May 05, 2011


The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. By John Duffy. Viva Editions. $15.95.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Curioddities. Scholastic. $12.99.

     “The challenge for you [as a parent] is to acknowledge and accept your children right now, where they are,” writes John Duffy in The Available Parent. And that is the basis for his prescription for parenting teenagers and preteens. It is all very simple, he says – or at least simple to state, if not to do: “Our goal [as parents] is to foster an environment that is most likely to provide a sense of competence and resilience. Competence and resilience. That’s it.” How to do this is what the rest of Duffy’s book is about. Duffy says that teens possess plenty of strength and wisdom, even if they do not show these qualities and consistently make bad decisions. Parents, he says, must make a leap of faith and acknowledge teens as strong and wise, then act on this belief. He suggests observing young people closely to see how they interact with their environment – not with you as a parent – and using that to get a sense of who they are, or rather are becoming. Duffy has no especially new comments or revelations about preteen and teen behavior – he talks about the need young people have to forge their own identity, for example, and notes that rebelliousness is normal and does not last forever. He also talks about what does not work – again, nothing surprising here: living vicariously through your teen is ineffective, for example, and so are snooping and micromanaging his or her behavior. So what does work? Based on his experience as a family therapist, Duffy says an intuitive understanding and connection with your child, emotional role modeling, laughing together and being willing and able to step outside your own comfort zone are all valuable tools. He also suggests finding common ground, such as music or sports, and interacting within the common-ground context so as to create a better bonding experience. “We need more moments [of love and recollection] with our teens, little reminders of our connections,” says Duffy, and this is really an unexceptionable comment. Indeed, it is hard to argue with very much in The Available Parent, which is a thoroughgoing, sincere, well-meaning book. But how does a parent of a recalcitrant preteen or teen create those special moments, revive the love the parent felt when the child was younger, even get the teen to agree to a “sample behavioral contract” along the lines of the one that Duffy helpfully provides? That is by no means a simple task; it may, for some parents and in some family situations, be quite impossible. And this is where The Available Parent disappoints. Looking at family issues from a therapeutic viewpoint, Duffy writes about what he sees when parents and children come to him for help. But what about families that cannot even agree on going for counseling? Or cannot afford it? What about parents so stressed by work and other family members (adults and children both) that they can barely make it through each day, having little of the time and emotional availability that Duffy deems crucial when children are in the process of becoming young adults? These situations, which exist wholly outside the artificial therapeutic environment in which Duffy works, are never addressed here. Duffy admits that “it may require you to dig deep for that fondness and admiration,” but how to “dig deep” never comes up. Duffy’s certainty, which often sounds facile, may not sit well with frustrated parents: “Be curious with your disinterested teenager, and I am confident that…the outlines of his passions will begin to emerge with time.” Duffy has the advantage of guaranteed sit-down time with teens and preteens – sometimes with parents, sometimes without – in a controlled therapeutic environment. Real-world families may find his arrangement difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in everyday life, and may therefore have considerable trouble trying to implement his mostly sound suggestions.

     Perhaps – for preteens if not teenagers – a little dose of absurdist humor would help lighten matters up. Might be worth trying, anyway, with a copy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Curioddities – a compilation for younger readers of items from another Ripley’s volume called Totally Bizarre. It is very hard to take this picture-packed volume (complete with a water-skiing squirrel on the cover) seriously, even though everything in the book exists, or did exist, in the real world. Here you will find photos of a man with the 14-foot-tall bass fiddle that he built, a motorcycle powered by 24 chainsaws, a catfish that tries to swallow a basketball, an ice-cream flavor containing raw horseflesh, a dog with 13-inch-long ears, and so on. There are also brief paragraphs describing a cottonwood tree in Nevada that is draped with hundreds of pairs of shoes, a marriage proposal carved into a farmer’s corn crop, a beekeeper who wears 10,000 of the insects on his face, a woman with five-inch-long toenails, a 37-foot-long hot dog, and much more. Some of the photos and descriptions are gross enough for almost any teen or preteen to enjoy. Others are funny, many are groaners, and most are likely to make adults shake their heads in something between wonder and bewilderment. But maybe that’s an offbeat way to communicate with teens and preteens. Goodness knows it’s worth a try if the much more sober, reflective and intense ideas of therapists such as Duffy prove too difficult to implement in ordinary life.

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