The Tween Years: When Parents Become Fallen Heroes
Almost every parent reacts unhappily when suddenly confronted with the undeniable signs that their baby is truly growing up. At such moments the road to independence can seem very short and the speed at which your child is hurtling toward the grand finish line of adulthood can seem frightening.
Prior to becoming a tween, your child's principal concerns were learning what you think and feel and deciphering how you do things. Now your child's interest turns to learning about the world outside his front door. It's not easy for him to make sense of the confusing mixture of thoughts and feelings that arise in the course of a day, or even in a single hour. He'll need a lot of time, space, and help from you to sort things out.
Wanting to spend a lot of time alone and becoming more intent on privacy doesn't signal that your child suddenly dislikes you, although it can certainly feel that way when you long for the days when words, smiles, and hugs flowed freely between you. This retreat from the mainstream of family life serves several important developmental functions.
Unlike younger children, whose worlds revolve around their parents and later their teachers, your tween is becoming increasingly aware that different people have different viewpoints, opinions, and reactions. That is to say, he is learning that others' ideas are different from yours. That realization turns his world upside down. In the public arena of the playground, he is likely to remain your champion for some time and haughtily insist that whatever you told him is the absolute truth and that your way is always the best way. However, inside himself, he is no longer sure. Other people have other ways of doing things that seem to work quite well. In fact, the things some parents allow their children to do sound even better. There are other people, he is beginning to learn, who possess knowledge and wisdom greater than yours.
Parents' Fall from Grace
The dawning awareness that parents are far from perfect produces a mix of feelings in tweens that range from very unsettling to desperately disappointing to downright scary. It is a bit frightening to realize that the god who ruled the nursery and could kiss away every hurt is only a fallible human being. The world seems far less secure and certain than before.
Some tweens act as though they believe their parents tricked them, and the result can be an unwillingness to trust that you know anything at all for fear of being deluded again. If so, your tween may seize each opportunity to point out your every wart and flaw, taking exaggerated pains to let you know every little thing you do wrong. What she's really trying to do is remind herself that you aren't perfect. Such nitpicking is a manifestation of a child's struggle not to return to the simpler, more secure days when she knew every problem would be solved because you could fix everything.
It is normal for tweens to become little know-it-alls, but it's not acceptable for your child to treat you as if you know nothing! Demonstrate how adults behave by remaining respectful even when he spouts facts that are patently absurd. Insist he communicate his ideas without disparaging yours so he learns how to disagree respectfully.
Growing Toward Independence
Recognizing parents' fallibility is an important step toward independence. As long as you are all-powerful and all-knowing, your tween has no need to reach outside the family, learn to use his own mind, and grow up. Moreover, your tween's growing sense of personal adequacy comes with the recognition that he knows things that you do not. It may be reassuring to know that your parents are always right, but why bother to use your own mind if someone bigger, stronger, and far more capable knows everything? It's not possible to feel good about yourself while languishing in the shadow of someone who knows everything. People who consider their parents to be perfect linger in a perpetual childlike state.
In truth, your halo may never again gleam quite so brightly as in the glow of your younger child's admiring eyes. It can be sad to discover that your halo is tarnished and slipping, and the urge to polish it and force your tween to admire it once again can be intense. Given the impossibility of controlling someone else's perceptions, even if that someone is your own child, it is futile to try. Your fall from grace may be very hard on your ego, but it provides an important boost to your tween's self-esteem.