Browsing Tag



choices and being allowed to make them, part one

[me, from around the time of this story]

When my family was stationed in Iceland, we became close friends with another family up there. We were over at their house all of the time– at times, it feels like we spent most of our time there. My parents usually asked them to babysit us whenever they were celebrating or having a date night, and I loved the sleep-overs we had there.

The story of one such sleep over is one of the funniest of my childhood– and a pretty accurate depiction of who I was, and who I am now.

Mrs. Willis* had spent the entirety of this particular day baking. She’d been making all kinds of breads, fruit breads and nut breads and pumpkin bread and cinnamon raisin bread, and cookies, cakes . . . her kitchen counters and her enormous buffet were covered in sweets. Me and her eldest daughter could barely keep our fingers out of the dough– and the finished products. Mrs. Willis had spent all day laughingly slapping us away and telling us to go play instead of trying to “help” her bake.

I was, however, present in the kitchen when she’d prepared the casserole for dinner, and I noted what she’d put into it: tomatoes, butter beans, spinach, sour cream– which were pretty much My Entire List of Foods I will Never Ever Eat. By the time dinner rolled around, I was dreading it, because my mother had one strict rule about being somebody’s guest and eating her food: if you don’t like something she’s serving, you take a “thank-you bite” (a small helping, but a helping), you eat the entire thing with a smile and without complaining. In fact, your performance should be so good she doesn’t even notice you didn’t like it. But, after that, you don’t have to eat any more of it.

When we sat down to dinner, I was relieved by the side dishes: plenty of salad, crescent rolls, corn, and green beans. She’d put on a full spread, and I was able to eat to my fill. I took as small a portion of the casserole I thought was polite, and then as much salad, green beans, and crescent rolls I could stomach, because, seriously, crescent rolls.

Mrs. Willis, however, noticed that I hadn’t eaten much of the casserole. “Samantha, would you like another helping?” She asked, gesturing toward the casserole with the serving spoon.

I shook my head. “I’m ok. I’m full.”

“But you’ve eaten nothing but salad and bread. You need more than that, this is the entrée.”

I pointed to the spot on my plate where the sour cream had left a smudge of sauce behind. “I had some. I’m ok.”

“Samantha, you either eat more of the actual dinner, or you don’t get any dessert.”

I looked longingly at all the cakes, the cookies, the cinnamon-roll monkey bread, then looked back at Mrs. Willis. “That’s ok.” It was worth giving up all those chocolate-chip cookies that had been perfuming the house all day to not have to eat more butter beans swimming in spinach and sour cream.

Mrs. Willis was dumbfounded. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the “deal” she’d offered had not really been a deal at all– she’d expected me to instantly cave in order to get cookies. When I had accepted her terms as agreeable, she was shocked. Later, after I’d been sitting on the sofa for hours watching the party guests munching away on cheese balls and tarts and my mom finally arrived to pick me up, Mrs. Willis told my mother what happened:

“You will not believe what Samantha did!”

My mom sent one stern glance my way. Uh-oh. “What happened?”

“She wouldn’t eat any more of dinner, even when I said she had to eat more or go without dessert!”

I could see mom’s lips twitch– I knew that look. She was trying to avoid smiling when I’d done something both adorable and bad. “Did she take a thank-you bite?”

“A what?”

“A thank-you bite. Did she eat a small helping without complaining?”

“Well, yes.”

“And did she complain about not getting any dessert?”

“Uhm . . . well, no. She hasn’t. She’s been very quiet since dinner.”

“That’s what I’ve taught her to do. Samantha,” she called to me, letting me know it was time to go. I got my coat and walked over. Mrs. Willis still seemed to look flabbergasted. We left, but before we went home, mom stopped and got dessert. We laughed together over caked chocolate donuts and iced glasses of milk.

Social Issues

the supposed myth of teenaged adolescence


I’ve talked a lot about the fundamentalist cult I was raised in, but something I don’t very frequently talk about here is my experience with the conservative religious homeschooling movement. For many people, the conservative religious homeschooling movement was what sucked their families into fundamentalist and cult-ish mental frameworks, but that’s not what happened for my family. My mother started homeschooling me because my kindergarten teacher held a séance in class, and the DoD school was the only educational option besides homeschooling. By the time we moved back Stateside and had more options, my mother realized that homeschooling was allowing me to excel academically in ways that other options wouldn’t– academically, that remained true through high school and college, although academic success came with its own drawbacks.

However, homeschooling was an integral part of the cult (those who didn’t homeschool received horrible condemnation), and the ideologies we embraced are consistent with a more mainstream homeschooling experience. Even for families that didn’t have children, or didn’t homeschool, the ideologies of the movement found its way into everyday interactions.

