You remember the lecture you got before you went out to a party as a teenager, right? You know, the one where there is a hint of panic in your parents’ voice as they tell you about the dangers of taking a drink from a punch bowl or eating something that isn’t wrapped. Of course you remember. You also had to sit through endless D.A.R.E classes featuring gruesome videos that tried to scare you out of getting your license or leaving the house at all. Maybe you thought briefly about those videos as you reassured your parents that you would be fine and back home safely before midnight.
For some of you, the reassurance you gave your parents wound up being a pile of empty promises. You went out into the night, reveled in your freedom and even exploited it. Perhaps you even got into a little bit of trouble. The cops might have shown up at that party. Maybe the cops sternly warned you that if you got caught with marijuana again, you’d go to jail. Maybe you tried to run from the cops but in your inebriated state, you didn’t realize they already had your license plate number and followed you home and proceeded to wake up your parents, much to your dismay.
Or maybe the opposite happened; you decided the party sounded too scary after all and you told your friends you weren’t going. Then at school on Monday all you heard about was how much fun the party was. You asked your friends if there were drugs and alcohol involved and they said no, much to your dismay.
Since I am not a parent of teenagers, I understand that I don’t fully know what it’s like to face that conversation and proceed to worry about whether I did the best by my child and whether he or she will make the right decisions. But, I am not that far from being on the receiving end of the conversation and this predicament is something that happens continually in contemporary teenage life and one doesn’t have to look far to find it reflected YA fiction. The repetitive pattern makes me wonder if there is a grey area in a conversation that is normally presented as only black or white.
I recently saw this stark contrast play out in Sandhya Menon’s ‘When Dimple Met Rishi.’ This sweet, funny rom-com of a YA novel sets itself up at the beginning to be a predictable, eye rolling read about two teenagers who couldn’t be more opposite and slowly start to fall in love. It turns out to be way better than the first few pages let on, so I am definitely over simplifying the plot by calling it an eye-roll. But, the opposites-attract, black-or-white aspect of the story fleshes itself out in one particular scene at a college party.
Dimple is the girl that can’t wait to escape the claustrophobic control that her traditional- Indian mother smothers her with. College is her ticket out and her chance to become the person she wants to be, not who her mother wants her to be. Rishi is the exact opposite; he is willing to put aside his own self-interests if it means fulfilling his duties of being the first born Indian son.
When the pair arrive at a party, Dimple has no problem filling her cup from the punch bowl and taking a brownie off a tray without a second thought as to the lurking danger behind her actions. Rishi reacts by berating her and giving her a lecture on how she “can’t just wander around a strange party drinking and eating from unattended containers. It’s not safe.” She tells him to “loosen up” and “let go a little… people go to parties to kick back and chill…to escape the constant pressure.” He tries to take her advice by eating one of those brownies and immediately becomes consumed with paranoia, “the S.W.A.T team will be here any minute,” he says. It turns out, there was nothing in the brownies and the punch bowl liquid was only lemonade but the dynamic of either straight fear or “chill, dude” is what interests me.
Of course, we want teenagers to be safe and to make smart decisions but there was something in Rishi’s reaction that was unsettling to me. He didn’t seem to be reading his surroundings properly; the other kids at the party weren’t shooting heroin or running around naked. No doors opened to x-rated scenes. In fact, the other kids were having a sketch-off. As in, they had a certain amount of time to finish a sketch based off a brief description. Rishi was so consumed with pre-judgement about what he should expect from a college party that he couldn’t see he was actually in a safe space filled with kids just like him. Where did he get such a negative perception?
It might be time for a different approach to the conversation. Maybe scaring teens into submission (or rebellion) is not the right answer. Maybe instead we should be honest about the kinds of things they might be exposed to and focus on teaching them how to navigate through the choices they’ll have to make and the consequences they will have to deal with. But let’s also try to tell them what a fun experience it could be, too. Let’s try talking in a tone that is neither scolds or intimidates but is calm and respectful. They may be someone’s baby but they are not helpless. Don’t we want kids to experience life, even if it means taking risks?
If literature is the reflection of human struggle, young adults (and their parents) seem to be struggling with this issue and it might be time to ask how can we do better. Several of the YA contemporary fiction novels that have been published in 2017 have at least one similar scene. Cath Crowley’s ‘Words in Deep Blue’ has a pretty messy party scene that sends the narrative in a new and questionable direction. I would be hard pressed to think of recent YA novels that feature a teenager taking a drink without getting drunk and losing control or smoking a joint without getting in trouble with the law. It doesn’t seem fair to repeatedly tell them the only consequence is a horrific car crash or jail time. Yet, I know telling them how much fun it can all be isn’t the most responsible option either.
Again, I understand that I am not a parent and therefore do not fully understand how tricky it must be to balance how to approach this topic but, as someone who works with teenagers and reads the reflections of their struggles, I can’t help but wonder how we can do better.