A scant 40-something years ago, my friend Nina had a wicked crush on Brad, a hunky senior, two years older than we. Having determined from the “I-like-him-do-you-think-he-likes-me?” grapevine that Brad might not be averse to spending a Saturday evening with Nina, but still too shy to ask out a B-O-Y, Nina concocted a stratagem. She bought two tickets to a University of Miami football game. (The only backstory needed is that Nina enjoyed football as much as you and I would look forward to an un-anesthetized medical procedure. The only historical context is that a “date” typically involved both an activity and some awkwardness.) Nina "inadvertently" dropped the tickets near Brad’s locker. Brad bent down to pick them up and conversation ensured. Nina pretended that she had won the tickets from a radio program—in the late 1960s, girls did not ask out boys—and Brad duly rose to the bait. He suggested that he escort Nina to the game.
Through a series of preparations that made the invasion on Normandy seem logistically simple, Nina convinced her parents that she was “spending the night with her friend, Colleen” and headed out with Brad. They had a pretty good time; one thing led to another; and now they have been happily married since Jimmy Carter was in office. They have children and grandchildren and lovingly tell the story of how grandma had her eye on grandpa back in high school. The only problem of course is that Nina has spent the past several decades professing that she enjoys football. I don’t pretend to have any great insights into their marriage. I just wonder if Brad ever found out that subterfuge was what got everything started. I wonder if Nina still affects a predilection for college sports.
I am aware that this generation of adolescents is exposed only to happily everything ever after, even happily every nanosecond. I know even less about social media than I do about happy marriages, but my perception is that everybody else’s every meal is surf and turf; that their days are filled with fulfilling exercise, their nights with glorious social gatherings. The departed loved ones of posters are mourned and missed, their current partners are “special” and their “best friend.” You know that holiday card emphasizing how great the year was, how everyone in the family is employed, thriving, and ecstatic? Postings about Billy’s new job and Susie’s outgoing personality are quotidian reminders of how much better everybody else is doing. The reality—that Billy is laboring at a soul-numbing, minimum wage misery and that Susie goes on an endless series of unfulfilling first dates—is seldom mentioned.
The take-aways for loving parents are straightforward: 1) Limit exposure to, have access to, and communicate with your kids about their social media. No child has enough money to buy a smart phone. “Would you like a phone? Good. Here’s how it works: I know where you are; I read your texts if and when I feel like I have a need to; the phone is yours from nine in the morning until nine at night.” 2) You might as well be yourself; everyone else is taken. I suppose it’s possible that your eighth grade peer flew on a private jet to have dinner in a hot tub with Tom Brady but I wouldn’t mortgage the farm. 3) Every family is different. Yes, Tiffany down the street has no curfew and is living on a 37-foot boat moored behind her eight thousand square foot house. Tiffany apparently chose the right parents. You, however, have to help me with the dishes.
As always, every “no” has to have a “yes.” No, you can’t have your smart phone after 9:00 pm, but yes, you can read a book, make cookies, play board games with your parents, go for a run with the dog, make a fire in the backyard, build a nuclear submarine in the basement, start a foreign war, or run for political office. Admittedly, some of these possibilities are more likely than others, but look how many there are. The reality is that most of your contemporaries are suffering through the agony that is adolescence just as brutally as you are—their happy, happy, joy, joy postings on social media notwithstanding. Creating a fake persona on social media is as much fun as pretending you enjoy college football if you don’t. Trying to live up to being the person you invented is a hard path to walk. Take it from an old friend of Nina’s: you’re better off just being you.