The parent trap: no teen time

A year after Columbine, parents try harder to pierce emotional walls teens erect. Last in a series.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's 9 a.m., and Naperville North's team of volunteer moms is pumping out a school mailing with the dexterity of a major league infield turning double plays. Peel off the address label, slap it on the envelope, fold the piece of paper, stuff. Repeat.

"We've gotten really good at this kind of stuff with all our experience over the years," laughs bubbly, green-clad Susan Tangen.

There must be machines for this nowadays, but they're expensive for a public high school, and then, when would they get a chance to get together and talk? And there's so much to talk about. Kids these days! Their clothes! That hair! Those grades!

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Those guns.

It has always been tough to be a parent of a teenager. Your child is in turn sullen and sunny, evasive and responsible, loving and absent. They are close to leaving you forever, and they do not understand how heartbreaking that can be.

Now, to the many fears that keep parents awake, a word has been added: Columbine.

These moms say that the tragic shootings in Colorado, in a school very much like this one in western suburban Chicago, has reemphasized the need for adults to push through the emotional screens teenagers can erect and remain connected to their lives.

"It's gotten people thinking about the 'whys?' " says Isabella Dudreck, the frosted-blonde mother of two Naperville North students.

One thing this group wonders about is the way their children treat classmates. Take teasing. They didn't used to worry about it. They thought it was a phase - acceptable behavior. Now they don't.

Ever since Columbine, says Ms. Dudreck, she's been tougher with her teens when they disrespect other kids.

"When I hear mean stuff in the car, I'll whip around and say, 'Excuse me? What gives you the right to say that?' " she says. "They just don't realize that words can hurt - and that they can't take them back."

Since Columbine, they've become attentive to how closely teachers and other parents interact with students in their high school. They know that some parents start reorienting their lives away from their children when they become freshmen and first walk through North's doors.

"But high school is when they need us most," says Ms. Tangen.

She slaps a label on extra hard, for emphasis.

High income, high turnover

For many parents, Naperville, Ill., is a stop middle and upper managers make on the road to the corner office. Its northern edge is lined with new office towers, monuments to the Information Age economy. Its subdivisions are full of minimansions, crammed together on small lots.

It features both prosperity and the transience that prosperity can bring.

"When we first moved here, we lived in a house for seven years. And in that time,14 out of our 15 closest neighbors moved," says Marianne Boyajian, head of the Naperville North Home and School Association and mother of two current North students.

The town's high-achievement parents have high expectations for their kids and their kids' schools. They knock themselves out for their children, says Ms. Boyajian, and expect other parents to do likewise.

Many of the teens respond by doing well. Boyajian's boys both have grade point averages of around 3.97 - and that doesn't even put them in the top 10 percent of their North classes.

"There are kids there who are so bright they're scary," she says.

Not everyone agrees with this depiction of "Naperville Nice." Luz and Will Schuck call it "Pleasantville," after the annoyingly strait-laced town depicted in the movie of the same name. They claim it is cliquish and run by an old-boy network.

The academic success of Asian-heritage students has created some tensions at North, claim the Schucks, who head a 20-member Diversified Parents Association.

"There's no tolerance here for anyone or anything that's different," says Luz, who is of Mexican descent. "They don't even know enough to be ashamed of their attitudes."

School officials, for their part, say parent involvement with the community's education effort is substantial. For the past two years, the school district has offered one-day outreach seminars for parents called "Setting Limits and Carrying Out Consequences." The workshops are on Saturdays, and all slots are taken, every time.

In fact, there's already a waiting list for next year, even though budget restrictions have forced the district to start charging admission. Most parents know that kids think they're clueless. Many want - in some cases, desperately want - to learn how to counteract that impression.

"[Parents] are screaming for good stuff," says Sandy Stelmach, district student-assistant program coordinator.

Parenthood, in just 10 minutes a day

They're also screaming for time. In modern life, where 24/7 is a phrase that no longer needs explanation and "Internet time" is a period that makes a New York minute look like an hour, the sheer pace of getting and spending keeps parents and their teenagers apart.

North junior Amy Norman figures that she sees her parents, on average, 10 minutes a day. Her dad works at a Honda dealership, and her mother at a local college, and both often work nights.

Amy herself has a 25-hour-a-week job in the handbag section of a Marshall Fields department store. She starts at 4:30, right after school - which is why she can sometimes be found napping in eighth-hour study hall, with a foot-thick stack of textbooks as a pillow for her head.

On a good night, Amy says, she and her father both walk in the door at 10 p.m. and sit down to a late-night dinner together.

Lacking physical oversight of many of their teens' waking hours, parents often suspect that they don't really know what's going on in their kids' lives.

They're right to worry. They may not.

A group of senior boys, after a lively session talking about drinking, drugs, and driving, quiets down a bit when asked if their parents know everything they do. They admit that Naperville adults don't get the full story about the town's teen nocturnal activities.

'I would blatantly lie'

One says he withholds things because his parents' reactions would be disappointment, not anger, and he doesn't want to damage their feelings.

