Today’s debate centred on whether we should dismantle the large 20 foot by 20 foot shed at the bottom of the garden. This will be Toby’s next project and he is keen to get started. Admittedly it is falling apart and currently inhabited by an assortment of wildlife. But it holds many memories for me both good and bad. It was a rites of passage for all the boys and their friends and indeed most of the teenagers in the neighbourhood. It is where they had their first joints, drank alcohol and where some even lost their virginity. Its reputation proceeded it and The Abyss, as it came to be known as, was spoken of with pride.
A good distance from the house it was a perfect hideaway and could be reached by the path at the side of the house. Thus not having to meet with any parents! Some might think I was irresponsible but as the mother of 3 very opinionated headstrong boys it was my saving grace. Better that I didn’t know what they were doing down there and much better that they were here rather than in a park somewhere.
So today I am going to reprint an article that I wrote for The Guardian in 2004. The first incumbent of the Abyss was my first-born Zak. He was having a particular difficult adolescence and thus he needed space as did we.
Go to your shed
What’s the worst thing about being the parent of a teenage boy? Is it the noise? Is it the mess? Is it their friends? Is it the almost daily trek you need to make to the supermarket to keep them stocked up with nosh? Is it the appalling language, the irregular sleeping patterns, or the continual drain on your bank balance?
Clearly a difficult call. So what parent wouldn’t want to eliminate most of the above? What parent wouldn’t want to put at least 100 feet between themselves and the source of all this misery? What parent wouldn’t want to do as we managed to do – send their 17-year-old son to live in the garden?
Here’s what we did. One, bought a 20ft by 20ft wooden shed-cum-house. Two, erected it on a concrete platform at the end of the garden. Three, installed running water, heating and electricity. Four, sat back and enjoyed our regained space and peace. Now we can only vaguely hear the music; we hardly ever see our son’s friends; he has his own stash of food, and he doesn’t disturb us every few minutes.
It’s a great solution to a problem that had its roots when our son – the eldest of our three boys – got his first surge of testosterone. At the time, I was totally unprepared for the radical change in our relationship and the impact it would have on our lives and that of the two younger boys.
My son is a talented musician, a creative, individualistic and strong-willed boy. He has two demanding, goal-oriented, and egocentric parents. Not surprisingly, the result is fireworks – not just your odd sparkler or banger, but full-blown November 5 all the time. We both needed our space, so when, in the midst of one of the daily arguments, I suggested he go and live in a shed at the bottom of the garden, he took me up on it and, like a dog with a bone, didn’t let go until it became a reality.
Six months later, and £8,000 poorer, we had the shed (complete with own front door, windows and Yale lock) at the bottom of the garden. It is far enough from the house to give him his privacy and independence and us some peace. That was 18 months ago, and it really has changed our lives for the better.
But would it work for every family? Social psychologist Richard Stevens of the Open University thinks separate living space for older teenagers is a brilliant idea. “You can’t kick them out at 17 because they are too young,” he says. “But this way they get the excitement and freedom of having their own space with the security of still being linked to the home. It is like a halfway house to independence.”
Some of my friends think we are too liberal and that we will all suffer as a consequence. What about boundaries and rules, they say? In the past we had lots of boundaries and rules, but they were constantly being broken and the resulting scenario was perpetual conflict. Now, because he has his own space, there are fewer rules and subsequently fewer conflicts. It is hard to be a gatekeeper to teenagers, but there are still some regulations. If he doesn’t go to school, then he has to deal with the consequences. If he gets kicked out, then he will need to find a job and pay rent. If he is not coming home at night, I ask him, out of courtesy, to text us and let us know.
Am I concerned about what he gets up to at the bottom of the garden? Not really. I am sure he does things that I wouldn’t particularly like, but at least my two younger sons and I don’t have to see what is going on. He is discreet and I don’t ask too many questions. I have a spare key but don’t enter without permission unless it is an emergency. It would be hypocritical of me to come down as the heavy parent – I was a child of the 60s and 70s and by 16 I had left home and was living a life my parents certainly wouldn’t have approved of in southern Spain.
My biggest worry is that I have made the house at the end of the garden too comfortable so he won’t want to leave home. Will he still be in the shed, enjoying his space and freedom and proximity to London, at the age of 30? It’s a worry, but we have a cunning plan. We won’t push him out, but his younger brothers will. They, after all, deserve their time in the garden house: moving in there will become almost a family rite of passage. The 13-year-old plans to oust his brother when he gets to 16: in anticipation, he’s already planning his first party.
“Let’s be careful out there“