One of the first things I did when I read that John Hughes had died of a heart attack at age 59 last week was go to my Blockbuster online queue and add The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles to the top of my mailing list. I've been subjecting my daughters to '80s movies all summer and I figured this was a sign that they were ready to move into the teen angst genre.
I didn't realize that I wasn't.
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It's been about 25 years since these movies were made. I've grown up, married, given birth to two kids. But, oddly, I still find myself identifying with Hughes' teen muses, not their dopey parents.
The Clueless Parent certainly existed before John Hughes came along, but he breathed life into the caricature. Sure, Hughes was dead-on with what it was like to be a suburban teenager in the 1980s, but he also was on target with his portrayal of how teenagers back then viewed their out-to-lunch, self-absorbed and sometimes undependable parents.
Sixteen Candles is about a girl whose distracted parents forget her birthday. In Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the Sausage King of Chicago's gullible parents are duped time and again by their charming con artist son; Cameron's disinterested parents are nowhere to be found.
In the 1980s, divorce was just starting to devour a generation of families. It was the dawning of working moms and latchkey kids. The drinking age in most states was being raised from 18 to 21, making beer and liquor that much more of a seductive vice. We were Rebels Without a Cause, Home Alone.
The comments about parents are less than complimentary in The Breakfast Club.
"I don't think either one of them gives a shit about me," Claire, Molly Ringwald's character, says. "It's like they use me just to get back at each other."
Now that we're grown and have become parents ourselves, my friends and I laugh about how hopelessly unknowing our own parents were. While they were busy playing bridge, bowling on Friday nights and mixing Harvey Wallbangers, we were sneaking out of the house, drinking beer, smoking pot, having sex. Our parents back then seem like they were B-movie characters in the crazy dramas that were our secret teenage lives.
We will never be that clueless, my friends and I vow. But what are our choices? According to Hollywood's limited parenting roles, we can either be:
· Trying-Too-Hard-To-Be-Cool Mom -- The desperate-for-approval boob-job-in-Juicy-Couture type who wants to be a BFF, not a mom, as portrayed by Amy Poehler in Mean Girls.
· Lost-In-Mid-Life-Crisis Mom -- The detached, preoccupied mom caught up in her own destruction, a la Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate or Sigourney Weaver's character in The Ice Storm.
· Mean Mom -- The cruel, ruthless, crazy kind like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
My girls are still a few years from becoming teenagers, but I like to think I can be like Lorelai Gilmore, the sarcastic, quick-witted mom on the WB's old TV show Gilmore Girls. Lorelai and her teenage daughter Rory banter their way through life. They can talk about anything with each other. Even better, Rory is far smarter and less rebellious than her mother ever was. What a perfect mother-daughter relationship. The only problem is that I can't talk or think half as fast as Lorelai.
And I know that history is destined to repeat itself. My daughters will sneak behind my back and assume I have no idea. I will someday – against my will and despite all my years of experience as a teenager – belong to The Clueless Parent Club. It's inevitable and probably for the best. All kids coming of age need to have a long enough leash to make mistakes and keep their parents in the dark about some things. It's part of the self-discovery process.
Face it, we may have read more parenting books, promised ourselves to keep the lines of communication open and pledged to be different than our own parents, but, in the end, we still have our blind spots. Last year, a survey by the Internet security firm Symantec Corp. found that many parents are unaware of their children's Internet activity. About one in five U.S. children said they do things online their parents would not approve of. They also reported spending 10 times more time online than their parents think they do.
The ultimate clueless parent in the movies – Kate McCallister in Hughes' Home Alone – goes on vacation and forgets her son. I can actually identify with this a little bit. Once, when my youngest daughter was about 15 months old, I realized that I had misplaced her. The hotel elevator door was closing when I snapped out of my early motherhood haze with a jolt and realized I couldn't see her little head around me. I became frantic, screaming and lunging for the door, as everybody around me watched with eyes wide. Then I realized that I was holding her in my arms.
My kids were much too young to remember this, but, because I have told the story so many times, it feels like a real family memory to them. My youngest loves to remind me of it. "Mom, remember the time you were so crazy in that elevator? When you forgot where I was? When you were so ... clueless?"