Connecting With My Teenager Through “Forced Family Fun”

Sometimes “F.F.F.” stands for “Failed Family Fun,” but I’ll keep insisting we do it.

Last weekend, my husband and I set out for a walk with our dog and our fourteen-year-old son (the twelve-year-old had escaped — I use that word deliberately — to meet a friend just moments before). It was a warm sunny Sunday, the perfect opportunity for some F.F.F.: Forced Family Fun.

If you live with a teen, I bet you’re familiar with Forced Family Fun. It’s a concept rooted in parents’ intellectual understanding that time is fleeting (and flying) and our emotional need to make happy memories, build familial bonds, offer sage advice (subtly, of course) and parent as perfectly as possible. For teens participating in mandatory F.F.F., it’s your basic W.I.E.: Worst Idea Ever.

In our household, F.F.F. involves

1. A “Fun Family Activity!” (biking! hiking! miniature golf! the beach!)

2. Complaints and protests (from the boys)

3. Threats and bribes (from us)

Unfortunately, the number of times my husband and I have suggested an excursion that our two lads instantly and unanimously agree to is exactly zero. These days, even picking a movie leads to so much debate that show time’s come and gone before we reach a compromise.

On the Sunday in question, here’s what our F.F.F. looks like: I march along at a heart-rate boosting, fat-burning clip, with the dog happily trotting beside me. My husband tries to match my pace, scurrying a foot or two behind. Ten feet behind him, my strong, fit, athletic teen, who’s now as tall as me, drags himself along like an uncoordinated Lurch, scuffing his Nikes with every step, barely able to lift his suddenly dead-weight feet.

“Can’t we all walk together?” I mutter to my husband. “Is that too much to ask?”

“I can hear you,” snarls my son from half a block away. “Say whatever you want.”

“I just want to have a pleasant conversation,” I hiss. “Will everyone Please. Keep. Up.” Suddenly my blood pressure is climbing a whole lot faster than my heart rate.

My husband gently suggests I slow down a tad. No way, I tell him. I want F.F.F. and a decent work out, dammit. “Your son can keep up with me just fine,” I tell him. “Your son is doing this to bug me.” Now I’m officially speed walking.

That’s when we meet a neighbor coming out of her house with a spray bottle of household cleaner and a rag. “Go on ahead,” I tell the guys. “I’ll catch up with you in a minute.” My previously enervated boy suddenly grabs the dog’s leash, and together they sprint toward the trailhead, my husband bringing up the rear.

My neighbor — let’s call her Michelle, because that’s not her name — climbs into the front seat of her minivan and starts spraying and wiping down the steering wheel. Correction: Michelle is furiously, aggressively and bitterly cleaning the shit out of said steering wheel. I ask if everything is okay.

“It’s my high schooler,” she says, eyes welling with tears. “I can’t leave him unsupervised for ten minutes. And I can’t get him out of the house, either. He’s driving me crazy. I thought I’d be back at work at this point,” Michelle continues, rubbing the leather wheel so vigorously I hope a genie will appear and grant her a much-needed wish. “That was my plan. Now I’m stuck.”

I give Michelle a tight hug, share some heartfelt words and then confess my own teen-inspired frustrations. She blinks back tears and looks me right in the eye. “Willow, just slow down.” Michelle grabs my wrist to make sure I’m paying attention. “This hike is not about your heart rate. It’s not about exercise. It’s about spending time with your son. That’s all.”

Ah, perspective. How nice of you to show up, just in time to salvage someone’s Forced Family Fun.

Another hug, and now I’m the one running toward the trail. How my huffing husband and sluggish son managed to get so far ahead, so fast, is a mystery, but I ignore the blood pounding in my ears (hey, I was the one who wanted a workout) and keep moving. I leap over the low fence to the trail. Up ahead, I spot a familiar yellow Golden State Warriors t-shirt, bobbing and weaving through the trees.

“Wait up!” I yell, the steep trail checking my pace but not my resolve. I reach my posse right where the single track opens up and forms a wide path through towering redwoods, fragrant pines and prickly blackberry.

“I was starting to think I was too late,” I say, panting. I drape an arm around my son as my tired legs quiver. “For a minute,” I tell him, leaning hard against a shoulder that is, at least for today, exactly the same height as my own, “for a minute, I thought I might have lost you.”


Willow Older is a nationally and internationally published writer and a professional editor. She lives in Northern California where she runs her own editorial services business and publishes a weekly newsletter called Newsy!.

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