OK. Either you or your child has decided that the beautiful island of Jamaica is a must see and do. Fine. That is laudable and shows that either one or the both of you have some taste. Now, I would like to open your eyes to a few hard, cold facts before either of you board that plane:
1. Your teen will love you for bringing him or her to this island paradise, but they will NOT love spending the majority of their time with you, near you or listening to you.
2. Jamaica is chock-full of breathtaking sights and views that you will never experience anywhere else on this planet. Your teen will have little, if any, interest in this side of tourism.
3. The beaches, particularly Negril’s 7-mile stretch of perfection, are still, calm and peaceful with barely a ripple in the water. Any teen worth their salt will have located the loudest, smelliest, gas-guzzling-machines-for-rent within 24 hours of landing on the beach.
4. Did I mention that YOU would be paying for all of these motorized sports? (Hold that thought!) It will be your ace-in the-hole later in your trip.)
Before panic sets in and you start thinking of doing Disney ‘one more time’; there is a magical side to the island and it’s rhythms that connect deeply with an adolescent’s developing independence. Maybe this connection hinges on the fact that both the island and the teen are just entering into a sense of themselves and their places in the world? Perhaps it is because in Jamaica, most adolescents are considered ‘grown’ and expected to behave like, young adults rather than over-sized children? Whatever it is, it is truly a wonderful experience to watch as any teen finds their place among the people and the customs of this Caribbean Jewel.
My son and I ended up choosing Negril for our entry into Jamaican society. Negril suited our two vastly different age groups (I am 40 and he is 14) ‘to a tee’. I like swimming, live reggae and eating. He likes walking the beach, live reggae and spending my money; we were both happy. There was far more activity and tourists on Negril Beach than I would choose for myself traveling alone, but with a little negotiation, a happy compromise can be reached. I’m sure you and your boss/overseer…oops! I meant teen, will also be able to arrive at an arrangement agreeable to the both of you.
Let’s begin with accommodations. I got to choose our first hotel because I am really the boss, (shhhh) and, again, I was paying. I landed us in a somewhat upscale, smaller property that was gorgeous and ‘private’ and somewhat boring if you were a teen alone with your mother and no other kids in sight. After 3 days we were both so accustomed to the beach and it’s ways that we were venturing farther and longer from our villa every day.
My son began his campaign to move us ‘closer to the action’ our first night in Negril. He worked harder than a higgler to get me to even look at some of the other beach properties but I’m glad I did. We ended up with a room closer to the ocean, at half the rate with a much nicer view and centrally located to most everything from glass bottom boat rentals to live Reggae. This hotel was quite full compared to the place I had started us at and we were usually surrounded by groups of people speaking several different languages at once; English, German, Italian, etc., and we were much closer to the locals and Ex-pats in the area as well.
If you want to meet people, go to the center of the beach and bring a teen! Even if you find yourself in that most desperate of circumstances, having a teen ALONE with no similarly aged friend or cousin from back home brought along expressly for the purpose of allowing YOU to remain prone on a lounge chair for two weeks, (see if I make THAT mistake again), you will still find plenty of friendly people to help keep your teen occupied. Jamaicans seem to expect more from their teens than what we typically do from our adolescents in the States, but by the same token, they also treat teens as somewhat responsible citizens capable of making choices for themselves. Most young people in Jamaica work very hard. Younger teens go to school and work, the older ones work longer. You will seldom see Jamaican youths lounging on the beach (that is left for the older guys and Ex-pats picking up tourist women) or whining to their parents that they are bored (that is left for the tourist children who are going through withdrawal from their TV’s and video games). I noticed that whenever two or more Jamaican teens were gathered together with more than five free minutes to themselves, they wasted no time in whipping up a game of soccer, volleyball or ‘beach spinning’ sort of a Jamaican version of cannonballs, only done from the shore, head-first into very shallow water! They were also able to have loads of fun and laughter with very little money to help with the entertainment. If your teen fails to notice this on their own, by all means point this out to them at every available occasion! One of the big advantages to having your teen witness other teens working hard and being self reliant, is the fact that they will also be able to experience first hand the rewards and responsibilities that come with behaving so well.
