Okay, Sure, It Takes a Village

But when it comes to teens and alcohol and sex, how meddlesome do the villagers have to be?

By Kathryn Robinson January 23, 2013 Published in the February 2013 issue of Seattle Met

Kathryn Robinson writes: The characters in this story are not actual people. They are composites of several characters whose experiences I combined in order to protect identities. Any resemblance to actual people is purely coincidental, a fact I regret I did not make clear when the piece originally ran in February 2013. To mitigate against false identifications, a few details have been removed from the original story. – May 1, 2013

By the time their downy little heads hit their pillows, nearly every 14-year-old in the freshman class had been Twittertained by the events of Friday night. By noon Saturday the news had rocked the scientific community—in my kitchen anyway—by penetrating the teen-parent force field.

“I’m pretty sure it’s a rumor, Mom—but everyone’s talking about what E did before the dance last night,” my daughter said. “You can’t tell anyone.” So I won’t-tell it here. It’s an easy story to not-tell, because everyone who’s ever been 14 already knows it.

“I mean…do you think it’s a rumor?” my daughter wondered, troubled. She loves E, a spirited, funny girl. Oddly, for how close the girls had been, we barely knew her parents; they were a busy family with older kids. 

The moms I did know, however, were pretty clear this was no rumor. “You know E pretty well, don’t you, Kathryn?” asked that mom. “Shouldn’t her parents be told?”

Uh…yes. (Really?) Of course they should. (You’re not suggesting me?!) If my child had made similar dumb choices, I would want someone to tell me. (In…theory.) Isn’t this what “It takes a village to raise a child” is all about? 

That phrase has become the defining maxim for my generation of parents, striking all the right progressive chords in all the right communitarian, even tribal, keys. And it’s how we’ve all done it, me and my tribe: picking up each other’s kids, passing on outgrown clothes. Last summer my husband taught the son of a widowed friend how to ride a bike. We hardly invented it, of course, but our generation seems to be the first to needlepoint it on our pillows. You’d think we’d have a clearer sense of what the heck it means.

Was I obliged to tell E’s parents? Honestly, my first instinct was to have a frank talk with E, a girl I know pretty well. This seemed fairer somehow and possibly more effective: a parental voice, but stripped of the stupidity voiceover teens automatically hear in their own parent’s words. “Mom—NO!” my daughter shrieked. Unthinkable breach of the force field. “Please, don’t talk to her parents either—she’ll hate me!” 

Give me some credit, kid—I wasn’t planning on telling the truth using truth. Sheesh. No, if I talked to her mother I wouldn’t have to go far to disguise my source: I overheard kids talking, or other moms, or I saw it while stalking my daughter’s Facebook page—and I wasn’t sure if it was true but I figured she’d want to be apprised. 

Want? What parent wants to be apprised of that? Okay…need to be apprised. Except for that I know parents who look the other way at underage drinking and early sex. I have known parents who, in the name of “safety,” helpfully supply the basement and the booze and the bedroom. To my mind, “safety” is what a child feels when she has a parent who enforces boundaries. But not everyone in the village agrees.

As I played out scenarios, I concluded that my helpful villager moment would most likely be met with parental-strength denial—“Oh, I asked her about it and she says she was acting weird from her cold medicine”—closely followed by unmitigated loathing of the messenger. 

It’s one thing—an awful thing, I can attest—to well--meaningly tell a friend you’re worried that she has an eating disorder or that the guy she’s about to marry is a jerk. (I lived through both of those tellings, though only one of the friendships did—once the marriage died.) But we’re talking mama-bear-with-cub here. If I told the mom about her child’s behavior, what outcome did I realistically expect—beyond her dismissing me as a righteous busybody, then branding my daughter with a bull’s-eye?

Ugh, righteous busybody. I’d go pretty far to avoid being mistaken for that mom. Apparently I might go so far as to deprive a fellow traveler of knowledge I wouldn’t want to be deprived of in her place. Looked like I might even be willing to rob a wonderful kid of the benefit of informed parents. 

Sigh. It’s a particularly cruel trick of adolescents that just as they’re going opaque on us, every molecule of a parent’s being is pulsing to know what’s going on with their great unknowable selves. Some parents are so terrified of what they’ll find in there, they check out entirely. Me, I err in the opposite direction: eavesdropping in carpool, surfing Twitter posts, relishing each breach of the force field. I do it because, if the dangers aren’t in fact greater today than they were when I was a kid—they sure seem like they are. 

Does that mean I have to do it for my neighbor’s kids? Alas…I can’t imagine what the village means if I don’t. I look for my phone and hope I can’t find it.


Published: February 2013

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