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  • All around me are parents who turn their unfulfilled dreams into life goals for their children
  • Teach your children the values of kindness, empathy, honesty, hard work, acceptance and courage 

I see them everywhere. They go about life fuelled on an unnamed emotion. They walk to Rap audible only to their ears covered in giant noise-cancelling headphones, tiny Airpods. Each one of them feels he is like no one else, yet they all seem indistinguishable. Unhurried, they move. Their destination is unknown. They are invisible.

Those who are young. A little more than children, think of themselves as anything but children, and are anything but grown-ups. The male teenager.

As the mother of an only child, a boy, my life revolves and revolved around his being. From the moment he was born to the hour he, 17, left for college in the US, every part of my son’s life is recorded in my mind like a meticulously maintained journal of a bright-eyed writer in an overcrowded creative writing class. I love children, and becoming a mother came as naturally to me as it was the one thing I was meant to be. I’m also very close to my 24-year-old niece, and my 15-year-old nephew, people my son, now 19, considers his siblings.

My indescribable-in-words bond with my son, my niece and nephew, and my other nephew, my brother’s son, made me a witness to their lives in their tiny diurnal realities, their giant issues, their innermost thoughts, their un-worded dilemmas, their noisy struggles, their many victories, their frequent disappointments, their messy anger, their weekly confusions, their loud fights, their wordless tears, their never-ending questions, their frustration at inadequate answers, their artless joys, their big heartbreaks, their many highs. Watching the children turn into teenagers and adults, I learnt a new meaning of life in its myriad colours, turning much that I knew on its clumsy head. Unlearning much, there were constant flashbacks of my own teens, with a recurring theme: of not being heard, of being invisible.

I see it all around me. Not much attention is paid. The life of a teenaged boy. Belonging to the class that is ostensibly the privileged one, or the one that uneasily fits into the definition of upper-middle, the teenage boy becomes a symbol of the apparent being the reality. While much is said about the issues of female teenagers, I feel an absence of attention towards those of male teenagers. It is as if the entirety of parental attention is on the outward manifestation of how to raise a good boy.

Boxes are ticked. Send the child to a good school, feed him well, buy him things, teach him to be respectful to elders, check his room for hidden cigarettes, smell his clothes for traces of prohibited liquor, note with relief that all his friends are ‘people like him’, and keep a tab on his evening outings. Things are the way they are. But they’re anything but. All is well. Only it isn’t.

The image

A gaping hole exists in the picture of a well-settled teenaged male. As he covers his still-developing body in snug Polo shirts, slim-fit Hollister sweatpants, overpriced white Nike sneakers, his hair styled like all his popular friends, a gawky silence shades his eyes even when he laughs out loud, or greets his friends with a bleep-able expletive. Boys are not supposed to be expressive. Boys are taught not to cry. Boys are trained to be strong. Boys revel in being un-responsive to sentimental stuff. Except when they fall in love for the first time. Boys mock boys for being emotional ‘like a girl’. Even when they feel much more than a girl is supposed to feel, is taught to feel. Boys swear and push and punch and kick and utter threats of mortal harm. God forbid, if they feel weak and vulnerable and insecure and scared.

The life of a privileged teenager is a carefully curated series of popular tropes of precocious masculinity. It fails to keep a window open to let any light show the bleakness that many teenagers have a daily wrestling bout with. To write about young boys, I don’t need to research studies on behaviour of adolescents, or statistics on pre-adult smoking, drinking and drug addiction, acts of aggression and other bad things. I look at their faces, and I see much that remains concealed to even people very close to them. The thing that pains me is their inability to articulate their feelings. Boys feel many things, it is just that for most of them words are like Weeknd songs they listen to on loop: only audible to them on their noise-cancelling headphones. It is about time you talked to your son who is stuck in that age-limbo where he is neither a child nor an adult. But he thinks he knows what he wants, what he needs, what is good for him. Listen to your son, your younger sibling.

