"Do I have to go? Stevie's mom said that I could stay with them while you're at the Cape." Into most parents' lives, there usually comes some version of this response to the traditional family summer vacation. Although teens usually send out some preliminary signals of not wanting to accompany the family on its vacation, we are usually caught off guard when our child actually utters the words "I don't want to go." We are alternately confused, angered, saddened, and hurt. We don't cope well. We take it personally.
Dad: "But how could you not want to go to the cottage this summer? We've been going there every summer as a family since you were 2-years-old. You love it there. The swimming. The fishing. Camping out. Making s'mores."
Mike: "I was thinking about getting a part-time summer job this year and starting up a band."
Mom: "But you just can't stay home alone for two weeks while we're gone."
Mike: "I sort of already cleared that with Stevie's mom that it's okay to stay with them for the two weeks you're gone. She says it's fine with her if it's okay with you."
Mom: "How come you suddenly don't want to go to the cottage anymore? Don't you want to spend time with me and your Dad and your brother? You always looked forward to it so much. Is there something going on that we don't know about?"
Mike: "Yeah, I've always loved going down to the summer cottage but these past couple of years it's become kind of boring for me. No kids I know go down there anymore. And it's the same old, same old -- mini-golf, flea markets, country fairs, antiquing -- It just doesn't do it for me anymore. It's nothing against you guys or Sam. It's just that I'm 15 and Sam's 8. I'd like to make some of my own spending money this summer, hang around with my friends, since most all of them are going to be around, and try to get a band started. It's something we've been talking about doing all school year. And I can't do that if I go with you for those two weeks."
Dad: "I don't really know what to say. I'm in shock. How can we have our summer vacation without you? And what will Sam do without you? He'll be miserable without his big brother."
Mike: "Dad, you and Mom will have a great time like you always do. Yeah, it'll be different without me this time but you'll be fine and I'll be fine. And Sam will play with the same kids that he's been playing with for the past five years who always come down with their families. You know that. Plus he'll have you all to himself."
Mom: "Well, you'll have to give us a day or two to think this over and to talk with Stevie's mother to make sure this is really okay with her. You're sure this is what you want to do?"
Mike: "Positively sure. And thanks for not getting all crazy angry and making me feel as terrible as I thought you would."
I hope Mike's parents do let him stay with Stevie's mom. He's 15 and he's ready for some new experiences, challenges, and responsibilities. He hasn't outgrown being a member of his family. He's simply outgrown the family's annual summer cottage vacation and he wants to spend the summer doing some growing up on his own, with his friends. He's becoming independent. He's not rejecting them or loving them any less. Poor parenting didn't cause his decision. In fact it seems they've done a wonderful job with Mike and they responded to his stay-at-home request in fine fashion. They've done nothing wrong. It was a healthy request from a 15-year-old who's growing up and trying to find an identity apart from his family.
I've known parents of teenagers who forced them against their will to go on family summer vacations. Forced them when their teens had their own ideas of how they would like to spend their summer, or at least the time scheduled for the summer vacation. What these parents received in return were angry, sullen teens with earphones constantly attached to their heads as a response. Painful experiences. Bad vacations.
We must listen to what our teenager needs from us to let him grow into an independent, confident, self-reliant person. Sometimes that means shedding some tears, saying goodbye to the traditional family summer vacation as you knew it, making one fewer s'more at the campfire and calling him frequently at Stevie's to see how the band's coming along.