Young adult literature is my guilty pleasure. (OK, one of them. I’m a sucker for the Real Housewives of Wherever You Are.) When I worked in a bookstore, I got the same questions as when I was an English teacher: What do you recommend for a young person who is a good reader? When that girl was me, I was “forced” to read the classics, Little Women, or adult fiction, like the Clive Cussler series. The good news is the stories we love in the movies originated from young adult books. The bad news is the content is not something that is emotionally or psychologically friendly for tweens and teens to read alone. I’m here to help.
From Cover to Cover
Our fears are ignited with the first sentence of the book, “The monster showed up just after midnight” (1). In a little more than 200 pages, Conor found out how to stop the monster and free himself, “And by doing so, he could finally let her go” (205).
On the surface, a monster born from a yew tree, taunts Conor during the nights after the cancer killing his mother tortures him all day. Conor isn’t as afraid of the monster as much as he is the nightmare that wakes him nightly. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness teaches parents what Conor learned in school: “Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell” (23). Conor’s true fear is one we all share, regardless of age: having the courage to speak YOUR truth aloud without shame.
Who? Conor is dealing with getting beat up by bullies in middle school while his mother is getting beat up, again, by cancer. He gets help getting back and forth to school from his grandmother and less-than-helpful advice from his estranged father.
The monster is the character who provides the best guidance for navigating the anger, fear, and powerlessness that Conor faces as the cancer steals his mother.
What? Jewish folklore explains the reason Jewish people tell so many stories (guilty) is because nobody knew the true name of G-d, so their stories were prayers that granted miracles. The monster explains he will disappear after three stories are told: the monster will narrate the first two stories, and Conor must tell the third story, his nightmare, to the monster. Conor learns some lessons about the human condition to help his relationship with his grandmother and father. Rather than his grandmother being good or evil, we all learn with Conor that the world is gray. Our judgement of others as good or evil reflect our morals. The monster’s second story follows the lesson of “The Hangman,” doing the right thing when you are not personally affected.
When? Traditionally, developmental psychologists only address common markers in life, births, deaths, weddings, and graduations. But, since late in the first decade of the new millennium, we are starting to understand that the life span has markers in adulthood, too. By the time we meet Conor and his mom, we are beyond learning about life before and after cancer. The line is drawn between before and after the “little talk”. BEFORE Conor was being bullied and stopped being friends with Lily, he didn’t need to think about processing his mother telling him she may not survive the latest experimental treatments. AFTER their “little talk”, Conor had no privacy because everyone knew he was going to lose his mother.
Where? A Monster Calls lives where children do, at home and in school. It doesn’t take long for the monster to wreak violence in both settings. He destroys parts of Conor’s grandmother’s house. He beats up Harry, the school bully, who has been punching and kicking Conor for weeks. The more Conor tries to be invisible, to live nowhere, the more the monster causes destruction everywhere.
Why? There is a purity in children because they do not understand nuance. Asking “why” isn’t annoying repetition. It’s taking a firm stance in what you know to be the truth. Some parents use a child’s insistence of understanding to reminisce ye olden days where children were seen and not heard. Conor’s nightmare, the story he tells the monster, the story he needs to tell in order to accept his mother’s death, is the perfect example of the damage of silencing children. Conor tries to get control of his heart and home to help his ailing mother which summons the monster. Conor tries to be perfect, tries to be invisible, which causes the monster to destroy places and people. Conor acts out to earn punishments worthy of the guilt he feels in his nightmare. But, being visible is not the solution to being invisible; for Conor, the nightmares became more frequent. Telling the monster his nightmare, sharing HIS truth aloud, chased the monster away.
Patrick Ness finished this novel for another author, Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could decide where her characters would go. Ironically, the poetry of a story about disappearing due to death reminds us to make sure our children don’t feel invisible. We need to indulge in their passionate arguments about why a purple sky makes sense in their 6 year old drawings and why they are certain they are in love in their 16 year old relationships. Our insistence on teaching them “the truth”, will create monsters that will stop them from sharing their truth.
