My 13-year-old son, Daniel, has recently rocketed out of kids' shoe sizes and now has feet the size of a small Caribbean island. It's one of the funny things about kids: their growing bodies may fool you into expecting big behavior, but their psyches and emotions are still child-sized. Yes, looks can be deceiving.
No longer child, not yet man. That's where my eldest son is now balanced. Actually, slouched is probably the more accurate term to describe his posture as he pores over the newspaper's sports section, memorizing more statistics and studying new season line-ups.
It's an age of contradictions, vaulting from child to teen. He's growing faster than bamboo, so I'll probably have to look up to yell at him by next Tuesday. And yet, even with all this, and while wearing these enormous shoes, he still calls me Mommy. It won't last for long, so it's music to my ears.
It's an age of contradictions for me as well. This week, I reluctantly let Daniel take a public bus alone for the first time. Although my son researched the route, had more than enough money for his rides, and called me as soon as he arrived at his friend's house, my nervous stomach during his absence told me that one of us still wasn't ready for this.
Our son's affinity for hibernating in his room behind a closed door poses a challenge.
Daniel also demands more privacy, yet I also want to keep closer tabs on him than ever. Teens become certain that they know just about everything -- a terrifying thought as they gain independence. I think Daniel actually may wonder how his dad and I stumble through life, knowing as little as we do. And because teens suddenly feel so smart, parental influence often plummets dramatically. This makes our son's affinity for hibernating in his room behind a closed door a challenge.
What kind of music does he listen to in there? What's he talking about with his pals? Are they talking about girls, and how are they talking about them? These are new concerns, but as the old saw goes, Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. I resist the temptation to stand with my ear to the door, but nearly shudder as I remember some of my own adolescent antics that could have induced a stroke in my parents had they known about them.
For peace of mind, I sometimes survey Daniel's room for clues to his life. Fortunately, the most alarming things I find are the clumsily left evidence of his afternoon incursions into the pantry, and some jeans that are past due for a date with the washing machine. The snatches of music I hear, at least what I can make out, also sound pretty tame, even if in my opinion the band is committing a crime against music. And I haven't unearthed any adolescent version of a little black book, with phone numbers scrawled next to names like Dakota.
No doubt about it, one of my hardest jobs is trying to protect my son not only physically, but spiritually. We have an ongoing, chronic argument about my husband's and my refusal to allow him to see movies rated PG-13 or above, a limitation that infuriates him. He still cannot understand that what we see and hear influences us, for good or for bad.
You know, if I really, really wanted to see them, I could, Daniel challenged.
I know, I answered, but it's like this. I cook healthful food for your body's sake, and while I still have an influence, I want the ideas you're exposed to have some merit, or at least not be utter garbage. You don't have to like it, but you have to accept it.
When I assure him that adults also live with frustrating restrictions, he finds it cold comfort.
Living with a teen also reminds me of the classic line from Dickens, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. While I'm sometimes wistful for the little boy who's no longer little, it's thrilling to watch his growth physically, emotionally and intellectually. And I do benefit from his blossoming independence. I can send him to the corner market for milk and fruit, and he has proven his worthiness as a pinch-hit babysitter. We can speak about mature topics with a degree of sophistication, and are even exchanging books. A few weeks ago, when my mother passed away from cancer, Daniel, all of 13 years old, served as a pallbearer for his grandmother's coffin. That was the first day I began to see him as a young man.
But when Daniel challenges me about some house rule or other, I get worn out fast, often feeling like a defendant with a hostile D.A. after me. And it isn't only movies that cause friction. Daniel is an unapologetic sports fanatic who knows the salaries and parole dates of an endless parade of players. If it were up to him, he would live all ESPN, all the time. To his dismay, I strictly limit how often he can watch, and let him know that I strongly disapprove of some of the current sports icons who he reads about so avidly, whose behavior on and off the court is boorish or worse. I hope I sound more conversational than preachy, but I'm optimistic that while he's open to debate with me, he must be absorbing something.
Mothering a young teen can provide some good entertainment value, though. In the past year, Daniel discovered, all by himself, and despite years of my having to reiterate the point daily, the Importance of Personal Hygiene. A true milestone of childrearing arrives! While no match for an adolescent girl, Daniel's morning toilette includes gelling his hair with serious intent, trying to get the little flip in the front just so. The other day, I was startled to see some dark, downy hair on his upper lip. I smile to myself, considering this. His growing older reminds me that I'm doing the same, and trying like the dickens not to let it show. Vanity, thy name is Mom!
I thank God that my husband is such a wonderful father to our four kids. Jeff is often more patient with Daniel than I am, probably because they are so much alike and Jeff understands both his foibles and his maleness better than I ever could. Without trying to be invasive, Jeff and I both try to keep the door to Daniel's room open, both literally and figuratively. Jeff and Daniel will play catch, stage a mock karate session, and arm-wrestle, the stuff of male bonding and an entrée to conversation. My invitations to connect are more sedate, such as a game of Scrabble, an offer to watch a video, or inquiring about one of his favorite teams.
Before we say goodnight, I give Daniel a hug, an important ritual that somehow fell by the wayside for too long.
This one works every time. Daniel's eyes shine with pleasure as he delivers an update: Did I know that his favorite player was just traded in an $8 million contract, or that the Lakers have a chance at the finals? Let's face it, the kid knows I can hardly tell the difference between a goal post and goal tending, so I'm flattered he wants to tell me.
Before we say goodnight, I give Daniel a hug, an important ritual that somehow fell by the wayside for too long. Let me tell you, a little hugging goes a long way. The hugs and loving moments have never been more important, in part as an antidote to those discussions that turn into conflicts.
As I glimpse into the future, I'm optimistic that our relationship will survive the rocky moments of the teen years. About a month ago, I returned from a disappointing day of book promotion. While grumbling over having relinquished a Sunday with my family for this flop, Daniel said, It's okay, Mom. If you talk to only five new people each day that's considered good networking.
I certainly appreciated the networking tip, but far more than that I was moved by the role reversal of child consoling parent. It is a new stance for Daniel. He is more attuned to my moods now, and quickly asks me if anything's wrong if he senses that something is, while the younger three kids remain more or less oblivious.
Our family just celebrated Daniel's bar mitzvah -- the Jewish rite of passage that gives him a man's status in his religious community. In addition to collecting his gifts, Daniel is now accumulating his own spiritual track record for which only he is answerable.
The other day, I thought back to the night when Daniel was just a few weeks old, and Jeff was carrying him slung over his shoulder in our little apartment. Daniel started crying, and when I looked, I saw that his tiny foot had become caught in Jeff's shirt pocket. Those tiny feet are now taking large strides toward manhood. I'm privileged to help coach the process along.