kids and by their friends.
We did unpopular already. We did dork and un-cool and out-of-it and date-less and lonely, and we remember how much it hurt.
Even if we were the high school quarterback or the prom queen, there were still times when we felt the pain of not fitting in, and those are the moments we seem to remember most clearly.
All these years later, we hope to engineer our children's high school social trajectory so that they do not suffer this kind of outcast pain. And we have no wish to revisit it ourselves.
We don't want our kids to be ridiculed because of the rules we make. And, truth be told, we don't want to be unpopular because of those decisions. It isn't any more fun at 40 than it was at 14.
This makes for very conflicted parenting, and it turns on its head one of the more familiar parenting aphorisms: "Don't be their friend. Be their parent."
It is easy to be the parent and not the friend when you see that your toddler's curiosity is going to get her hurt. But it is not so easy when your teen-ager is howling in anguish at the social impact on her of some edict you just handed down.
And when your decision means that you'll be written off as a clueless old man or a miserable old nag by a brand-new generation of quarterbacks and prom queens, "being the parent" can be almost too much to ask.
It is often suggested that parents fail to enforce rules against drinking, drugs and sex among their teen-agers because they are either clueless or too worn out to fight about it.
These reasons are often true, but I would like to suggest a third.
We suddenly find ourselves back in high school again, only this time with a chance to get it right. To be party-animal popular with all the right kids. And - this is doubling the stakes - to be popular with the parents who let the popular kids party.
This is worse than high school redux. This is high school cubed
It takes an awful lot of courage, maybe more than some parents can muster, to choose to be the lonely loser - again.
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