Depression in young people is a black hole many parents are blind to. In Pakistan, where awareness and acceptance of mental illnesses is in as short quantity as common sense, depression falls in the category of non-issues. In the case of boys, it is not even a non-issue: it is deemed non-existent. The pimply dourness; name-calling fights with siblings; door-locking fit-throwing with parents; shouty, two-sided argumentativeness with friends; and long, sullen silences are indexed as growing pains, hormonal overdrives and the always-relevant-as-a-fig-leaf boys will be boys.

A world in which there is relentless pressure to excel in school, have a perfect O and A-level result, score a 3.80 GPA, ace the SATs, get into a great college, be a kick-ass athlete, be good at everything, there exists a blatant emphasis on looking good and looking rich. Your worth is gauged in the car you’re driven in to school, the brands you wear, the holidays you take, the you-know-who-my-dad-is age-old boast. Caught between parental expectations and a societal grading system, the young male loses his sense of self. And no one notices. Not even those who love him.

Many teenagers turn to smoking, drinking, drugs, and unsafe sex. Some teenagers become aggressive and do violent things. Many teenagers collapse into a dark depression. Many teenagers have no one to talk to about their deepest fears. Many teenagers have suicidal thoughts. Some teenagers attempt to kill themselves. A few teenagers manage to end the ‘never-ending nothingness’, the ‘absolute loneliness’. They kill themselves. In one of their several attempts to die.

Teach them well

All around me are parents who turn their unfulfilled dreams into life goals for their children. The future of a child becomes the manifesto of the personal benchmarks of excellence of the parents. High school graduates are mostly clueless about what they want; their parents have hardbound rulebooks for their future. If you love your child, toss that book in the recyclable stuff bin. Teach your children, male and female, the values of kindness, empathy, honesty, hard work, acceptance, courage and moving on, and let them be the architects of their today, their tomorrow. Teach them to be good human beings; don’t copyright your wishes as their dreams.

Read more from Mehr Tarar

Talk to your children. Learn to read their silences, even the sullen ones. Cocooned in their shells of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, much of the validation of a teen’s existence is quantified in likes, favourites and hearts. Enter that shell with a hug, a willingness to comprehend the imperativeness of that reality for your child. Don’t angry-word register your disdain for his choices. Be there for your teenaged son who is still a child for you but let there be space for your child to be. Teenagers, in time, learn–the rights and the wrongs.

A teenager, 17, with gentle eyes shadowed in trendy spectacles, told me that he was still, scared to sleep in the dark. An only child, always loved, always pampered, all his life, his nights become a 70 mm screen that plays movies of ghosts and terrible things. His nightmares are recurrent, the nightlight in his room is his shooting star. Until very recently, his nanny slept in a corner of his room. Not many people know about his nocturnal fears. He is a boy, and boys don’t let an adult sleep in their room to keep the scary monster away. I used to sleepwalk as a child, I saw scary things in the dark that weren’t there. Everyone knew about my ghosts. That is how I’d have raised my son: not be ashamed of the night monsters that weren’t there but were very real for him.

As one teenager with a beautiful smile, tall, confident, said to me: “When I thought I was depressed it’s not that I felt sad. I felt nothing. I felt my life was meaningless.” It is scary as hell–to feel nothing. A teenager who feels nothing resides in an alone-ness that defies words. As a parent, an older sibling, learn to read the signs of that debilitating stillness that turns everything into a dark cave of nothingness.

Your children need to be loved. Your children also need to be noticed, paid attention to, heard, empathised with, and reassured that they are not alone. Your children need to be respected. That their issues are not trivial. That their sadness is not an overreaction. That their long solitude is not a petulant articulation of teen rebellion. That their angst is not melodrama. That their nightmare is not a family anecdote. That their priorities are not mocked. That their voice is heard even when no words are uttered. That their dreams trump your wishes. That they are loved even when they err. And that no matter what happens, they are your most important person.

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