Why wouldn't a 16-year-old boy want to live on a houseboat?

See, there's this maverick single dad with three adopted kids, and he buys this old houseboat and starts restoring it ...

Published July 14, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a single dad with three boys (ages 2, 3 and 16). I recently bought an older houseboat, but it is in very good condition and I am planning on renovating it soon. I want to eventually move onto the houseboat full time. I have always wanted to live on a houseboat, since before I adopted my children (my eldest six years ago, the youngest two last year). I have also always been a rather unconventional person, going against the grain, doing things my own way in my own time; hence my adoption of three children without ever getting married. My children are my life's dream and I understood the sacrifices I would have to make in order to have a family.

I have weighed the pros and cons of living on a houseboat with children and have concluded it is something we could do with some adjustments. I am apprehensive because of what my friends and family are going to say about the situation, and they would be partially right: That I am being somewhat selfish in wanting this now. Why now? Why can't I wait? I can't honestly answer that question except to say, why wait?

My eldest son thinks it's a bad idea and is giving me a hard time. He says he doesn't want to make the lifestyle changes of living in a much smaller "home." What I don't understand from him is that between school, after-school activities, sports, his part-time job and time with his friends, he hardly spends any time in our house unless he is compelled to, and when he does, all he does is hibernate in his bedroom.

What do you think? Am I being selfish? Am I thrusting my dreams onto my children at their expense? Or am I just continuing my nontraditional, nonconforming ways, which has done me very well in the past? Should I just wait until my children are grown to live this part of my life's dream?

Dad Thrown Overboard

Dear Dad Thrown Overboard,

I have thought this through, and I'll give you my conclusions, or my suggestions, upfront, and then go into the thought process behind it. Basically, I think you should keep your house for the next three years while you work on the houseboat and spend occasional weekends or weeks on it. I think you should let your teenager reach the age of 19 with a stable home and his own room.

Then when he is old enough to live on his own, the youngest kids will still be just 5 and 6, and you can go live on the houseboat with them. If your older son wants to live on the houseboat with you, you can consider that; if he wants to continue living in your house, perhaps you can make an arrangement to rent it to him or sell it to him or give it to him. Or if he goes away to college or moves away for other reasons, you can do with your house as you see fit.

Now here is the thinking and feeling behind that suggestion. I think it's not about the houseboat per se. It's about the fact that your 16-year-old has emotional needs that he can't express. And it's not your job to argue with him about whether his feelings and needs are legitimate, but to try to understand them and meet them.

Let's think about what he might be feeling. You adopted him when he was 10. What happened to his parents? We don't know. But we do know that he's had a loss and needs stability. So for five years it was the two of you. Then last year you adopted two more boys, very young kids.

We can guess that you, being a nonconformist, are not a great fan of stability for its own sake. You like change. You like to do interesting, challenging, unconventional things, and you like new things. That's fine for you.

Yet routine, predictability and convention may be the very things your 16-year-old needs right now. It's possible that you are not hearing him, emotionally speaking, when you say that he stays in his room all the time anyway. The fact that he's staying in his room doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't value the house. It may mean just the opposite -- that more than anything right now he needs the stability of his own room, the control he can exercise over his environment. If you take him into a new environment, you may rob him of that control. So naturally he's anxious about change.

Look at it from his perspective. For five years he was your only son. Then last year you brought two very young boys into the family. So he was displaced a little. Now you are suggesting uprooting him from a stable place.

You may not realize how disturbing this prospect can be, but I do. I grew up in a household headed by a man who was unconventional, a true nonconformist. And there were certain advantages to my upbringing. I learned a lot. I learned to think outside the box -- I didn't even know there was a box.

But like most kids I had emotional needs that were not all that original or interesting. I was just a kid like any other kid. I had the ability to act as though I was happy with things the way they were. But often I was confused and bewildered by the changes that would take place in our household, and by the very complicated ideas about living that both my father and mother had. And though I am now ashamed to admit it, as a child I was ashamed -- yes, ashamed! -- of our unconventional ways, of how we were regarded in the world. I was secretly a very anxious child.

The way I dealt with my anxiety was, I hid it. They had no way of knowing what I was feeling. I wouldn't show it to them. I wouldn't let them know. It was too painful. It would have been almost too painful to actually say, I need this or I need that and face the possibility of explicitly being denied. So I pretended. One might be tempted to say that since I so successfully hid my needs, it isn't their fault that they didn't provide for them; it is true that I collaborated in my own emotional neglect. But the two actors in this are not equal. The parent should not have to be educated by the kid about what the kid needs. The kid cannot say what he needs.

I had nonnegotiable emotional needs that were not being met, and that wasn't my fault. I loved my family of course and still do. But I felt a great deal of emotional pain and anxiety as a child. I was a very anxious teenager and my anxiety manifested itself in drug and alcohol abuse, depression and an inability to plan for the future.

So I'm identifying with your 16-year-old and I'm projecting onto you some of my anger at my father when I hear you say that your 16-year-old doesn't use the house all that much anyway, so why not move to a houseboat. His relationship to the house isn't a function of how many net hours he spends within its walls. What the house means to him isn't quantifiable in that way. What matters is that the house is there and he knows it is there and he knows it isn't going anywhere. When you grow up with unconventional parents you never know what's going to happen next, so knowing that a house is going to be there for you can be of extraordinary importance. It can seem like a life-or-death matter. I know this from personal experience.

So yeah, it does make me angry. I'm angry on behalf of your 16-year-old, who can't argue successfully with you because it's not an even playing field. You can throw these logical arguments at him and he doesn't have the vocabulary to refute them, or the sophistication to tell you that logic has nothing to do with his needs as a child.

The implicit pact you made with him is that you will understand for him what he can't understand himself, and you will provide for his needs that he can't explain or express. If kids had to understand their own needs, and instruct their parents on how to meet those needs, they wouldn't get raised. So you are in the position of having to see what he needs. And I think what he's telling you in an indirect and inarticulate way is that he very much needs to stay in that house.

See, I remember that from my childhood: "Give me a good reason. Make a good, sustained argument for why you need that." Are you kidding? You're asking a kid to explain why he needs what he needs? The kid doesn't know why he needs what he needs.

Oh, hell, I'm getting too much into my own story, which I continue to have powerful feelings about. Well, I'm going to see my therapist in a couple of hours, so maybe he and I will talk about this then. But I'm saying this for your benefit, and your 16-year-old's benefit: Try to put yourself in the position of your 16-year-old son and try to empathize, try to imagine what he may be feeling. Not what he's thinking -- but what he's going through, what he's feeling.

So please, please keep the house for three more years while you work on the houseboat. If you do so, I can almost promise you that one day your 16-year-old will be grateful to you for doing that. Even if he never tells you, even if he never explicitly admits it to himself, still, in some corner of his heart, he will be grateful. And then you will know that you have done a very, very good thing in this world.

  • Get on the mailing list for Cary Tennis Books.

    The Best of Cary Tennis

    "Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

    What? You want more advice?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice. Letter writers: Please think carefully! By sending a letter to advice@salon.com, you are giving Salon permission to publish it. Once you submit it, it may not be possible to rescind it. So be sure. If you are not sure, sleep on it. You can always send tomorrow. Ready? OK, Submit your letter for publication.
  • Or, just make a comment to Cary Tennis not for publication.
  • Or, send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Adoption Family Since You Asked Teenagers