Pink hair: when children become teenagers there are a whole new set of worries. Photo: Ryan and Sarah Deeds/Flickr
Show Hide image

Tracey Thorn: I’m still “going through a phase” and it’s not too bad at all

As your children keep changing, so does the job of bringing them up, each different phase bringing its own specific concerns, which vanish as new ones arise.

When my parents told me, as I’m sure they must have done at some point, that I was “going through a phase”, I didn’t realise at the time that a) they were right and b) this would continue throughout my life. I don’t mean that I’m still going through the same phase; I’m much tidier now, for one thing, and I play my music more considerately and call fewer people fascists. But this thing of going through phases – it never stops and it applies as equally to parents as to kids.

As your children keep changing, so does the job of bringing them up, each different phase bringing its own specific concerns, which vanish as new ones arise. So now, for instance, I find it very hard to get exercised about breastfeeding rates, or MMR vaccines, or homework for primary school kids, or what age they should be allowed a phone. We’ve passed all those milestones and they’ve faded into the distance – so huge and daunting while they were looming in front of us but now so small and insignificant in the rear-view mirror.

Once phases are over, you become blasé about them and develop a thicker skin on behalf of everyone else’s kids. “Oh, they’ll be fine,” you reassure any parent who’s in the throes of weaning or separation anxiety or their children’s first exams. You’re an old hand now, an expert.

But here’s the joke: to keep you on your toes, parenthood tucks a few surprises up its sleeve, hurling a new challenge at you every time you relax. I may be laid back about dummies now but I’ve become a parent of teenagers and that is a whole different kettle of ball games. Those with grown-up kids may smile fondly, give me a little sympathetic look, say, “Oh, they’ll be fine,” as I lay out before you all my new worries about unsupervised house parties and piercings and pink hair and walking home in the dark with earphones in.

You who have survived these years, you have every right to be smug. I don’t believe there is anything much that’s new about parenting teenagers now, whatever we may think about the internet and pornography and dieting. These are details, the current incarnations of an old problem that at heart is simply that these are the years when you can no longer, despite your best efforts, exert much control over your children or guarantee to keep them safe. And inconveniently, even as they start to become irritating, with their mood swings and their music, you remain desperately in love with them.

I am often cross that teenagers get such bad press when there’s so much that’s good about them but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to parent. And of all the things you have to watch them go through, the hardest to bear is sadness. When children are young, their sadnesses are often fleeting or fixable. Friendship ups and downs, bumps and scrapes – things that can be soothed with a plaster and a kiss. But teenagers are nearly adults and often their problems are adult problems, existential even, things you feel yourself and can’t even fix for yourself, let alone for them. Seeing a teenager gloomy about their present and worrying about their future can be heartbreaking – they’re leaving behind the safe world of childhood and they know this only too well. It’s still so recent to them, so close they can reach out and touch it, but it’s fading before their eyes and they will never live in it again.

Trying to console them that life actually gets better as you get older sounds lame and unconvincing to their ears. “Dad,” said our 13-year-old the other day, “once you’re past 50, you basically just start to decompose don’t you?” We laughed but it was rueful laughter. Here we are, trying both to hold on to and let go of them. Decomposing before their very eyes. And yet, unexpectedly, often happier than they are themselves.

I read India Knight’s In Your Prime last week, with an air-punch of solidarity at its acknowledgement of the pleasures of middle age. I’ve stopped expecting anything to be easy, so maybe that’s why it’s less of a shock that nothing is. It’s not such a bad phase to be going through.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.