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09.08.10

A Mother's Struggles with Her Teen

Instead of just fighting with her daughter author Lauren Kessler decided to try to figure out what being a teenager was all about. She speaks to Hannah Seligson about her new book that goes deep into the teen psyche.

decided to try to figure out what being a teenager was all about. She speaks to Hannah Seligson about her new book that goes deep into the teen psyche.

In the fourth season premiere of AMC's Mad Men, there's a chilling scene at Thanksgiving dinner. Sally Draper, who is played by a 10-year-old actress, is force-fed sweet potatoes by her mother, the well-coifed housewife Betty Francis (formerly Betty Draper). Sally spits out the sweet potatoes, embarrassing Betty in front of her new mother-in-law. Betty wastes no time in yanking Sally away from the table to admonish her. We hear Sally yelling from the other room for her mother not to pinch her so hard.

Fast forward five decades, and mothers and daughters are still quibbling over food. Just ask Lauren Kessler, author of the new memoir My Teenage Werewolf Daughter: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence. Food is the source of many fights between Kessler and Lizzie, her 12-year-old daughter. Lizzie won’t eat breakfast or anything, really, that isn’t deep-fried cheese, but there is no force-feeding in this book, and no violent outbursts. Although given the way Lizzie behaves sometimes, one would hardly begrudge Kessler for losing her cool.

"When I put Lizzie in the position of being the expert on teen girl life, when I was asking her questions, the power dynamic changed," she says.

It’s 2010, and Betty’s parenting style is not exactly in vogue—all that disciplining, policing, and enforcing is passé, not to mention frightening. Parental expectations have changed radically over the last half century. Parenting in the Mad Men era was about the basics: food, shelter, and clothing. “Back then, there wasn’t that sense that a parent should connect with a kid,” Kessler told The DailyBeast. It’s from this premise—the desire to bond, connect, and understand her “mercurial, mascara-wand waving” adolescent daughter—that Kessler takes her deep dive into Lizzie’s world. “There is nothing I learned being the parent of two boys,” says Kessler. “I had to figure out how to parent a feisty, stubborn girl.” So she decides to educate herself by immersion. Kessler goes to school with Lizzie, sitting on the sidelines in her classes, signs on to be a counselor for a week at her summer camp, and even makes an effort to connect with Lizzie’s avatar on the 3-D virtual world IMVU.

book-cover---my-teenage-werewolf-1
My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence. By Lauren Kessler. 256 pages. Viking. $25.95. ()

Kessler’s mission to connect with and know her daughter is both understandable and admirable, but it makes one wonder why anyone would want such up-close-and-personal contact with a teen during a time when parents and children traditionally try to emancipate. “I think there is one school of thought that from the time kids are twelve to eighteen, you just hunker down and think that ‘This too shall pass,’” says Kessler. “But I absolutely don’t believe that. This is when a kid becomes who he or she is going to be, and it’s so fascinating to watch and to be in the trenches with it.” And there’s another motivation at play: She doesn’t want to repeat her own history—Kessler’s relationship with her mother went off course in the teen years and never fully repaired itself.

With Kessler’s sharp eye for detail and absorbing narrative voice, it is fascinating to watch Lizzie’s terrible teen hood unfold. The most compelling parts of the book are when Kessler weaves in her own experience parenting Lizzie within a broader context about teenagers. Her analysis of the teen brain—“It’s not a finished product”—explains how the frontal lobes, the seat of moral reasoning, rational decision making, emotional control, and impulse restraint is not fully developed the early to mid-twenties. Kessler writes, “I’m thinking it’s a wonder that any teen is capable of committing a rational act.” (Incidentally, this is brain research that was brought before the Supreme Court in case about whether federal law should continue to permit executions of 16-and-17-year-olds.)

Teens aren’t impaired; they just haven’t finished developing, making a case, perhaps, for oversight, guidance, and limits during these years. To that point, one of the insights from My Teenage Werewolf Daughter is that the right kind and dose of discipline still does the trick, even for a generation that’s more interested in their virtual world than the real world. Isn’t adolescence, after all, another way of saying it’s time to set new boundaries? Case in point: After Lizzie gets a “C” in math, Kessler and her husband, Tom, tell her she can’t use the Internet until pulls her grade up to a “B.” Lizzie, despite the threat of this draconian punishment, doesn’t get her grade to budge. Kessler and her husband make good on their promise, and enforce the punishment. Lizzie, maybe even subconsciously yearning for someone to draw a line in the sand, takes the punishment in stride.

It’s often been said, “The two worst times in a woman’s life are when she is thirteen and when her daughter is thirteen.” My Teenage Werewolf is a testament more to the latter part of that statement. Yes, being a teenager is tough, but Kessler is the one doing the mental acrobatics, trying figure out what’s “wrong” and how she can make her relationship with Lizzie better. So what is wrong? Lizzie can be irascible, defiant, sharp-tongued, and moody. In other words, she’s a teenager and that makes her infuriating. Kessler’s description of life with Lizzie makes one think of another adage, courtesy of Nora Ephron: "When your children are teenagers, it's important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you."

Above all, Kessler is a good sport and very likable. Throughout her foray into her daughter’s adolescence, she tries to take things in stride, like Lizzie sneaking out of her bunk at summer camp to rendezvous with an older, male counselor. While she emerges from her Jane Goodall-esque expedition into the underworld of the teenage species with some battle wounds, she is no doubt wiser. Kessler’s revelation, if you can call it that, is that the mother-daughter relationship, like a lot of other relationships, boils down to power: who has it, who doesn’t, how it’s going to be shared or not shared. It’s the undercurrent to every interaction she has with Lizzie, from dress shopping to food choices. By the end of the book, Kessler understands how to shift, maneuver, and wield these power dynamics more deftly. “When I put Lizzie in the position of being the expert on teen girl life, when I was asking her questions, the power dynamic changed,” she says.

So is writing a book about your child’s adolescence a panacea for adolescence? “We are not fighting as much,” says Kessler. “And now that we have the blog, we’ll take a step back during a fight and say, ‘We really ought to blog about this.’”

Plus:  Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Hannah Seligson is a journalist. Her book, A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It’s Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door, which spotlights and uncovers a major trend in dating today, the long-term unmarried relationship, was published by Da Capo Press on Jan. 15.