Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Truthiness of Teens


It all started back in May, when I was called out of town. My husband, Ed, was on a business trip, so I decided to entrust the kids to Meiko, just back from college in New York. Almost 20 years old, and overseeing two younger siblings on a Wednesday night during track and field season, I figured very little could go wrong. I would only be gone 36 hours after all, flying out before sunrise and returning the next evening.

Everything went great, or so I thought. A couple of weeks later we attended a friend's graduation party and I happened into a puzzling conversation.

"Katja, how'd you like Imogen Heap?" our friend asked.

"Imogen Heap ... did you see Imogen Heap?" I asked. 'I've been a fan of her music since my daughters introduced me to it.

"Oh, it was good," Katja answered curtly.

"Wait, wait, I'm confused ... where did you see Imogen Heap? When was she here?" I continued.

By this point Katja had no choice but to tell all. She decided to take the cavalier approach.

"Oh, Meiko and I went to the Rave to see her that night you were in Buffalo. It was no big deal, we were home by 10, I didn't have any homework, it was after track practice ... we didn't even decide to go until the last minute. It was no big deal ... "

So all that time when I thought they were snug at home, eating a dinner that Meiko cooked, doing their homework and going to bed on time, they were actually at a club for a show? When I got home from the party I confronted Meiko.

"God, Mom, why are you making a big deal over nothing? It's just a show. We got home early."

Even Malachi, who stayed home that night, was defensive. "They can go to a show on a week night. Chill, Mom ... "

They ran the quintessential teenage tactic on me: You are creating a problem out of nothing. And I ran the quintessential parental response on them: If it's nothing, why didn't you tell me in the first place?

Actually, if I'd known Imogen Heap was in town for only one show and it happened to be that night, I probably would have let the girls go, or even accompanied them myself (while standing on the other side of the room incognito). Or if they'd told me they were considering going, and it happened to be on the night I was out of town, I probably would have told them to go ahead.

But it also was possible I would insist they not go. Katja had a track meet the next day, and wasn't she sniffling with a cold? And what would Malachi be doing at home without supervision? If I'd said no, they would have confronted the temptation to go anyway since I would never know, and then lie about it. So the girls decided to bypass possible parental resistance and exploit the fortuitous timing.

There is something so satisfying about getting away with something. Last night at a restaurant, Katja admired our server's pen and flirted with the idea of taking it. I slid past a stop sign the other day when there was no one nearby. I often drive with my fuel light on to see how far I can get on positive thoughts and fumes. We like to feel out our boundaries and bounce off our fences. The French political and moral philosopher Simone Weil describes risk as an essential need of the soul, and who knows this better than teenagers?

How fun to decide at the last second, "Let's go to the show!" To hurriedly get dressed and drive downtown, to come home, go to bed, wake up the next day and pretend nothing special happened, and to have that little sibling bond of secrecy that we have all enjoyed.

On one hand, I hate to deprive my teenagers of that archetypal rite: sneaking around. On the other hand, I can't condone it. If I did, then it wouldn't be sneaking around. They'd have to up the ante even more to satisfy their need for risk. Once again, I have to keep the fences firm and let them bump up against them.

They finally relinquished the argument and admitted that if it really was no big deal, they would have told me or Ed about it, if not before the show, then soon thereafter. Instead of grounding or punishing them in any traditional sense, Ed and I wanted the girls to think about the situation. We gave them a writing assignment: 500 words or more on the nature of truth. We wanted them to think about truth, what it means, what it entails, and what the consequences might be of avoiding, hiding, distorting, or not revealing the entire truth. To compare and contrast "truth" and Stephen Colbert's truthiness. And how is truth related to trust? The writing could be a poem, story, personal essay, play, research paper, or whatever genre they chose.

Today's the deadline to get their writing assignments in to me. Meiko goes back to college tomorrow, and she and Katja have had all summer to contemplate the assignment. So they should have no problem getting their 500 words in by 5pm today. I'll let you know what they come up with.

Peggy Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hawaii and New York. She is the author of a poetry collection, Three Truths and a Lie (forthcoming, Water Press and Media); the poetry chapbooks Lies and Fables and The Sister Who Swallows the Ocean (CrowLadies Press); and a fine art letterpress book, Hoofbeats (Gokiburi Press). Poetry publications include Spoon River Poetry Review, Rhino, Bamboo Ridge, and Mothering magazine, among others. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University with a dual concentration in poetry and fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband and three children, ages 18, 16, and 13. She teaches at Alverno College and Woodland Pattern Book Center.

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Wow I found this fascinating (am currently dealing with teens myself). My question is: what if they fail to do the writing assignments? It's a great "consequence" but do they have another consequence if they blow this one off?
Hi Susan, thanks for your response. They both came down to the wire. I told Katja she couldn't go out until it was done. I hounded her like a real editor. Meiko had to catch a plane. So they both had external pressure. Will tell you more next column!
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