When I was a teenager, I always thought I was missing the party. It really bothered me. I was obsessed with being wherever the action was. Sometimes, I’d sit in my little bedroom and wonder, “is this as good as it gets?” Then I’d feel depressed and hopeless. Later, I’d go out and raise some kind of hell doing something completely dangerous and stupid. Each time I survived, I’d come home feeling better. If I couldn’t find the action, I’d make some and that would be good enough.
The lights didn’t flip on in my head until I met John and I became a parent-figure to his daughter. Suddenly, raising hell seemed stupid. I didn’t have to look for the party because we were perpetual hosts. When you have little kids, home has always got that edgy party-vibe.
When Lydian was born, she was no bigger than a sweet loaf of Sara Lee bread. When she piddled in her diaper, she weighed just enough for us to take her home at six pounds. But tucked inside that tiny body was all the fury and tribulation of a teenager, a time-bomb ticking down in giggles and tantrums.
We never spanked Lydi. She was raised on time-outs because John and I didn’t want her to ever reach an age when we felt like we couldn’t control her unless we hit her. We wanted her to learn how to control herself when she was little so that we could maybe…hopefully, encourage her to use that self-control again when she was old enough for it to really count.
I didn’t have much self-control when I entered puberty. I was not an easy teenager as a result and I made a lot of extra trouble for myself. I was petulant, moody, intelligent, and creative in coming up with things to do to entertain myself. I was an iconic and tireless trouble-maker. For me, the thought of raising a child, a girl no less, who could conceivably become like I was as a teenager is something that I’ve thought about at least once a day since Lydian was born. I’ve watched her closely for warning signs of angst and rebellion.
It’s one of the reasons why Lydi was homeschooled and one of the reasons why our family doesn’t
eat sugar (years ago, we’d keep candy bars in the glove box for “emergencies” when Lydi’s blood sugar would drop). But more than anything, travel abroad was something that John and I decided we’d do with Lydian when she got old enough to start having grown-up thoughts. Teenagers are naturally curious and excellent explorers. Rather than trying to stifle that tendency in Lydian, we wanted to go with it full-throttle.
We wanted Lydian to get to feel fear in all it’s different hues so that she’d be able to manage it and still think clearly when she’s scared since fear is a natural part of adulthood. We wanted her to see herself through the lens of different cultures and social groups. We wanted her to know that she was more than just how her group of friends see her. She’s more than how her family sees her and how her hometown sees her. As she builds her identity, we wanted her to realize that she’s as big and important and as a small and insignificant as she makes herself.
It’s a theory and the experiment hasn’t ended yet but so far, travel has worked for us a lot like a trampoline works for younger kids. Send the kids outside to play on the trampoline (with a net, of course) and they come back inside all sweaty and tame. When we go on a challenging excursion, we push Lydian to the edge of her limits, and then she has the opportunity to rise to the challenge and surprise herself. The process is emotionally exhausting for her. She digs her heels in a lot.
“In a few days, we’re going to get in a primitive wooden boat and travel to a remote area of Costa Rica to watch sea turtles nesting at midnight.”
Lydi’s response to this sort of news is always the same. She gets tense and quiet.
Eventually she explodes.
“It just sounds stupid!” She’ll say. “How are we gonna find the boat? Huh? There aren’t any street signs here! And how will we get back?” She yells at us.
“Morning honey, today we’re going to go fishing for pirahnas.”
“It’ll be fun…come on!”
Paradoxically, if we were at home, I believe that Lydian would be the one shocking us with her plans for the evening (if we knew them, of course because part of what makes crazy teenage plans seem fun is when there’s no voice of reason to point out the flaws). I prefer the status quo so much more.
Lydian has waded through swamps in the Amazon, she’s weathered the suffocating heat and humidity and subsequent “enlightenment” of a traditional temazcal ceremony in Mexico, she’s worked as a volunteer in a language school, and she’s ridden elephants into the jungle to hunt wild rhinos in Nepal. She’s flown over the Nazca lines in Peru and climbed the pyramids at Palenque. Each time we return to the states from our adventures she has some new experience to chew on. As she develops her identity, she can experiment with the outer reaches of her courage and focus by exploring the world. I doubt that she sits in her bedroom wondering if “this is as good as it gets”…but I guess I could ask her. She’s sitting right beside me (togetherness is another worthy by-product of travel with family).
It may seem reckless to travel into the “danger zone” in some nameless part of wherever with my family, but I view these choices as a trade-off. I’d rather explore the world with some calculation and at the very least, power in numbers than leave Lydian to explore by herself with her peers as she reaches the restless age of 16. Rather than being possessed by the need for a boyfriend, Lydian is focused on our upcoming sojourn into the Sahara Desert on a camel and our move to Egypt in the next two weeks where she’ll be taking master classes in bellydance. She notices boys (the ones in Iceland were particularly attractive to her for some reason), but she’s just not ready for that sort thing yet. She has other stuff to do.
As nervous as I feel about some of our travel escapades before we do them, I’d rather be scared to get in a dug-out canoe with Lydian and John in Nepal than worry that Lydian is drinking with her friends. I’d rather be concerned about taking her into the orange zone in Tunisia with John and me at her side than worry about whether or not she’s started smoking, sexting, or doing drugs. I guess that’s just my choice. Maybe I’m just choosing my battles in the hopes that they’ll be more like water-fights and less like the French Revolution. I’m sure she’ll still shock me someday, perhaps many times, but as her parent, I hope I’ve given her the skills to survive all the stupid chaos of her teenage years and early twenties so she doesn’t have to just get lucky like I did.