"It would hurt them inside," he says.

Another says he sees his parents as both friends and legitimate disciplinarians, but that there is no way he would tell them about drinking and partying.

He claims they overreact and banish him to his room to study just for bringing home a bad grade.

"I would blatantly lie," he says.

That's what Gerard Fleiger's son did.

Mr. Fleiger (not his real name) and his wife had noticed that their son's grades were sliding and his demeanor was more withdrawn. They chalked it up to adolescent malaise.

Then one day Fleiger received a call at the high-tech company where he is an engineer. It was the morning of his son's 18th birthday.

His son was waiting in the office of a nurse counselor. When Fleiger walked in the room, he grabbed his son's sweatshirt and put it to his nose. Pot, unmistakably.

"I looked at him and said, 'I can't believe you did something like this.' I was blown away," says Fleiger.

His contrite son said he'd been smoking marijuana for three years before he'd been caught. He went straight to a rehab program at a local hospital and was suspended from school for a week.

"It was a horrible awakening," says his mother. "Here's a child you would give your life for, and you know he had been looking us in the eye and lying. They get good at that."

The son's grades are now up a bit, and he'll probably get into a college in downstate Illinois. Eventually, he wants to transfer out to Colorado. He says he hasn't used drugs since being caught and won't anymore.

"I feel like I have my sweet child back again ... but the fear of him going back to that stuff is always with me," says his mother.

The big game

It's 6 p.m., and outside it's dim and the weather is deteriorating. Inside the gym, it's warm and the lights are bright and the place is full of face-painted students, screaming parents, and that special we're-playing-our-archrival pumpedness.

The game is volleyball, Naperville North versus Naperville Central. It bears no resemblance to a hit-and-giggle session on the beach. Central serves, and then the North team bumps the ball up and sets it, lobbing an easy arc just their side of the net. Outside hitter Rich Hillesheim leaps, coils like a bow, and smashes a hard spike that Central can't reach. Point.

His parents are on their feet. "Nice shot Rich!" shouts his father, Rick. "Way to go!"

"I get into the game," he adds in an apologetic aside as he settles into his seat next to his wife, Chris. The Hillesheims have three boys. The oldest is in medical school. Rich, a senior, is their middle child. His younger brother is a sophomore and also a varsity volleyball player.

Outside interests like sports and music have given the boys something to do after school and helped teach them discipline, says Mr. Hillesheim. Religious faith has helped instill morals. They need all this grounding because of the many challenges that face young people today, says Mrs. Hillesheim.

"They are bombarded with far more than we ever were. They are bombarded on all sides: TV, music, peer pressure," she says. "It has forced kids to make moral judgments in an almost amoral society."

That means parents should be taking on an even greater role in their teens' lives, say the Hillesheims. In fact, they feel the opposite is happening. In their experience, parents are often absent from Naperville homes, in a mental sense if not a physical one. They're too busy with marketing strategies, product roll-outs, litigation aftermaths, and all the other aspects of climbing corporate ladders.

The Hillesheims used to let their kids go over to friends' houses without worrying. Not anymore. "Parents used to stick together. Now it's like we almost have to fight parents," Mrs. Hillesheim says.

Further up, in the very top row of bleachers in North's cavernous gym, sits a man in a blue pinstripe suit and a slightly loosened tie. He nervously taps a loafer and peers down at the court as the boys below serve and spike.

He's a bond trader named Victor Chang, and he scurried out of his downtown office just in time to catch a 90-minute train ride so he could see the North team play. His son, Winston, plays volleyball year-round, while juggling school work and an active social life.

"Growing up today is a much more difficult feat," says Mr. Chang. He works longer hours than his father did, so he has less time to provide parental support. He says kids don't seem to relish simple joys anymore. A trip to the mall used to be a treat. Now it's ho-hum - but they whine if they don't get to go.

But what worries him the most, he says, is that his son is growing up in a time when everything is relative - when society doesn't seem to be able to agree on what's good and what's evil. Recently, Chang balked when his son wanted to see a movie that he felt glorified the supernatural.

"Part of what you are is what you ingest visually," Chang says.

A few rows down in the bleachers, Deirdre Nelson has her own movie story, which she recalls while bouncing excitedly as her son, Ben, plays below. Ben talked to her recently about having seen the movie "The Sixth Sense." The film contained images that he said he couldn't get out of his head.

He agreed with his mom that, even though he was 17, maybe he didn't need to go see every scary movie that comes around. "Maybe I'll pick and choose," he said.

Outside, it's dark now. A late spring storm is moving in, and by tomorrow it will be pelting weather-hardened Chicagolanders with cold rain and snow. Graduation is in a few weeks, and Naperville North's seniors will be moving on to a life where they get to pick and choose even more. The juniors will inherit their lockers and their lunchroom and their belief that they own the school. The sophomores will become juniors who think the seniors aren't so great. The freshmen will finally - finally! - not be freshmen anymore.

And so it goes, the high school circle of life.

The game? North wins. Huskies rule.

*Parts 1, 2, and 3 ran on April 20, 21, 24.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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