One school night this month I sidled up to Alexander, my 15-year-old son, and stroked his cheek in a manner I hoped would seem casual. Alex knew better, sensing by my touch, which lingered just a moment too long, that I was sneaking a touch of the stubble that had begun to sprout near his ears.
A year ago he would have ignored this intrusion and returned my gesture with a squeeze. But now he recoiled, retreating stormily to his computer screen. That, and a peevish roll of his eyes, told me more forcefully than words, Mom, you are so busted!
I had committed the ultimate folly: invading my teenager's personal space. "The average teenager has pretty strong feelings about his privacy," Lara Fox, a recent young acquaintance, told me with an assurance that brooked no debate. Her friend Hilary Frankel chimed in: "What Alex is saying is: `This is my body changing. It's not yours."' Intruding, however discreetly, risked making him feel babied "at a time when feeling like an adult is very important to him," she added.
OK, score one for the two of you. These young women, after all, are experts. Frankel and Fox, both 17, are the authors of Breaking the Code (New American Library), a new book that seeks to bridge the generational divide between parents and adolescents. It is being promoted by its publisher as the first self-help guide by teenagers for their parents, a kind of "Kids Are From Mars, Parents Are From Venus" that demystifies the language and actions of teenagers.
Last week, Frankel, who lives with her parents in Dobbs Ferry, New York, sat fielding questions alongside Fox in the Upper East Side apartment Fox shares with her parents. Fox had kicked off her shoes and propped her feet on a sofa. Frankel sat bolt upright, her composure unshaken by periodic intrusions from Fred the spaniel.
Both girls are seniors at Fieldston, the private school in the Bronx. They began writing more than a year ago after hearing a talk at their school by a psychologist who aimed to help parents make better sense of their children. The girls thought they could do even better. Encouraged by a teacher who put them in touch with a literary agent, they offered themselves as scouts showing the way across the forbidding terrain of the adolescent mind.
Their intention, they tell parents in their introduction, is to provide a "guide to what teens really hear when you speak, and how you can make them hear what you are actually trying to say." Their efforts to explain why an apparently innocuous remark so often elicits a tantrum or worse might be meaningful, Fox suggested in the interview, if the result is "one less week of silent treatment from your teenager."
Writing on consecutive Saturdays from November to June between homework assignments and preparation for their SATs, the girls tackled issues including curfews, money, school pressures, smoking and sibling rivalry.
Neal Marshad, a Web and toy designer and television producer in New York, and the father of a 15-year-old boy, said a book like the one the girls wrote might be useful, to a point. "The writers have not yet raised a child," he said. "It's an experience as different as going out for a walk is from scuba diving, and it changes the way you interpret things."
Personally, I welcomed insights into teenagers from any qualified experts, and that included the authors. The most common missteps in interacting with teenagers, they instructed me, stem from the turf war between parents asserting their right to know what goes on under their roof and teenagers zealously guarding their privacy. When a child is younger, they write, every decision revolves around the parents. But now, as Fox told me, "often your teenager is in this bubble that doesn't include you."