The French have a term ‘rapprochement’ (rah proach mon) that essentially means ‘to re-approach’. It is used often in psychology to describe the sort of give-and-take tug-of-war going on between parents and teens during this sometimes-challenging time known as adolescence. On the one hand, teens crave and need to explore and stretch beyond their comfort zone AND yours! This is how they learn. On the other hand, teens need and crave a secure ‘home base’ to retreat to or ‘re-approach’ in between explorations. This is how they feel safe while they are learning. Your teen, if the are conducting themselves as the budding adults that they are, will most likely be asked if they would like a shot of rum added to their coke or served a cold Red Stripe right along with you at dinner. Young men may approach them on the beach to buy tobacco or marijuana. This is a bit of an adjustment for most teens coming from a country like America that requires they be 18 before they can purchase a book of matches! (Actually, this will probably be much more of an adjustment for you! Your teen has most likely already been offered these same things and then some! It’s just that in Negril it’s much more open.) This is a very unique opportunity for you to actually BE THERE, to watch or help “WHEN NEEDED”, as your teen develops their own sense of testing waters and setting limits.
[Side note: If, for whatever reason, you have not had ‘the talks’ with your child regarding drugs and alcohol. NOW would be a good time. However your family chooses to handle these topics is a personal matter but I would discuss them before you hit the beach. FYI: Drinking alcohol in Jamaica doesn’t appear to be as popular among teens, or the population in general, as it is in the States. My son noticed in the first few days that the vast majority of people that he saw that appeared to have drunk too much were tourists. If you are staggering down the beach, in a drunken state, you will stand out. It is not common or ‘normal’ at all. I think this is a good message for U.S. teens that are bombarded with advertisers that try and normalize booze on a daily basis back home. Marijuana is illegal in Jamaica. It is ESPECIALLY illegal for little American children who have never experienced a Jamaican jail before nor have the resources to bail themselves out should they not believe you. My advice? Let your teen have the medical benefits of marijuana explained to them by one of the older fishermen or Rastafarians on the beach. Nothing quite takes the mystique off of ganja like having an 80-year-old man show your child ‘close-up’, just how the local herb helps his arthritic toes and relieves hemorrhoids! (We never actually SAW the hemorrhoid preparation but trust me; pot will never again seem quite so cool for your teen after an introduction like that!) ]
They should feel silly even uttering the word ‘bored’ and I doubt you will hear that phrase even half as much as you do back home…if at all! Negril is set up to accommodate socializing, eating/drinking on the go and impulse buying. In other words, it is very similar to the malls back home except THIS mall just happens to be in the fresh, open air, is almost seven miles long and sits on one of the most beautiful stretches of powdery-white-gold sand in the world! The water is bathtub warm and very calm. If your teens looks a day older than Haley Joel Osment (that kid-actor that saw dead people) or has enough cash, they will most likely be able to rent large, powerful machines on their own. Do not be as horrified as I was at first. Don’t forget what I said earlier. The ability to pull the plug on the entire motorized deal lays completely in YOUR hands…BOTTOM LINE! Also, bear in mind that the young men that rent these machines, also own these wave-runners or are friends/colleagues of the guy that does. These guys usually grew up on this island and know the Caribbean like you do your hometown. They know where to ride and what speeds are safe. They not only have a vested interest in your child safely returning (their main source of income) but there seems to be a genuine warmth among Jamaican men, in general, towards children. Teens are not babied here as they often are back in the States. They are expected to hold conversations as adults and be respectful! I never ONCE heard a Jamaican teen speak disrespectfully to any adult and not draw excessive amounts of attention to themselves. In return, they will be spoken to like adults, given choices to make on their own, treated as an almost equal and even have THEIR thoughts and opinions listened to once in a while. Really listened to; and respected.
I know that I certainly learned a bit about parenting in general and my son in particular, on this trip. We learned quite a bit about each other actually and, you know what? We discovered that we might actually be the kinda folks that each of us would like to hang around with once in a while. While this may be a wonderful opportunity for you and your teen to come together as equals in a way that is quite unique. This is NOT the time or place for your kid to discover that you were once the ‘keg queen’ at your dorm or the guy that could always be counted on to drink the bong water! Remember: “rapprochement”! They need a home base to re-approach when they become uncertain or nervous and that home base is YOU. I made sure that I was always the one to “yawwwn” and get tired first or comment on how loud the music was getting. (Yeah, right!) Now is not the time when your teen should have to be worried that they ‘can’t keep up with Mom or Dad’. Let them be the little explorers and adventurers that nature intended them to be. You be the anchor to hold them steady as they reach and explore the wonders of the beach life… and themselves in Negril.
ADDED BONUS!! After becoming adept at the social skills required of a tourist on the beaches of Negril, High School and all of its potential angst and social minefields will be a walk in the park for your now ‘World-Wise’ teen.
Suzette Lisuk M.A. is an Individual and Family Therapist living in the Pacific northwest of the United States with her 14-year-old son, Nicholas. They both happened to have fallen in love with Jamaica this year. Feel free to email either of them with any questions you may have.