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Why I Love My Rebellious Teen

Why do we try so hard to stop our kids from having the same childhood we did?

Black and white image of teenage girls in front of colorful background
The Arrow/Getty

My daughter, almost 13, recently told me she wanted to be a graffiti artist. And as someone who grew up watching both The Warriors and the title sequence to Welcome Back, Kotter countless times, I thought this was super cool. Then she confessed that she had snuck through a fence next to some railroad tracks with a friend, cans of Krylon in hand, to decorate some random concrete abutment.

She held her phone toward me with a transgressive grin, showing images of some innocuous spray-painted circles. No profane expression. Nothing evoking Basquiat. Just a series of black circular smears, each about the size of a large pizza. 

I swiped through the pics, smiled and said, “Good stuff! You know, you have to be safe around railroad tracks and places like that.”

That was it. I never reprimanded her for trespassing or vandalism. If anything, I praised her.

Later, I started to be haunted by guilt. Am I a crappy parent? Is my negligence damning her to a future in juvie? Is juvie ​still a thing? 

Fighting the urge to over-parent

The way I reacted to my daughter was, according to historian and demographer Neil Howe, “typical Gen X.” 

Howe, who is sought after for his expertise in generational trends — the dude invented the term “millennial,” along with William Strauss — chuckled as I shared this story with him. “The idea that it’s illegal didn’t even occur to you,” he says.

In fact, I was quietly proud of her, recalling my own early teens — before driving, before girls — spent with friends squishing pennies on commuter train tracks and busting out porch lights with well-aimed landscaping stones. 

“Gen X parents grew up with very little order,” Howe explains. “They were latchkey kids, the children of divorce.” 

Realizing what we got away with, some Gen X parents have overcompensated, creating a hyper-parental police state where a kid’s every waking moment is scheduled and monitored. Many kids reach 15 or 16 without ever having been someplace where their parents couldn’t reach them in an instant. They carry communicator-tracking devices with them at all times. That’s light-years away from our childhoods, when a typical 16-year-old could hang out at the bowling alley all night, feeding quarters into the Asteroids arcade machine and trying to talk someone’s older brother into buying a six-pack.

And many of us don’t like what modern childhood looks like. We want kids to have as much freedom as we did … but not too much. Our brains flip-flop between “Stay safe” and “Stick it to The Man!”

Instead of punishment, perspective

So, what’s the middle ground? I want my daughter to have the freedom to make mistakes, but I also want to give her more parameters and guidance than I got.

“One of the things kids need their parents to do is explain principles behind things that are impersonal,” Howe notes.

In other words, instead of punishment, I should be talking to her about consequences other than her own. Like how shoplifting a pack of baseball cards hurts a store owner's livelihood. Or how vandalizing private property messes with someone's job or detracts from a public space. It puts her actions in perspective without limiting her freedoms.

But I’m also going to dilute it with a dose of Gen X tonic. Looking at those graffiti photos, I saw a kid being a kid, making questionable choices and coloring outside the lines. Who knows, she may even fall out of today’s soul-crushing lockstep and become a real human being — something I’d be happy to have on her permanent record.