One of the popular elements of the conservative religious homeschooling movement that appeared in the church-cult was the belief that “teenage adolescence” is a modern societal construct and is a completely unnecessary stage. I can remember all the arguments for this vividly– how men and women married extremely young; in “fact,” women in early America very frequently married as soon as they got their periods at twelve or thirteen (this is false: the average age of marriage for a Puritan woman was 23, as young as 20 in South Carolina). Indentured servitude and apprenticeship were exalted as prime examples for how young men ought to behave– by learning a trade as young as 10 or 12 (and we were supposed to ignore the exploitative and abusive nature of child labor).

While teenage adolescence and the “delayed adolescence” seem to be results of our modern age, the concept that because it hasn’t been in practice since the Medieval ages makes it unhealthy . . .  bothers me, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

Being a teenager, for me, was a difficult experience. I was not an “adult,” so I was therefore not permitted to interact with or engage with adults except as an inferior child, so the other option was to interact with children– but as an adult. In my environment, this forced me to sit at the “children’s table” during social gatherings, acting as a monitor or babysitter, but neither was I permitted to act as a child in other settings. I was expected to behave as an adult, was given the responsibilities of an adult, but was not allowed to have any privileges of an adult. I was not permitted to go anywhere on my own, without my parents having explicit knowledge of exactly where I was going and when I was returning. The only time I was not with my parents I was being closely monitored by other parents.

I was not allowed to exercise the ability of making my own decisions about what I would wear (all clothing had to be tried on and approved by my father immediately following its purchase), how I would style my hair, if I could wear make-up, or when I would go to bed (I had a “bed time” of 9 o’clock until I was 16, and 10 o’clock until 18). I was not allowed to have a private space– my bedroom door was to remain open at all times, and I was discouraged from being in my room for extended periods. I could not “disappear” to my room when upset or hurt– it was considered a cowardly withdrawal, and I was forced to immediately control and dismiss my hurt feelings and interact with my family as if nothing had ever happened. There were many moments that I would curl into the fetal position on my bed and desperately wish that I could just get in my car and drive for an hour or two without explaining where I’d be going or when I’d be back.

Perhaps one of the most demeaning elements of my teenage experience was a nickname I earned during one of the few times I was allowed to interact with adults. We were playing cards, Phase 10, I think, and I did something that seemed “uppity” or arrogant to the adults at the table. I don’t remember what it was, but, the response of one of the adults at the table, a woman I admired greatly, was to call me “sub-adult.”

Unfortunately, this nick-name made the rounds among the other adults at church, and it continued to haunt me well into my twenties. The people who used it probably did so unthinkingly, and they had no idea how much it stung, how much it hurt, and how I had to fight back tears every time I heard it. It was used to remind me of my place– I was not an adult, but neither was I child, and neither was I allowed any of the attitudes, practices, relationships, or experiences of a teenager.

To me, being called “sub-adult” represented absolute failure because my success as an individual was measured by how “adult” I could be. I was well-behaved when I acted how an adult was expected to act. I was articulate because I could talk like an adult. I was responsible because I could shoulder the burdens of an adult. I was “good” in as much as I behaved as neither adult nor child nor teenager. I could not have angsty, emotional moments because that was what a “teenager” would do. I could not disagree with any adult, because that was perceived as “teenage rebellion.” “Teenagers” were the ones who thought they “knew better,” but they were obviously wrong. “Teenagers” made destructive decisions. Teenagers had crushes. Teenagers argued. Teenagers talked back. Teenagers disagreed. Teenagers wore outlandish clothes. Teenagers didn’t practice discernment. Teenagers were naïve. Teenagers were heedless, directionless, purposeless. Teenagers thought they were capable of being autonomous and independent. Being a “teenager” equaled being incomplete and unhealthy.

I had a childhood– a healthy, amazing childhood. My parents were, and are, amazing parents– I love them, and have a good relationship with them today. The problem is that by the time I was a teenager, we’d been in the fundamentalist cult for four years, and we had collectively bought into this idea that “being a teenager” was somehow a sub-standard way of approach to those years between twelve and twenty. I was immeasurably proud of my status in this environment– I can’t tell you how many times I parroted the line that “I already knew that my parents know more than me,” or that I’d never had a “rebellious phase.” I could take care of myself– I did all my own schoolwork with practically no supervision by highschool, I could cook, I could clean, I was amazingly dedicated to practicing piano, all with little or no pressure from my parents. But, somehow, perversely, I was also proud of the fact that I was inferior to adults and knew my place, and knew better than to question those who God had placed in authority above me. I respected the “hoary head.”

The biggest problem with all of this is that because I never practiced any sort of rebellion whatsoever, I was actively discouraging myself from developing my own thoughts and opinions about things. Oh, I would have told you that my beliefs were my own, that I knew what I believed for myself, but I would have been lying. I didn’t have individuality or autonomy. I listened to the music my parents listened to, or the music expressly approved by them. I watched the movies they watched. I held the political opinions they did. I argued what they argued. I didn’t have access to any of these things as myself, but as a “sub-adult” version of my parents.