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07 January 2012

Embarrassing Parenting

Teenagers are notoriously embarrassed. They will be embarrassed if we are breathing, standing some ten meters from them. And lets be clear on this: They are embarrassed by us, the parents. There are different degrees of embarrassing, according to my son, an expert. What I am trying to point out is that parenting books so very rarely mention this phenomenon. I have read several books on the topic of parenting and raising children. Parents or parents-to-be are given plenty of advice; do’s and don’ts, as well as encouragement. It all boils down to love, patience, attentiveness, consistency, humor and no small amount of courage. Nevertheless, no page said “YOU WILL EMBARRASS YOUR CHILD.”

My husband and I are still happily married, which in this day and age should be a source of pride. We’ve stuck long enough to each other to be parents to teenagers: our teenagers. We are publicly affectionate i.e. we hold hands in public and go out to lunch together because we feel like it. This is profoundly embarrassing for my teenager. No clue why this is and I have asked him. It is ten times worse though if I try to hold his hand instead. At first I ignored him but then I noted some important correlations between the level of embarrassment and the behavior of the teenager, and not just my teenager. 

Acute embarrassment makes them stop communicating and not just at that moment. They do not wish to communicate a difficult topic and absolutely do not want your embarrassing reaction to a difficult topic. Ever asked your child if he or she needs condoms? Some children stop talking to their parents almost completely. Moreover the teenager then has feelings of shame and guilt. Not even a teenager wants to be embarrassed by his parents, especially when he can not explain why to himself, never mind his parents. Then of course, there are degrees of embarrassment. No matter how cool you think you are, the only children that think you are cool are other people’s children, with luck. 

My own memories of embarrassing moments are coupled with shame as I now feel there was no need. On the other hand, my mother asked me quite loudly at my school once if I was ashamed of her, because I kept walking away. That was so embarrassing. I now know asking almost anything out loud is a mistake. As a 20 year old friend, who has a good relationship with her mother, told me ‘sometimes she doesn’t take the hint to just go!’ Timing (as in outstaying a welcome) as well as privacy are important to socially hyper aware teenagers. Sometimes parents tell me that their children should have nothing to hide from them. But that is not the point. Kids just want to talk to kids about ‘you know, stuff’. God knows I have nothing to hide from my kids but I still like some privacy. In fact, some conversations I still do not share with my parents. 

Parenting guides often advice ‘taking an interest’ in your children’s activities. "Keep lines of communication open and listen to your children." But this advice can be taken to an extreme. I know a few parents who actively chose and monitor or organise all their teenager’s activities. Conversations with friends are often joined (because they want to get to know the teenager’s friends) and permission to go out as well as money are tightly controlled. Some of these same teenagers constantly sneak out of the house, take money out of their mother’s wallet and avoid her if they happen to be at the same school or sports event. Some of this behavior may or may not be due to too much parenting but funny enough, their biggest complaint is of being embarrassed by their compulsively interested parents. As an example, I know a mother who joins her sons at a table full of teenagers in spite of vocal pleas from her sons to leave them in peace. 

Permission and money are always topics that cause disagreements, but I do need to know where he is going, with whom and when he thinks he will be back. As for the money, he receives a monthly allowance and has to learn to live with it. Just like the rest of us. With regards to the activities, he can choose a sport or a club he enjoys. I like to know who his friends are but do not force them to talk to me every time I spot them. I must add, with some pride, that I rank quite low on the embarrassing parents scale according to my son’s friends. When I entered a pizza place I greeted my son and friends and then sat clear across the restaurant with my other child. If I desperately need to know if he needs Clearasil, I text him. He answers quickly (as he is checking his phone every two minutes) and it is far less embarrassing than asking.

How can I differentiate between general teenage embarrassment, which is not just towards me but also concerns their own pimples and the state of their hair, from say, embarrassing him by asking in front of his friends if he still needs that Clearasil? My son can not help me on this one. He has assured me that the reason I happen to be embarrassing is that I exist on the same continent. But I am sure I could pull it off across continents as well if I put a bit of effort into it.


  1. I'll embarrass him for you! Just tell me how!

    1. Don't worry about my kids. Just be yourself and in a few years your daughter will tell you all about it..