Years ago, when I taught high school English, one of my favorite writing assignments was instructing my students to choose important life moments and pair them with a song. We called this assignment “A Soundtrack to My Life.” My students usually enjoyed completing this assignment, and I enjoyed reading them.
That assignment has stuck with me, probably because I always have music playing — whether I’m making dinner or driving the car. When a song plays that perfectly describes a moment, I pay close attention. And so, I thought I’d give myself a similar assignment: create a soundtrack for parents of teenagers. Here it is.
“Wide Open Spaces” by the Chicks
This song from the album that goes by the same name, was released during my senior year of high school in 1998. Hearing it immediately takes me back to my teenage years.
For an entire summer, I prepared myself for the big goodbye and for trading my small-town farm life for college by driving with my car windows down, blaring “Wide Open Spaces” as I dreamed of the new adventures waiting for me in a slightly larger town on the other side of the state. When my parents dropped me off at college on that late summer day, I couldn’t conjure a tear. I was primed by the song and ready, as the Chicks say, “to make big mistakes.”
Now, as I parent, I feel much more compassion for my parents than I did at that time. I imagine my mom getting back in the truck, empty now without my piles of clothes, thinking, “I’m leaving my girl.”
Soon, it will be my turn to drop off my kids at college. (Just thinking about that moment clenches my heart the same way it did when I left them at elementary school for the first time!) I’ll be getting in my empty SUV, leaving my boys to discover those “wide open spaces” and make their own big mistakes.
“Back Into My Arms” by Cloud Cult
The first time I heard this song, I almost had to pull the car over because of my emotional response. I immediately texted a link to my sister, another mom on the verge of an empty nest. This song, all about letting go, is for those moments when you’re frustrated by a dirty dish left in the bedroom, one more load of soccer laundry, and that eye roll you didn’t deserve.
All too soon, my teenage sons will no longer live under my roof, and I’ll be living these heart-wrenching lyrics: “I’m supposed to raise you to have the strength to leave the nest / But the day that you leave this home my heart will leave my chest.” Ugly cries for days.
If you want to listen to another Cloud Cult song that gives parents a gut punch, cue up “You Were Born.”
“If This Is the Last Time” by LANY
This album is appropriately titled “Mama’s Boy,” and that might be all you need to know. This sweet song was written during the early days of Covid when the writer was concerned about losing his parents. After a particularly stress-filled evening of pushing my son’s buttons after a long week of AP classes and soccer practice, these words ran through my head: “Sorry for the fights and the tone of my voice / Sorry for the nights when I made the wrong choice / Life is flyin’ by and it’s hittin’ me now.”
Our time with our kids is a gift. Months and years fly by, and before we know it, they’re grown up and gone. If we live as “if this is the last time,” we can make even the most mundane moments with them special and build lasting memories of this precious time with our teens.
“Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” by Arcade Fire
When Arcade Fire’s new album released over the summer, this song became an anthem for my husband as we tried to navigate giving more independence to our teenage sons. Somehow we needed to balance telling them to make safe choices and avoid danger — “Don’t take candy from strangers. Wear your helmet. Practice safe sex.” — while also encouraging them to try new experiences, take healthy risks, and not be afraid of failing or making mistakes.
Win Butler, lead singer of the band, said this song was “a lullaby for the end times, sung to my son, but for everyone.” The song provides the perfect reminder: “‘Cause nothing is ever perfect / No one’s perfect / Let me say it again, no one’s perfect.” That’s a good motto to remember, for parents and teens alike.
“Anybody Have a Map?” from Dear Evan Hansen
This duet between a mother and her son from the musical Dear Evan Hansen, describes many of my parenting moments. So many times I wish I had the how-to manual, but I am “flying blind,” asking “where’s the map?” Most days I feel like the mom singing this song, just “making this up as I go.” These lyrics and conversations with other parents of teens, however, remind me that when I feel lost, I can look to my husband, my friends, and the community and experts at Your Teen for support and advice. None of us have to go on this parenting journey alone.
There you have it, five songs that perfectly encapsulate the phases of parenting I experienced while raising my teenage boys. Are you thinking about songs that personify your parenting journey? Maybe you’ll add some of these favorites to your soundtrack, too.