BOSTON — The year our oldest child entered middle school, we were warned by the principal to expect monumental changes in her behavior.
"Don't be surprised," he cautioned the assembled parents of incoming sixth-graders, "if, in the next three years, your child goes through periods when he or she appears to have had a personality transplant."
Optimistically, we felt we would be spared the worst, that our firstborn, though a willful two-year-old, would prove a more tractable adolescent.
I should have known better.
Halfway through seventh grade, she came home from a Saturday morning bar mitzvah service sneezing, nose running, eyes watery, and announced she was headed for the mall. When I suggested she rest before the evening party, she insisted she felt fine. More important, she had promised to meet friends for lunch.
I grew insistent; she turned surly. Soon we were locked in screaming confrontation, neither willing to yield an inch. Finally, I blocked the front door and announced, "You're not going anywhere, young lady, but to your room!"
She squared off against me with uncharacteristic boldness and declared, "You can't stop me!" and with those four words embarked on a period of adolescent obstinacy that shattered all my illusions and disrupted our home for the next year.
The same child who six months earlier had written impassioned letters from summer camp expressing her love and homesickness now wanted nothing so much as to be quit of her parents. What she had long known and appreciated, that we always had her best interests at heart, she suddenly ignored. So for the next 12 months I referred to her sardonically as "Sleeping Beauty."
She was right about one thing; fathers of rapidly maturing adolescent girls cannot expect to use physical force to control or persuade. My daughter was long past the stage when I might pick her up and carry her, kicking and screaming, to her room.
Though I couldn't restrain her physically, I realized I possessed an almost endless arsenal of gentle coercions. Her ceaseless requests for chauffeuring; bottomless desire for new clothes; befuddlement before homework assignments; and visceral need for the telephone - provided invaluable leverage.
Her weekly allowance, the rides to soccer practice, to girlfriends' homes, to the mall, all required our money, time, and goodwill.
Suddenly, she discovered, she could take none of these privileges for granted. It was a painful lesson. But since she was functioning at less than peak capacity, she learned best viscerally, through want rather than reason. The only means of persuasion was deprivation.
We kept the equation as simple as possible: You do A against our wishes, you lose B. She ranted and raved, attempting to wear us down verbally, then stormed off to her room to solicit the support of her friends by phone, telling them loudly enough for us to hear, "I hate my parents! They're so unfair!" But nine times out of ten she weighed the choice and decided it was in her best interests not to defy us. Gradually, blessedly, her conscience awoke from its long sleep and confrontations diminished.
The other day as she overheard her younger sister argue with me over curfews, she came to my defense, reminding her sister what time she had come home at that age. I couldn't help but smile. It was wonderful to have her back on the side of reason, a knowing ally as I prepared to face another 12-year-old daughter battling sleep.
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