Wednesday 25 April 2018

Why I fear the school disco

Dear old dad John O'Keeffe gets nervous as his 13-year-old daughter seeks a social life

John O'Keeffe

No one can ever quite prepare you for the transition of our children from doe-eyed infants to teenagers. Blink and you would miss it -- and every generation of parent does.

One minute they're holding your hand walking down the road, the next they're looking to beat you to death with their Uggs -- and that's just the boys. Pink gives way to grey and soon everything is very black indeed.

No longer is it 'whatever' but 'notever'. The child who once looked adoringly into your eyes now sees you as the primary mover of global evil -- at least in so far as it relates to their use of mobile phones and laptops.

For a dad, the chaotic movement of his son from childhood to adolescence doesn't seem quite so traumatic. From a mere daydreamer into a confused daydreamer, we feel we can handle that -- after all, we were that child. For 13-year-old boys, it's really only about bad hair, worse spots and an impressive desire to shower twice a day.

Girls are different. While dads often get little back from their sons in the early years, daughters tend to give more. Every word, every glance, every movement by dad is captured in their minds and hearts, and the only man for them is the big, strong, grumpy eejit in the corner of the kitchen.

Then it all changes, and in the past year I have learnt what it is like to hand over your daughter to the Bebo generation. One minute we're laughing and joking, the next she's locked in her bedroom where 'fairness' has become not just an aspirational anchor but a cult religion. Then, last week, my eldest uttered the immortal words. The words that every single parent in south Dublin dreads -- these are no ordinary words: "Dad, I want to go to Wes."

Those of us who have passed this pot pourri of adolescent angst on a Friday evening leave in disbelief. The girls are probably no more than 14 years of age, but many would pass for 20.

The boys look somewhat more their age beside the girls from south Dublin schools and, indeed, many look positively monk-like by comparison. Surely my first-born daughter would never wish to be part of this melee? Surely for her the joys of baking with her mum and a night in watching 'Winning Streak' would prove too alluring? Yeah right, as she might say herself.

I had just managed to prise the laptop from her cold claws last week when the bolt came from out of the blue. "Everyone" was going "to Wes" (even the nuns?) and she couldn't be left out.

If she was told she couldn't go, she would almost certainly have rung Childline and advised them of how Dad was treating her and say that we had ruined her life and left her isolated in her class where she would be the subject of ridicule the following Monday.

She could sense our desperation and so came in with an inspired suggestion. "Dad, I won't wear a skirt," she announced. "What about jeans and high heels instead?" she asked. The little girl who was born on that hot summer night in east London only 13-and-a-half years ago now wanted my approval to dress up as a woman. I accepted immediately. When the choice is between a short skirt or trousers and heels high, heels win any day.

Now the whole thing had gained unstoppable momentum. The event was on the eve of St Patrick's Day and there wasn't much time to spare. Suddenly, she wanted to go shopping with me. The girl who only a day earlier had advised that walking out in public with her made her a little bit sick in her mouth was now prepared to walk around a shopping centre with me looking for, yes, you guessed it, high heels.

Not a lot of dads will know this, but Dunnes is your only man when it comes to high heels for teenage girls. As she tried them on I was given dagger stares by a couple of elderly shoppers, who must have thought I was either her terrifically elderly boyfriend or perhaps her care worker -- or both.

Either way, she was ecstatic -- the transition from childhood to adolescence was complete in her eyes. Yet all was not as it seemed. As we walked out of the shopping centre, she couldn't but notice McDonalds and asked if we could go in. "Why?" I asked. "You've just eaten." "I'd love a Shamrock Shake," she said somewhat poignantly. When she's older, I'll tell her that was as a close as she got that week to not going to Wes.

Wednesday came around like an exam day you just want to forget and the plans were firmly in place. "Everyone" was going down to her friends house before they went to get ready (not sure about the nuns) and really I wasn't to worry about her any more after that.

Her mother hovered around her like a hawk all the way down to her friends, where she and the other mothers (the enforcers) drew straws to see who would drive the kids to the gates of the club and watch them go in -- without bags for surreptitious changes.

I had failed to mention to my daughter that I would be hovering around the club at the same time to keep a watchful eye.

I couldn't spot her anywhere. Two or three times I drove past the queue but she was nowhere to be seen. There are only so many times a 47-year-old man can cruise up and down past a queue of teenagers before someone calls the guards, so I went home for a night of nail biting and assumptions of apocalyptic behaviour.

She had been warned to be outside at 11.45pm or face retribution of biblical proportions and it seemed to work. At 11.43pm, out she hobbled with her friends, looking like extras from Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'. If their make-up was badly applied before they went in, most of them now looked as if they would have promising careers in the circus.

Feet were crippled, lipstick was on foreheads (go figure) and mascara was everywhere except on their faces. All the talk on the journey home was of the girls they had met (a cunning decoy) and what fun they all had. By the end of the journey, I believed them and my faith in their innocence was becoming restored.

As we had toast and tea in the kitchen I asked how the night really went. "Pretty good, Dad. I met some nice guys," she said. I didn't know whether to congratulate her or call the guards.

"Would you like to go again?"

"Yeah, maybe," she said, "Can I?"

"Let's see how you get on with your exams and how your behaviour goes," I said.

"Fair enough," came the most reasonable reply. She kissed me on the forehead and went up to bed, leaving me with the kitchen clock and 13 years of memories.

It's hard to know if you do the right thing as a dad at times like this, but I suppose you can only follow your instincts and put up safeguards for them.

On the basis that there is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and the future is let in, I guess my eldest daughter had it last week.

Oh, and as to whether she'll be going to Wes again?

Not on your bloody life.

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