Beta male: a tip for parents of teenage boys

A few months ago, my 17-year-old son announced a plan to go on holiday for a week in Portugal this summer with eight mates on his own. That’s not a contradiction, by the way. Yes, he was proposing going with eight mates, but he was also proposing going without his parents. So therefore, from his father’s point of view, he was proposing going on his own.

Now, in the past that suggestion would have been my cue to issue a few stern parental bromides designed to nip this clearly precocious scheme in the bud – designed, too, to throw a cloak of reason over my mortal panic at the thought that my son might be anywhere near old enough to be taking independent vacations.

And then I might have supported my case with a salutary moral story from the pages of history. Such as the fact that throughout my own childhood my family only ever went on two holidays. By which, I don’t mean that we alternated annually between two locations.

What I mean is that we only ever went on two holidays in total.

Those holidays in full: Cornwall and Somerset. Very nice, thank you for asking. Which is probably just as well, really, because it would have been a shame, in the circumstances, if they had been miserable – if it had rained, even, which I don’t believe it did, apart from during a somehow symbolic thunderstorm on the last night in Somerset. It was as if the gods themselves knew that, for the Smiths, the golden years of holidaying were finally over.

The reasons for this dearth were principally economic (there were six of us, so it was a bit of a stretch), but one should also factor in a strong congenital strand of basic incuriosity which didn’t seem at the time to be untypical of our region (Essex). I sometimes think it’s amazing that we got as far as Cornwall and Somerset, in fact. But certainly, when you’ve seen Cornwall and Somerset, you’ve seen it all.

So here was material I could have shared with my son, combining crisp, argument-ending dismissiveness with a stiff shot of perspective from the family album. Except I didn’t, because I was far more cunning. This, as it happens, is my middle child. And this means that, conveniently, I have some experience with travel schemes floated randomly by 17- year-olds – rock festivals in Croatia accessed by coach, mob-handed under-age descents on Amsterdam etc. I also have some experience of bridling instantly at their preposterousness and then finding myself in an argument. But I have also realised subsequently that you don’t need to. You don’t need to get into any kind of wearily rhetorical conversation about logistics. You don’t need to hear these boys set out their patently threadbare strategies for funding these ventures by babysitting and selling stuff on eBay. Because the simple fact is, these ventures aren’t going to happen.

They’re 17-year-old boys! Seventeen-year-old boys quite frequently struggle to organise their way out of the front door, and that’s a trip that doesn’t require flights and accommodation. Seventeen-year-old boys are constantly dreaming up fantastical projects that the world and its tedious, soul-crushing practicalities will duly smash to bits on first contact. That’s partly what being 17 is about.

So all you have to do at such moments, as a parent, is nod reflectively and say, “That sounds interesting. Let us know how you get on.” And then you leave it all to fall apart of its own accord.

Really, this is the sole piece of solid-gold parenting advice that I have to offer. No need to have the fight. No need to expend the energy. No need to come across as a disconnected old sad-arse, chuntering on about “my day”. No need to risk exposing the truth behind the prickly protectiveness stirred in you by these schemes, which is the knowledge – impossibly saddening when it catches you at the wrong moment – that you are quickly and unavoidably outgrowing your purpose.

“That sounds interesting,” I said to my son, those few months ago. “Let us know how you get on.” And then I sat back smugly to watch the whole plan wither.

Anyway, he’s just back from a week in Portugal with eight mates. Because they only went and got it together, didn’t they? While I just stood around nodding my bogus approval and waiting for the project to wreck itself.

What can I say? He appears to be undamaged. Me too, I guess. They didn’t even manage to lose the swingeing cash deposit that they were obliged to put down on the house they rented with the money they earned from babysitting and selling stuff on eBay. Deposit intact? After a lads’ holiday? Maybe they weren’t doing it right.

Might need to have a word with him about that. Will pick my moment, of course. It’s a tactical game.