wonder years

Teen Love

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Today, romance is a preoccupation with urban teenagers who are not yet 14. They must survive this minefield without deep wounds. How much can parents do?

The classmates of a 14-year-old boy in Mumbai say that he tried to stab himself in the heart with a pencil after a girl repeatedly refused to “go out” with him. Luckily the point broke on his chest and left a symbolic but shallow scar. For a 14-year-old girl, her boyfriend who’s 15 is the ultimate revision partner, helping her study and using his experience to give her tips; but another 14-year-old had a bout of depression and dropped her grades after her six-month-old relationship with a classmate floundered. Last year, a 14-year-old at an International Baccalaureate syllabus school in Mumbai is believed to have become pregnant; and a pair of early teens who met in school believes they have found their “soul mates” (their parents agree).

The ‘experts’ can’t agree on why, but it’s happening. Schools across the country have become the backdrop of exhilarating but complicated teenage relationships that parents and even children are only just beginning to comprehend. Perhaps it’s the Internet, or 90210, or Sweet Valley High, perhaps it’s because parents work too much and discipline too little, perhaps it’s hormones, perhaps… Whatever the reasons, younger and younger teenagers are dating—at least as they define it—and it’s changing things at home and school. They are kids from 13 to 15, who, despite their over-scheduled lives split between studies, at least two sports, music and dance, also manage a slice of romance. They’re mini-me versions of 20-somethings; they want everything: good grades, a bright future, extra-curricular talent, and interesting partners. In fact, at 13 or 14, relationships aren’t about love at all. They are, in the opinion of a 16-year-old Bangalore-based schoolgirl, Pritika Gupta, “about a higher degree of like” towards one person.

The practical approach worked for 13-year-old eighth grader Janani Hariharan earlier this year, then she “broke up” for the first time in her life. Janani is a striking young lady, intelligent and articulate, poised and mature, with a passionate interest in sports and music. She is very close to her parents—Usha, an elementary schoolteacher, and Hariharan Iyer, an executive at a multinational. But her closest confidant is Jayesh, her 18-year-old brother, who wasn’t happy that she hadn’t told him about ‘the boy’. Her interest in that guy slightly older than her had begun as a crush, and ended within a few days of his asking her out. “A relationship wasn’t worth it at the time; my brother was more important,” she says.

The average relationship of a post-Millennial teen usually follows a tried-and-corrected routine, with established rules, and tested techniques: boy meets girl in school, or tuition class. Once the offer to ‘go out’ is accepted, the couple hangs out with their ‘group’, going out to movies, restaurants, maybe a Subway across from school, and parties. The group is important. It is the shell, the social support system. Plus, numbers offer new lovers protection, even camouflage. “I feel it’s alright to have boyfriends, it’s healthy, but parents don’t approve, so we move around in gangs,” says a ninth grade student at Bangalore’s Clarance High School. The group is also obliging. “It’s embarrassing to look at couples making out, but everything happens in groups, and people just look away,” says one 13-year-old Mumbai schoolboy.

The ‘dating couple’ communicates through SMS, sometimes up to 30 a day, and via Facebook, where they can exchange virtual gifts everyday and flaunt their ‘relationship status’. Anniversaries are celebrated on a monthly, rather than an annual, basis. For 16-year-old Qais Husein, who’s been dating the same girl for more than a year, money is always a concern, but for her birthday recently, he scraped Rs 4,000 together to buy a Swatch. A formidable sum considering that he gets about Rs 200 a week as pocket money.

But after the regulation teddy bears, chocolates, and ‘I love you’ proclamations comes the inevitable: the break-up. “A message that starts ‘Listen, I need to tell you something’ never ends well,” says a 13-year-old schoolboy. The reasons can be adult, inspired, well-practised, even thoughtful. They are usually, ‘I thought it would work out, but it hasn’t’, or ‘I think we’ve drifted apart’. Sometimes there’s a more prosaic explanation: exams. March to May, the time before and during exams, are difficult months, real relationship-killers, because couples don’t get enough time together away from schools and study books. But everyone agrees that a truly considerate partner, even if unhappy, would wait for exams to get over before breaking up.

