November 8, 2013 6:45 pm

Too cool, daddy

‘As we discussed the various ways today’s youth could go off the rails, we realised that it is the parents who are the problem’
An illustration of a cool dad©Lucas Varela

It was during one of those pleasant, middle-class Sunday lunches that the hidden horror of the modern teenage dilemma struck me. As we sat discussing the various ways today’s modern youth could go off the rails, we realised that, this time, it really is the parents who are the problem.

The trouble, we decided, is that our generation was just too cool. We are chilled about sex before marriage; we wear their clothes – “hooded tops, Converse trainers” – play GTA5 and even like their music. There is just no reasonable outlet for a teenage rebellion. (For the avoidance of doubt, I should add that when I say “we” were too cool, I am of course referring to everyone else from my generation. There are many accusations that can be levelled at the teenage me but excessive chic is not one of them.)

It is clear that we have got to start setting the spawn a less stylish example. (Again, I use “we” in the broadest terms.) Is it any wonder they turn to extremes when all the most obvious ways to shock have such little impact? No self-respecting teen can enjoy modern rock stars if he may run into his parents at their gigs. It’s no use a boy covering his face with make-up only to be told that his dad did the same thing in the 1980s, and what use is a hot hatchback when your mum uses one to pop out to the shops? Even drugs are old hat to most parents. You have to go a fair way up the Class A scale to really worry them.

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Robert Shrimsley

It has all created a tremendous burden of expectation on the modern teen. Once upon a time all you had to do was make out with Natalie Wood in an old observatory to raise a stir; now it’s very hard to up the ante without going completely off a cliff. It is yet one more example of how the selfishness of our generation has made things harder for the next. We’ve wrecked their futures, stolen their clothes and built an economy that makes it impossible for them to move out. Now we are even stealing their ability to express themselves. They can still sulk around the house or vegetate in their bedroom plugged into some computer game, but where’s the shock value in that? To make matters worse we see their point of view and even empathise – it’s so unfair.

So with sex, drugs, fashion, music and shoplifting violent computer games all ruled out, where can a teen turn? You fear the lengths to which they will be driven. “Hi Dad, I’ve taken an apprenticeship with a Colombian drug cartel. Please forward my clothes and those large brick-like packages under my bed.”

The girl might try the Miley Cyrus, teen sex-beast route. This would worry me: I don’t mind the twerking but there’s simply no excuse for sticking out your tongue. In any case, we are taking preventive action. Each weekend we force her to undergo 30 minutes of gyration practice to her new “twerk like Miley” video. We cannot be sure that this will put her off the activity but it certainly worked with the clarinet.

There remains white-collar crime. All that time spent online offers some handsome opportunities. But the Americans have started to take a dim view of hacking, which certainly ruins a lot of the fun, and while they could doubtless hack into our bank accounts, they are doing a pretty thorough job of looting them openly.

There is, however, one remaining avenue for the spawn: tattoos. Younger parents may have closed off this avenue too but in our house they remain the perfect outlet for a rebellious teen. In part, my attitude is cultural; history has given Jews an understandable dislike of tattoos but a few decades back society was with me. No longer: discreet markings are utterly commonplace and full limb and torso defacement is increasingly mainstream. Many of the world’s most fashionable people, from Cara Delevingne to Harry Styles, are sullying their previously perfect bodies with the kind of graffiti that would not even beautify the wall of a bus depot.

But I remain steadfast on this, leaving my children a clear line of attack. I could try to put them off with some “body art” of my own. But it’s them or me – and even parental devotion has limits.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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