I was babysitting this sixteen year old a few weeks ago — her mom had asked me to stay with her for a few days — and the kid invited some friends over. I had no problem with it, because better here than somewhere else, right? Of course, a few kids turned into a few more, which turned into a full-blown party as news spread, and that’s when I put my foot down and sent everyone home. The kid had a temper tantrum after everyone left. She yelled me and told me that I was “ruining her life”, to which I replied “life’s not fair,” (I’ve always wanted to tell someone that) and she ran upstairs and refused to talk to me for the rest of the night.
This kind of behavior is alien to me. I was never like her, when I was growing up. I never searched for ways to deliberately flout the rules, I never looked for openings, vulnerabilities in my parents’ guidelines for me. I did what they asked of me, mostly. I did engage in some liberties — I did stuff with boys, and I smoked pot a few times — but I never really pushed the boundaries, not like some of my other friends. I always knew when it was time to go home.
It wasn’t because I respected their rules. I distinctly remember thinking how stupid my curfew was, how lame it was that they still wouldn’t let me watch R-rated movies. And I wasn’t afraid of punishment — my parents never quite knew what to do to discipline me. So why was I such a good kid?
The truth is, I felt sorry for my parents. They were such fish out of water in America, not only dealing with the struggles of raising a teenager (which every parent finds difficult), but with understanding this culture. How could I subject them to underage drinking, how could I fly my drug use in their face, how could I embarrass them by getting caught at a rowdy party? I was in it for myself, certainly — I wanted to have a good time, just as much as the girl I was watching wants to have a good time. But I also felt a strong sense of loyalty to my family — my floundering, on-the-edge family — that I don’t think this kid has. I felt like I was on the same team as them, like it was us against the world, and we could only win if I did my best to stay on the path of righteousness.
In contrast, this girl’s parents are established in the community; they’ve raised two children before her, they’re world-weary and ever-wise to the machinations of teenagers. They know exactly what she’s up to, and they’re not going to have any of it. My parents had a naive trust in me that I could not help but honor — they couldn’t imagine that I would do anything to jeopardize their success as an immigrant family.
I’ve seen what happens when immigrant kids start acting too much of their own accord, and start ignoring their parents’ rules. It’s heartbreaking. Immigrant parents don’t know what to do in these kinds of situations; they lack the cultural fluency to understand that teenage rebellion is a normal, American pastime. They’re just so hurt that their child would do this to them. They either become draconian in their disciplining efforts, or they lose control over their child completely, abandoning them to a culture they don’t understand. Child and parent might make up later, when the kid has got all the rebellion out of their system — or they never do, leaving a wound that never quite heals. There’s nothing sadder than a dysfunctional family — especially if said family is from a culture which prioritizes one’s home life above everything else.
I don’t regret being a goody-two-shoes, back then. I did what I did because I respected my parents. I was able to make my childhood as easy as possible for them, and I’m happy I spared them so much pain. I never had the pain of making my mother sit through an uncomfortable parent-teacher conference; I never had to see my father’s face after coming home from a party broken up by the cops. They never had to worry that I wasn’t getting enough structure, they never debated sending me to India for my relatives to “straighten me out”, they just had Jaya, perfect child who brought home a perfect report card, and who never gave them reason to be alarmed.
A person cannot identify wholly with their family forever — at some point, they need to form an identity of their own, in order to survive in this intensely individualistic world we live in. Teenage rebellion is important. It’s developmentally important. It signals that the child is developing an identity of their own, separate from everything they’ve known up until now. This process is clumsy. Teenagers will define themselves according to who they’re not — they will find the people closest to themselves and they will reject them completely, staying emotionally distant until hormones calm down and perspective is obtained.
I gave my parents the gift of a stress-free adolescence, at the expense of my own personal development. If I had gotten some obligatory angst out of the way, it might have been easier to start down the path to adulthood. Because I eventually rebelled — everyone must, at some point — and rebelling as an adult is more dangerous than rebelling as a child. Jobs were abandoned, bills were left unpaid, and university was placed on indefinite hold, as I struggled to make sense of who I was. After all my efforts to make things easy for my parents in my childhood, I ended up eventually making their lives much harder, by falling apart completely as an adult.
Should I have lived my life as this kid I babysit does? In it for myself, not caring about the consequences, chasing after each momentary pleasure at the expense of my parents’ peace of mind? Maybe. But I wouldn’t give up those Sunday mornings for anything, when we’d make brunch, when my parents would go over my latest test or paper that received a good mark, where we’d laugh and joke over the paper or the talking heads on the television. It seems strange to remember, now that I’ve turned into the cautionary tale of my family, but my parents used to brag about me on the phone to our relatives. I might not have given myself the chance to understand who I was, but I got something else out of that period of my life; I experienced the joy of belonging to a family that loved me, unconditionally and completely. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.