High School Heroes: Mom and Dad

May 16, 2004 | By Anna Bahney

Amy Goldstein greeted the members of her book club with a sunny welcome at the door of her home in Greenwich, Conn., on a recent Sunday morning. Nibbling on bagels and cucumber salad, the 10 women discussed “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri with collegial camaraderie and bursts of laughter befitting a phalanx of sorority sisters.

But half of these women are still in high school. The other half are their mothers. For the past six years, the teenagers and their moms have gathered monthly to discuss books, raising children and growing up.

While none of the girls are hankering for a “Mother-Daughter Book Club” T-shirt to wear to school, Amy, 15, said the group is something she treasures. She admires the openness, intelligence and humor of her mother, Ellen Keats. Let’s say it: Amy thinks her mom is cool.

“I value her opinions the most,” Amy said. “A lot of the opinions my mom has, I find I have myself.”

Amy isn’t the only teenager in the group who is a mom fan. Jessica Ortwein’s request for her Sweet 16 birthday was a day at a spa with her mother. Elizabeth Brody, 16, enjoys going to concerts of artists like Paul McCartney and Simon & Garfunkel with her mom, and she is the one resurrecting Joni Mitchell for heavy rotation in the car.

Molly Novatt, 15, and her sister, Sarah, 17, join their mother, Priscilla Natkins, for appointment television on Monday nights to watch the teenage drama “Everwood.” The two daughters and their mother share some of the same clothing, like a black Theory skirt.

Lianna Lipton, 15, spoke for all the teenagers. “I think there’s a lot more being friends with your mom,” she said.

Are these the children of Stepford, or are they the most compelling reason yet for striking “teen angst” from the lexicon? Where is the rebellion?

It is not always a rosy path through adolescence for these mothers and daughters, but there is an upbeat teen spirit wafting through their lives that smells nothing like Generation X disaffection.

And unlike the chasm that separated baby boom parents from their parents, these teenagers’ tastes in clothes and music, and many of their political and social beliefs, dovetail with those of their parents. They are part of a generation of youth from age 9 into their early 20’s who look up to Mom and Dad as role models.

“In the history of polling, we’ve never seen tweens and teens get along with their parents this well,” said William Strauss, an author with Neil Howe of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation” (Vintage, 2000), about those born since 1982.

“Boomers are an obnoxious lot,” Mr. Strauss added, “and there are a lot of things they don’t do well, but you could say they have done a pretty good job with their kids.”

Mr. Strauss, 57, was not entirely surprised when his daughter Victoria announced that after graduating from James Madison University last year, she wanted to go into the family business. Mr. Strauss writes books and helps run the Capitol Steps comedy group. “I have my own weird little industry here,” he said.

Now Victoria, 23, has moved back home to suburban Washington and is working with Mr. Strauss on various projects.

Studies have shown that teenagers’ relationships with their parents have steadily improved since the early 1970’s. In 1983, about 75 percent of teenagers said they had “no serious problems” with their parents, up from about 50 percent in 1974, according to the Mood of American Youth survey, conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, an education group. By 1996, the survey found 94 percent of teenagers were “very happy” or “fairly happy” with their mothers, and 81 percent were happy with their fathers.

In 1997 the mood study became the State of Our Nation’s Youth survey, conducted annually. The latest data suggests that children’s admiration of parents, though measured differently, is still very high. When students ages 13 to 19 were asked last year to name their role model, the greatest share—44 percent—chose a family member (overwhelmingly their mother or father), up from 42 percent in 2002. The percentage of teenagers who most admired a friend or celebrity declined.

Teenagers “are looking for structure and safety—you can’t trust government, religion, corporations—they want someone to get along with,” said Jane Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a market research and consulting company. “Whereas before, it was ‘rebel against your parents’ because everyone knew the rules and regulations, now it is ‘hold on to your parents’ because no one knows what the rules and regulations are.”

Dr. Frank Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the chairman of a research group examining transitions to adulthood, noted that today’s teenager is less emotionally independent than in the past.

“Adolescence is younger in some sense, because early adulthood has been extended,” he said. “Being a 15-year-old today is quite different than it was 50 years ago, when 15 was on the cusp of being a young adult.” If 20 is the new 15, then 15 is the new 12.

Of course, there are teenagers who don’t get along with their parents. And the parent who tries too hard to be pals with a teenager is just as ludicrous a figure as ever—witness the mother played by Amy Poehler in “Mean Girls,” who flounces around in a pink Juicy Couture-style track suit while playing host at a happy hour for her daughter’s friends.