Thankfully, not much time would have lapsed between that first tuition class glance and final goodbye because a relationship usually lasts only for about a fortnight to a few months. Janani says there aren’t many couples in her acquaintance who’ve been “going strong” for more than a year. And after the first one, most kids accept that these things are meant to end and be almost entirely free of grief. Inevitably, a best friend will date an ex, an ex may even be part of the group—that’s just life.

For the few who can’t get over a broken relationship, it is a heartbreaking lesson. Raging hormones, confusing peers, work pressure, and the inevitable thought that the rest of the world just doesn’t understand them can drive some adolescents to extremes like tattooing the ex’s name with a knife, or with a permanent marker.

But many contemporary parents are desperately trying to ‘get it’. They’re professionals who grew up in middle-class families, men and women who want to mentor as well as befriend their children, and want them to study hard, but also have a good time. Every generation looks back at its puberty as something of a nicer time, when children had more respect, pop culture was less corrupting, love was deep, food fresher, and air cleaner. But the truth is, even then adolescence was never simple. For every kid who kept the rules, there was an equal number who broke them, and since the diktats were stronger, the lies they told were bigger. One 27-year-old Bangalore-based lady remembers keeping two sets of diaries as a 15-year-old: one a sedate version filled with innocent confession box-style half-truths for her spying mother; the real thing, in which she wrote about her boyfriend, crushes, fears, anger, and fantasies, was hidden under her best friend’s bed.

Dr Madhumita Puri, director of the Society for Child Development in Delhi, says parents these days, especially from the upper middle class, are very cool. “They know that their children have boyfriends and girlfriends and accept it because you can’t really save them from the pain of growing up when the kids are so willing to jump into the fire. All you can do is keep the doors of communication open.”

Kids whose parents have disallowed relationships just work around the rule. The parents of Qais’ Jain girlfriend don’t approve of her relationship, but that hasn’t stopped the pair over the past one year. The Hariharans opted long ago to know what’s going on in their children’s lives, instead of setting rules that are sure to be broken. Usha says she’s always trying to recall what it felt like when she was the same age, and use the information to understand her daughter’s feelings. So, despite the occasional tantrum and disagreement, Janani confidently discusses everything in front of her mother. “I have new words in my vocabulary,” says Usha. “I know what they mean when they say ‘going out’, ‘dump’.” Her son Jayesh began dating at 16 and the college freshman is still seeing the same girl. Usha says her son went through puberty with far more equanimity than her daughter.

The current urban prosperity in India, the general well being, has created far greater physiological upheavals in teenaged girls than in boys. Urban girls today get their first period as early as 11, and so their emotional graph peaks faster than the boys’, who are girl-shy and reserved till they are about 14, even 15.

Girls are also more temperamental, they become sexually aware much earlier, and understand their mating preferences much faster than most boys. So, most 13-year-old girls inevitably prefer slightly older boys, especially those who have achieved local fame in sports. “They feel that the special someone ought to be multifaceted and multitalented,” says Dr Rakhi Anand, clinical psychologist with Apollo Hospital, New Delhi. “Say, a girl’s friends ask her about who she is going out with, the girl ought to be able to say, ‘You know the guy who scored three goals in the last inter-school football match, I am going out with him on Friday’.” This phenomenon, though, says Dr Anand, is more typical of Delhi where children imitate their parents, who are inevitably trying to make friends with more influential adults.

A couple of times a year, Usha and the mothers of a gaggle of 13-year-old girls from the same Mumbai school meet for coffee to mine through the conflicts and confusion of raising their young ladies. Lakshmi Singh, a certified Chartered Accountant who has her own practice, is a coffee-mom with two girls, 16-year-old Sheena and 13-year-old Saloni. Her eldest went out with a boy at 13 and has been through the cycle several times since, but the youngest “hasn’t found the One yet”. Lakshmi classifies herself as fairly prudish on matters of the heart, but prefers to accept the reality of her kids’ social lives rather than be intimidated by it. So, when Sheena broke up with her boyfriend earlier this year, she had her mother’s ear and advice on the matter.