This is the first time I have stolen a title for my blog. But, I’m in good company. Patti Reagan “stole” this title for her 2004 memoir about her father, President Reagan. Her mother, Nancy Reagan, coined the term “long goodbye” in 2002 to describe the last years with Alzheimer’s sufferer, President Ronald Reagan. I first saw this term as the title for an episode of TheWest Wing, my favorite political drama. The episode aired in 2003 and focused on the relationship between the White House Press Secretary and her father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Television’s allows America to show us who we are so we question if that mirror is accurate. I haven’t seen or heard of any show that has committed itself to exploring the diseases associated with aging. I’m sad to say that our treatment of loved ones aging is accurately mirrored in pop culture; it doesn’t exist. The Alzheimer’s Association advocates for the more than 5 million Americans living with the disease. I’m hoping this post helps their caregivers who provide 18.2 billion hours of unpaid assistance to their loved ones.
It is natural to disassociate ourselves from thoughts of loved ones dying, one of our nation’s biggest fears. Fear puts us in survival mode. We are ready to run, fight, or freeze. We just want to be left alone. But, the consequences of asking your aging parent to deal with this part of life alone are profound. (Consider this: the worst penalty that can be imposed on a criminal short of death is the same technique used in torture, isolation.) It is hard to talk about the end of a wonderful journey. It is hard to get in the car and spend time with someone who may or may not know who you are. But, you can use these tips to increase your chances of smiling when you make the effort.
The key to maintaining a meaningful relationship with a loved one who memories are slipping away is to personalize each minute. I love how A Dignified Life introduces the concept for caring for loved ones with dementia and Alzheimer’s, a Best Friend. Best Friends are the living photo album, memory book, and memorial candle who can bring about meaningful moments with someone who is just beyond reality.
Folly: Gathering intel is fun but requires a level of dissociation from the detective. You cannot presume to know what is important to your aging parent based on what was prioritized in your home. Religious observances, for example, may have just been a marital compromise. My grandparents were very observant Jews. They walked to temple, had separate dishes for meat and dairy, and even a separate kitchen for holidays that required cooking in a separate oven. But, my grandmother used to sneak me out of the house to share pork-filled wontons and other Chinese foods. Additionally, getting older ironically awakens the young, mischievous sides of us. In fact, based on the shrinking brain and decreased efficacy of neural pathways, the elderly act just as impulsively as adolescents.Stories like this one of mischief and mayhem are great ways to wake up a sleeping brain.
Triggers: I love fires. I went to overnight camp since I was 5 years old. My husband and I expressed our love in front of a fireplace. Whereas most of my friends share the warmth and comfort of a fire, it would be a mistake to think everyone has positive memories or impressions of huddling around a campfire. My father-in-law was badly burned as a child when trying to stamp out an innocent fire in the alley behind his apartment. It may make sense to share this story of how his son fell in love as a way to remember who I am or enjoy the shared experiences of finding love. Except, sharing the intimacy of the memory would nearly guarantee a traumatic response from my father-in-law. Taking the time to learn which memories are painful is just as important as learning which memories are pleasurable.
Labels: My father loved to create nicknames for us. I loved to create nicknames for my students. Uncovering nicknames (not teasing, shameful name-calling) from childhood are helpful to grab your loved one out of their isolating zone. My father-in-law used his legal name, Harvey, all through school. But, he used his middle name, Scott, as an adult. This piece of family history is helpful insomuch a using the childhood name is more likely to create bonding moments.Aging works in reverse chronological order, the newer memories are the first ones to go. Our favorite possessions also have their own fond names. My mom and I had sequential license plates starting with the letters “LF” when I got my first car. We used them as proud monikers for the “lead foot” bestowed upon us by HER father, the man who urged everyone with a new car to open up the engine early to train it in case a need ever arose.
