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An Equal And Opposite Reaction

by on March 16, 2010 7:00 AM

The only way to react is no reaction.

Parents of children under the age of 10 years old, I urge you to start practicing the art of non-reaction. Non-reaction is that flattened effect, fixed glaze, dull stare, no expression response to decisions made by your children when they become teens. The skill of the non-reaction will be tantamount when your children start dating.

Plan on spending the years from age 12 or 13 on in a constant state of non-reaction.

I’ve been writing in public for more than five years now and have in that time only occasionally jumped into the pool of sharing specifics about my kids. When I do, the stories usually reflect more on me than on them, and I generally give them a head’s up before I reference something from their past. I try not to share the embarrassing stuff that we all have in our histories. The only time I’ve really felt the heat was when I revealed that I let my oldest child win at Memory Game when she was little. She said she never knew that and that she used to tell all of her friends she was really good at it because “I beat my Mom all the time.” My bad.

But, as a parent of teenagers who occasionally have interest in spending time with other teens, sometimes romantically, I can no longer hold my tongue. There is nothing more difficult than watching your son or daughter participate in this ritual of adolescence called dating. 

My advice? It’s best to learn not to react.

It starts off something like this: A name will come up a bit more frequently in conversations at the dinner table about friends and school. When you ask your kid, “Who are you texting?” that same name comes up again. The next step is that your son or daughter will report that they are going to “hang out” with that person but “we are just friends.” The final stage is notification on Facebook that your kid’s status has changed to “in a relationship.” (If you don’t have Facebook and don’t know what I’m talking about, you are in big trouble. Get familiar with the online social networks now as it is the only way you’ll really know what’s going on with your kids). Soon, this new name is hanging out at your house, eating all your food and sitting a little too close to your kid on the couch for Mom and Dad's comfort.

This is also a good time to buy a chain saw. Not to worry. You don’t have to actually use it. Just placing it on the kitchen table for optimal viewing is usually enough. My husband also started spending a lot of time cleaning his guns.

It’s at this crucial point in their relationship that you, as a parent, must become a statue. A mannequin. Stone-faced. You must learn to be non-reactive.

Let’s say the kid who is suddenly in every conversation and spending every waking minute with your child is the brat from pre-school who used to pinch your kid when the teacher wasn’t looking. Don’t bring it up. What if you wanted to pinch that kid yourself when the teacher wasn’t looking when you chaperoned the field trip in 6th grade? Don’t even mention it. What if her father is prison and his mother is a pole dancer? Ignore it.  

If you react negatively, you may as well start planning the wedding now. Remember that teenagers love stuff that their parents hate for no other reason than parents hate it.

Likewise, if you adore the kid and his family, can already picture your “mother of the bride” gown or have been friends with her parents for decades, it’s better to just remain neutral. If you like the suitor too much, it’s the kiss of death on the relationship.

Practice the non-reaction.

“Hi Mom. Charles Manson is coming over tonight to watch movies and hang out. Is that okay?” What did you say dear? Hmmm. Yes. That will be fine. Whatever you decide."

“Hey Dad. Bill Gates’ daughter has asked me to come over to her house for dinner tonight. She sits next to me in math and I think she’s kind of cute. Are you okay with that?” "Whatever, Honey. You always pick nice friends. Has anyone seen my glasses?"

Too strong of a reaction either way will change the way your children see you, the significant other and their future. 

My husband and I try not to get too excited either way when there is a new “special friend” in the house.   We’ve trained ourselves not to react. We’ve seen other parents go ballistic in reaction to a candidate that they viewed as unsuitable and it becomes a huge power struggle which then pushes their kid into secrecy and lying. Think Romeo and Juliet.

We’ve also seen parents invite middle school boyfriends or girlfriends to accompany their family on week-long vacations, drown the kid with presents at Christmas and then cry when the relationship doesn’t last. Yikes.

There have been kids who I would have put on the first ship to outer space within 10 minutes of meeting them and others who we genuinely missed having around when the relationship was over. My reaction is always the same: no reaction.

It’s all part of the process. I have a friend who calls all of his daughter's boyfriends "Jack." He figures that sends just the right message. Don't get too comfortable; you really aren't that important.

Parents of dating teenagers don’t react. Close the door. Scream into the pillow. Laugh in the car when you are alone with your spouse. Subtly help them identify what is positive about the relationship and continually remind them that they deserve to be treated with respect. Role model healthy relationships.

In public?  No reaction.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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