Vageeswari Anantharaman brings another worldview to these coffeemate sessions. Like Usha, she has a 17-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl. For the past four years, she has worked with the Salam Baalak Trust, an NGO that runs shelters for young abandoned girls. She says that for the girls she works with, a relationship is far more intense an experience than it is for her own daughter and friends. “The girls who live at the Trust hit puberty later, and because their insecurity levels are higher, they believe a relationship is far more important and a way to escape from the problems in their life,” she says.

However ephemeral they are, relationships are important to the young urbane teen. In fact, many are apologetic if they don’t have that “special” someone. If forced to think about why they bother at all when their lives are filled with so many activities and family, there’s a tussle between romance and practicality. “You always think that person will be ‘the one’,” says a 13-year-old boy who began dating at 12, has had several girlfriends so far, and whose longest relationship was two months long. Fourteen-year-old Delhi schoolgirl Aakriti Chaddha says, “It’s just great fun to have long conversations over the phone with someone who is closer to you than the rest of the group.”

Of course, not every relationship is cute and innocent, and even children who tell their parents everything sometimes leave the details out. Most kids have an intuitive understanding of how much information their folks can hear and accept without losing their cool. “With some parents, once you tell them, everything will come back to that one thing,” says Pritika. “And you’ll keep hearing it. ‘You’re not smiling, must be the boy.’ ‘There’s a demonstration in Iran, must be the boy.’”

Every mother who strives to talk with her children about everything also insists she knows everything; that she trusts them; that she’s warned her daughter well; that she’s taught her son to be a gentleman; that her child would never deceive her. But hormones have been known to effectively bulldoze logic. Sex is an integral part of teenage conversation, starting from parties where Truth or Dare players goad each other into kissing someone, and revealing uncomfortable truths about themselves. Many kids admit their friends have “gone all the way to third base”. ‘Mistakes’ have become so common that a Hindi movie is about to tackle the subject: director Satish Kaushik’s next venture Tere Sang — A Kidult Love Story deals with teen pregnancy and the relationship between a 15-year-old girl and her 17-year-old boyfriend.

Chetna Vasishth, mother of 13-year-old Abhimanyu, an eighth grader in a Mumbai school, feels the responsibility of having a son very acutely. The onus of shaping a sensible young man who won’t make wrong decisions for himself or a future girlfriend. “They learn about sex education in school but we have to talk to them about things before they get to a difficult situation,” she says. A tough prospect when just getting a teenage boy to talk about his day is like moving a mountain.

Abhimanyu, like most 13-year-old boys, is shy, and reserved. He’s a cricket fan and top-ranker whose ideal mate is an intelligent girl who understands sports. Suffice to say, he hasn’t met anyone yet. A situation that Chetna believes will change soon. “In a year or so, things will be different, and I am prepared. I try and ask him about everything but it’s difficult to get these boys to chat,” she says.

A few months ago, though, Chetna had a breakthrough. Like most contemporary teen moms, Chetna, an MBA graduate who runs her own corporate training company, reads most parenting books in the market. Her present bible is Michael Riera’s Staying Connected To Your Teenager, How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying, where he suggests strategies to get teens to talk by working around their sleep patterns, which are influenced by their hormones. “They’re invariably most alert after nine in the evening, after bedtime,” says Chetna. “I found that if I happen to run into him late at night and casually ask how he’s doing then he really opens up.” She says the discovery has prompted several meaningful conversations with Abhimanyu, except about sex, which she hopes his father will tackle. “My husband says he grew up and figured things out, so will Abhimanyu, but I don’t think that’s enough. These kids have complicated lives, they need that little bit extra.”

With reporting by Anil Budur Lulla in Bangalore, and Avantika Bhuyan in New Delhi