Visitors: Grandchildren are a gift. My mother insists that being a grandmother
is intensely different and deeper than being a mother. Unfortunately, grandchildren and aging parents do not match. The increased energy of the child in combination with the quiz questions, “Who is this?” or “Don’t you know who this is?”, make someone in the throes of Alzheimer’s or dementia angry, sad, and frustrated. In fact, mislabeling a child, calling your daughter by your name, is a common source of agitation for caregivers. Correcting your loved one becomes a common source of agitation for the aging. Where your mother may have missed a generation, she still knew the child was family. It is best to agree with your mom and chat about a memory you have shared. More often than not, she will recognize your daughter before the story is over. It’s also not a time to find beautiful albums or frames for those little ones. Memory-related disease does not necessarily mean there are other health problems. But, poor eyesight is a given for all who age. It can be frustrating to be surrounded by pictures you cannot see.
Spark Note Summary
We have become a generation of avoiders and hoarders. We want to hold onto to our loved ones as long as possible…over there. Those years do not have to be wrought with anguish, for the loving or loved. Take the decades before diseases of aging rob you of your loved ones to learn how special their lives have been. That way, the “hello” has much more impact than the “goodbye”.
Your sweet toddler gently closes the door during potty (a feat you have not been able to accomplish since he was born)…
Your double-digit little girl firmly closes the door to get dressed before school…….
Your tween shakes the house with a loud slam of the door the minute after any transition in household routine (home from school, before dinner, after dinner, etc.)
The reason for this death spiral….PRIVACY!
Because this new desire for “me” time starts sweetly, I have no clinical experience with the benefits of privacy for younger children. I am usually called in to wrangle a growing kiddo who talks and acts completely opposite from their younger selves. So, I have a lot to say about helping your frustration and, dare I say, anger, when your not-so-sweet teenager enters the Door Slamming Olympiad.
Warning: Opening THEIR Door Requires Yours to Open, Too
The reason privacy becomes such an intense issue is because of its twin, trust. Erikson believed that developing trust between parent and child starts at birth. Okay, so your newborn knows he can trust you to jump up at the hint of a whimper to attend to his needs. My concern comes from a later stage, Erikson’s Identity vs. Role Confusion. The goal for tweens and teens ages 12 to 18 is to learn the virtue of fidelity. Fidelity means the ability to consistently be loyal and supportive to a person or cause. Tall order, huh? When the issue of privacy arises in your home, my advice is to take a PEEK.
Partner: Join with your partner in life to prepare to partner with your kid. It is imperative that you and you partner agree on the boundaries you will set up for your child. Do you agree to check their phones? Facebook page? Instagram? Snapchat? Once that happens, sit down with your privacy-seeking, almost-grown tween and discuss rules and consequences. At this point in life, your child needs to literally have a seat at the table. A family meeting that clearly writes out the “if….then” of privacy means less fighting should those rules be bent or broken.
Expect confrontation. It is horrible to be caught off guard. You WILL have doors slammed in your face. You WILL be told you are unfair, hated, and the worst parent…ever! WHEN that happens, take a moment and give yourself a nice pat on the back. Those parental insults mean you are doing your job of setting clear and consistent boundaries.
Expose yourself as a person. The titles of “Mom” and “Dad” become monikers of tyranny in the eyes of your tween. It’s time to show them who YOU (Amy, Joe, Janice, etc.) are as a real person.
Warning: this is not the part of the blog where you have permission to ramble on with stories that begin, “When I was your age…” I’m talking about sharing what you love with your kid. Blast Def Leppard while driving her to practice and sing unapologetically loud as you slay the air guitar at the red light. Excitedly summarize the new book you are reading. Confess your little white lie that you don’t obsessively play Angry Birds (still) and make her watch a few levels.
Keep calm, keep talking, and keep listening. The hands-down best professor I had in grad school was my professor for Marriage and Family. Dr. Skiba, from whom I have permission to steal the upcoming words of wisdom, explained the paradigm shift of parenting a tween or teen: “When you raise a child, you control the child. When you raise a teenager, you have to control yourself.” (If I had a mic, I’d drop it and walk away.)
Spark Note Summary
The goal of these years where privacy and trust are paramount is to win the trust of your child so he doesn’t feel like privacy is a daily battle. Like all parenting, you have to model what that relationship looks like. Resist the urge to hide behind your title of “Mom” or “Dad” by trusting your child with the pieces of you that got left behind when you became a parent. Peek-A-Boo…..I see YOU!