Why your teenager thinks you’re an idiot

Emma Beddington cherishes the days when her sons saw her as a goddess. But they have entered a new phase of life in which their parents are buffoons …

‘Do you think I’m stupid?” Sooner or later as a parent, you will hear yourself say this. You can’t help it. The question just falls out of your mouth, without being consciously formulated in your brain. It’s an impotent rhetorical flourish inherited from your forefathers, a piece of indignant punctuation when your child has just told you, for instance, with a straight face, that they “don’t know” where their phone is.

But of course it’s not rhetorical for your children and their answer is yes, they think you are stupid. Very stupid. You have reached the point in your parenting life when your status has shifted, irrevocably, from hero to tedious fool. Congratulations!

It has happened to me twice now. My elder son is 14; his brother is only 12, but with the habitual precocity of second children, he has already mastered the art of finding me completely idiotic. They are both in the middle of exams. I may be an inadequate human being of underwhelming professional achievements (my sons certainly think so), but I have never met an exam I couldn’t ace. I love exams, but my revision skills have been declared redundant: I am too stupid to be trusted. I am banned from any involvement in maths or science and my proffered index cards and highlighters are greeted with an enthusiasm normally reserved for my (now long retired) suggestions that we go on nice country walks together. The elder is dodging my attempts to engage him in stimulating debate on feudalism; the younger has taken to correcting my pronunciation when I try to test him on his Chinese vocabulary, a superior smile playing around the corners of his lips.

Thwarted, I cornered the elder on the stairs this morning to give him some last minute advice. As I started to expound on my carefully honed technique for answering questions you haven’t revised for, my son placed his hands on my shoulders and looked at me with a distant, benign, oddly familiar expression. It was, I realised, the expression I adopt when watching videos of bumbling pandas falling out of trees on YouTube. They’re funny for a few seconds, but basically ridiculous.

“I’m going now,” he said, gently but firmly, cutting me off in full flow. Then he patted me on both cheeks. This is my life now. I have become that bumbling panda falling out of a tree, subjected by turns to waves of sarcasm, teensplaining and condescension.

Life used to be so easy. I was an oracle. A goddess, I could conjure wonders. My children trusted me implicitly. I only had to show them a fuzzy video clip of an owl on a skateboard, bake a lopsided Pikachu cake, or expound, sketchily, on gravity or the Vikings to be lauded a hero. Now they laugh hysterically when I try to impart some rudimentary sex education advice, deal with Scart cables or express an opinion on Syria.

I confess that a degree of midlife befuddlement has crept up on me of late, coinciding unhappily with the sharpening of my children’s critical faculties. Do I know what they mean when they say they need to “buy more Ram” or “enable SLI”? No. Have I really asked my younger son five times whether he has swimming tomorrow? Perhaps – I can’t rule it out. Recently they have derived great pleasure from repeatedly showing me a video in which you have to calculate the probability of there being a goat or a car behind a set of three doors, which leaves me tearful with confusion. When their father and I eat and drink too much, then fall asleep on the sofa in front of Britain’s Got Talent, waking hours later in dishevelled, drooling bafflement, it only serves to confirm their belief that we are basically Roald Dahl’s Twits.

As parents of bilingual children, we are at an additional disadvantage. I sound like a simpleton speaking French, mistakenly referring to Mrs Pencil Sharpener, Mr Interview and Mrs Tentacle, whereas both boys like to persuade their father to say things like “Thirsk” and “wide-mouthed frog”, just to mock his French accent.

Of course, we are far from alone and that is some comfort. All teenagers think their parents are stupid. It’s an evolutionary imperative: a cruel, but near universal one, motivating them to leave the nest and us to eject them. When my son teensplains the causes of the first world war to me (a modern history graduate), I remember the conservation biologist whose son teensplained the need for renewable energy to her and her (alternative energy consultant) husband, and another acquaintance who was treated to a lecture on menstruation from her 11-year-old son. We are all in it together (“it” being the idiot soup of adulthood), baffled and incompetent, barely able to operate our remote controls without assistance.

Following in the wake of generations of stupid parents who don’t get it, we embattled husks of people have gleaned a few survival strategies from our forebears. First, it can be comforting to think that there may be a degree of karmic comeuppance involved: you did it to your parents and some years hence, your children will suffer in turn.

As a teenager, I was certainly convinced of my vast intellectual superiority over my parents, Professor Beddington and Professor Baldwin, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. My father has a mathematical model named after him, but I spent six years believing him to be the stupidest individual ever to walk the face of the earth. So outlandishly stupid did I believe him to be that I walked 10 paces behind him in the street, a punishment now regularly meted out to me by my own offspring. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. I look forward to watching any future grandchildren I may have trail my sons at a surly, disgusted distance.

But what, if anything, can we do about it? There are two schools of thought. The first says don’t try too hard. You know how cats are attracted to the people who give them the least attention? Teenagers are basically cats (children aged four to 10 are labradors, obviously, and the under-fours are the product of some unholy union of howler monkey and honey badger).

Do not, whatever you do, attempt to ingratiate yourself by being “cool” in any way. We all remember how awful the teachers who tried to be down with the kids were: don’t do it. Stories of your partying or your festival-going are revolting: they do not care that you saw Radiohead in 1992 before they were famous or once shared a urinal with Bobby Gillespie. Do not say “sick” or “fleek” or similar. Plough your own austere, consistently adult furrow. My stepfather spent much of my and my sister’s teenage years reading Turgenev and smoking roll-ups in the back yard: this earned him a sort of gradual, grudging respect from us. If you follow this approach religiously, you may occasionally be rewarded by a languid advance: a head laid on your shoulder as you watch television or an off-hand request to be shown how to make chocolate chip cookies or solve a quadratic equation. You may not. The key thing is not to care too much one way or the other.

Alternatively, you can prove them right. Ham it up: wear a cagoule in public, say you really love that new tune from Asos then start singing it loudly and ask them if they still like that nice Floella. Be the buffoon they think you are: there’s something very restful about being viewed as little more than a ludicrous, cash-dispensing flesh puppet. After all, you can’t disappoint a teenager because they already expect the worst of you.

The thing is, I love teenagers – mine and others. For all the scorn and the ridicule and the galling refusal to listen to my excellent advice, they are wonderful company: funny, intensely alive and exploding with ideas, the most vivid distillation of what it is to be human. I truly feel lucky just to be around them (except when I want to kill them. I’d say it’s 50:50 right now).

The more I think about it, the more I’m tempted to conclude that perhaps we just need to accept their verdict: we are stupid. It’s their world now and we, with our climate change extinctions, homophobia and Brexit flotillas, are merely messing it up for them. My friend Barbara recently asked her teenage daughter if there was anything she could do to stem the flow of adolescent scorn coming her way. “Don’t be a twat,” said her daughter.

Words to live by, fellow idiots.


Emma Beddington

The GuardianTramp

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