Beyond the stock characters in teenage movies, pop culture has plenty of celebrity role models who have made it cool to admire one’s parents. The Grammy Award-winning singer Beyoncé Knowles, who is 22, has turned to her mother, Tina Knowles, to design nouveau-Motown clothes for her group, Destiny’s Child. Last week the two announced a deal with a New York company to collaborate on a clothing line.

Alexis Tabak, 15, can relate to mother-as-fashion-muse. On a Saturday shopping excursion in Manhattan, Alexis looked to her mother, Susan Tabak, 48, for approval before selecting a pair of pink Hardtail pants at G. C. Williams on Madison Avenue. Susan Tabak is a personal shopper who takes clients to Paris. “Because of her business she’s really into shopping and fashion, and that makes her a lot of fun,” Alexis said.

Thomas Mara, 18, and his father, Jeff, 49, also are comfortable hitting the stores together at the Roosevelt Field mall near their home in Rockville Centre, N.Y., picking up clothes recently for Thomas’s senior-class trip to Florida. On weekends the two can be found working together under the hood of a 2001 red Mustang.

They don’t share the same politics: Thomas would vote for the re-election of President Bush, while Mr. Mara leans Democratic, and they have opposing views on the Iraq war. But they do not fight their own war around the dinner table, like an earlier generation. Thomas said they have respectful discussions about current events.

The canyon that opened between the generations in the 1950s and 60s over rock ‘n’ roll, Vietnam and the sexual revolution, and continued in some ways through the 80s, has reinforced the notion that teenagers are rebels by nature.

But Dr. Furstenberg, the sociologist, said there was nothing preprogrammed about teenage rebellion. “The thinking that adolescents rebel as they seek more autonomy and push off from their families is a peculiarly well-developed idea in American society,” he said. But this phenomenon is at least partly a product of American culture, not inbred. “How we think about that can change,” he said.

Today, much of what passes for hip taste is recycled from the past 30 years. Teenagers who fall for the garage rock of the Strokes are led back to their parents’ collections of Blondie and Lou Reed records, and the hip-huggers they buy at the Gap could be unearthed from their parents’ closets.

Standing outside Carnegie Hall before a Jewel concert last month, Sara Jacobson, 13, and her mother, Linda, 38, wore matching black leather jackets and crisp eyeliner. The concert was Sara’s mother’s idea, as was the AC/DC show they caught two years ago with Sara’s father, but Sara likes the music too.

Asked recently to write an essay about her hero for a school assignment, Sara wrote of her mother. “How we have a lot of good times together,” she said, “how she isn’t perfect, but nobody is. That she is a really good mom and I wouldn’t change it.” It was the longest essay in the class.

“I had so much to say,” said Sara.

At the AC/DC concert, “everyone kept telling me, ‘You have the coolest parents.’ ” she said.

The notion that a teenager could consider a mother or father cool raises the eyebrow of many parents, and not a few experts in adolescent development.

“No 14-year-old thinks their parents are cool,” asserted Dr. Michael Thompson, a clinical child psychologist in Arlington, Mass., and an author of “Raising Cain” (Ballantine, 1999). “Cool is an attribute that is awarded by the peer group.” He added, “It is developmentally odd when a kid of 12 or 13 says it.”

Dr. Thompson said he was all for parents spending more time with their children, but he cautioned that those who strive to be cool in teenagers’ eyes are not fulfilling their duty. “You are the parent; you are the floor under them, the framework around them,” he said. “You are the bank, the police. But not best friend.”

Parents who are open-minded and not rigid usually get the best marks from experts. Even experts who are teenagers, like Natalie Fuller, who wrote “Promise You Won’t Freak Out: A Teenager Tells Her Mother the Truth About Boys, Booze, Body Piercing, and Other Touchy Topics (and Mom Responds)” with her mother, Doris A. Fuller, two years ago when Natalie was 16.

Before the book, Natalie and her mother “weren’t as close,” Natalie said, adding, “I didn’t feel comfortable talking to her about much.”

She chafed under rules and finally pulled off a stunt involving an interstate drive, a white Mazda, a boy her parents did not know and alcohol. This was followed by Ms. Fuller’s imposing what Natalie called “lockdown.”

That was when Natalie suggested they write a book together, which was published this month by Berkley Publishing Group. “We’re really good friends now,” Natalie said. “We had fun going to the readings and answering questions about what we went through.”

Now there’s a book for the Mother-Daughter Book Club.