The teenage years are driving me ... to the mall

Deborah Lindsay Williams writes about what it takes to raise a teenager in Abu Dhabi.

"Hanging out” seems to be the primary verb of adolescence. Silvia Razgova / The National
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When my son was a baby, I used to sneak into his room at night to watch him sleep. I would rest my hand on his tiny back, and marvel at how perfectly my thumb would fit into the graceful indent at the base of his skull, at just that point where the skull balances on top of the spine. I knew he would grow up because that’s what all the parenting books said, but somehow, there in the dark listening to him breathe, I found it difficult to imagine.

Well, as predicted, that growing-up thing has happened; that spot where my thumb used to fit so perfectly is much bigger now, and were I to attempt such a caress in anything other than the most private of moments, I would get a groan, an eye-roll, and a “mom!” of protest.

The parenting books were right about the growing-up thing, but they neglected a key detail: no one told me about “the driving years”. This period starts about the time your child stops letting you hug him in public and stops (I hope) somewhere around the time he leaves for university.

The driving years sneak up on you: first it’s just the occasional football practice on the weekend; then it’s football and maybe rugby; then it’s football, rugby, art class and a stop at a friend’s house. Before you know it your entire Saturday has been spent behind the wheel of a car.

In Manhattan, where we lived before our children were old enough to publicly transport themselves, teenagers can take a bus or a train almost anywhere they want to go. For those occasions when public transport won’t work, a parent is pressed into action – or a taxi. The traffic in New York is so bad that the possibility of a serious traffic accident is fairly negligible. Here, of course, where even a trip to the grocery store can result in feeling like you’ve stumbled onto the set of Furious 7, a taxi ride seems like a riskier proposition.

The F1-wannabes who zoom around Abu Dhabi’s roads make me anxious about letting “my baby” take cabs. In some odd manifestation of parental protectiveness, I have decided that if my child is going to be in a traffic accident, I want to be at the wheel. I don’t want some unknown taxi or Uber driver to be responsible. I’m not sure my logic entirely makes sense – my teenager thinks I am utterly unreasonable – but so far I’m resisting his pleas that I change my mind.

My son’s adolescence has not only resulted in a lot more driving, it has also forced me to reconsider “the mall”. I am generally not a fan of shopping malls, but the adolescent need to be somewhere that is not home has driven me, as it were, to see malls in a different light. Malls offer a neutral “hangout” space: no parental oversight, no pesky siblings. “Hanging out” seems to be the primary verb of adolescence. I don’t know what it translates to in Arabic, but in my mind, I imagine malls full of rows of teenagers draped like wet laundry hanging out to dry.

I grumble as I drive from mall to mall (the soundtrack of the driving years: teenagers grunting in surly disdain; parents complaining). But then I wonder: What else could they do? There is only so much beach a person can handle before sunburn takes its toll, and Abu Dhabi doesn’t have a “high street” where kids can amble along poking in and out of shops and cafes.

With every new building that breaks ground, I have a moment of hope: an idea lab, maybe, or a media centre with gadgets and studios, perhaps a big library. And I think that maybe when the Saadiyat museums open, maybe the teenagers will decide to hang with the masterpieces, but that doesn’t solve the immediate problem.

Or perhaps these grunting teenagers would concede to hanging out, laundry-like, in the newly designed Mushrif Central Park, now that the weather is starting to cool down?

I wonder how long it will take me to drive there.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi