Monday, October 3, 2011

Some Personal History - My Teen Journey

I was thinking today about how little my parents knew about my life as a teenager.

My parents, Willy and Bea, were good people. In 1953, when I was 8 years old, the Mormon missionaries visited our house and converted my parents. That put an abrupt end to the smoking and drinking. The LDS church would become a big deal during my growing-up years. Willy and Bea had eight kids, and I was the oldest. They loved the children and as far as I know there was never a single instance of psychological or physical abuse.

Willy was a career warrant officer in the Army. He was an avid sports fan, an enthusiasm he passed on to me. He introduced me to baseball and golf, the latter of which I played avidly during my teen years. I no longer play, but my four brothers still enjoy a round of golf with each other.

Dad was a sergeant when he married Bea in 1943. But according to my mom, she threatened to divorce Willy if he was ever sent overseas to serve in a combat zone. This ultimatum seemed extreme to me, and I never understood why she'd take a stand like that. Maybe she understood herself well enough to know that she wouldn't do well living alone.

So that's what happened. Dad served during three wars - World War II, Korea and Vietnam - and he never saw combat. Officially, he was colorblind, a disqualifying defect. On the other hand, he drove a car all the time. I sometimes wondered what he saw when he looked at a stoplight. Also, he volunteered for unaccompanied noncombat overseas tours, which kept him out of the rotation for combat tours. I learned later that these tours exacted a heavy price. Mom had to take care of a large family by herself, and both had to deal with loneliness. Dad was killed in a car accident on the way to work in 1968, while I was serving in an air defense artillery unit in Germany.

During my school years, I was intensely motivated to be the top student in my class. To this day, I'm not sure what inspired that motivation. I assume it had something to do with my mother. I like giving her credit for that. However, the main thing she gave me was freedom. She was always so busy caring for my younger brothers and sisters that I was on a very long leash. Actually, no leash at all. I had my first date with a girl named Sharon when I was six years old. At age eight I'd hop on my bike and without telling my mom I'd ride it all around the town of Neosho, Missouri, where we lived for five years.

When I scan all my memories of my teen years, I can't think of much that my parents knew about. Of course there were some shared experiences, such as touring around Germany as a family. But the time I spent with friends, what happened to me at school, my part-time jobs, my time on the golf course, my fascination with early rock music, my thoughts and feelings - the aspects of my life that contributed to my development were unknown to my parents. To put it another way, Willy and Bea had no clue what was happening on my teen journey.

Ideally, they would have been more involved. It would have been nice if they could have shared some of their wisdom with me; but honestly, that never happened. As I said, they were good people, but neither had a college education, and I don't think they had much of what I'd call wisdom. Also, I can think of very few life skills that were passed on to me during my teen years. My folks didn't have good communication skills, and they didn't know how to stimulate me to think critically. The bottom line - I had an awful lot of catching up to do. I was over 30 before I felt that I stood on solid ground, even though I had accomplished a lot by that time. To this day I'm learning things that I wish I had known as a teen. 

My parents were who they were. Like everyone else, I didn't get to choose them. I could only choose what kind of son I would be. I feel lucky that they loved me and gave me so much freedom. Even though I pretty much raised myself, I am who I am in large part because of my family background. The challenges and adversity in my life have made me stronger.

Still, I believe that parents who want the best for their teenagers need to be more aware of what's going on than my parents were and take a thoughtful, strategic role in preparing their kids for their adult future. It's why I write most of my blog posts these days.

And why I wrote these books...

Conversations with the Wise Uncle (for boys)

Conversations with the Wise Aunt (for girls)

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .


Beth Westmark said...

I really enjoyed reading your own teen story, Denny.

FYI -- Switched At Birth no longer exists, so you can clean up your blog list by removing me! I printed out all 8 years (using a pdf created by, put them in binders organized by year, and cancelled my typepad account, which makes that decision irrevocable. It was (past) time. Most of my writing now is done off-line, but I am keeping my hand in with a new blog called (the hungry) Writer's Kitchen over at Wordpress. It's not totally about food, as you might imagine :).

shareandi said...

Whao, what great similarity between you and me, Dr. Coates.

I'm well-placed to be listening to you.

Everyone should read this!

Again, I'm so appreciative of you, Dr. Coates. Thanks and thanks again.