The Beauty of Teens

Photo credit to my son Sevrin
Photo taken by (and used with permission from) my son Sevrin at his high school sailing team practice.

As I write this, there are seven teens asleep in my basement.  My son and his friends came back from their high school dance in high spirits last night. Laughing and joking loudly, they boisterously descended on my kitchen, devouring everything within reach (even some chips that I thought I had hidden pretty well).  These guys were the human equivalent of an invading colony of army ants, foraging insatiably through my refrigerator.

Now these boy-men are dead to the world, asleep in a puppy pile on my basement floor.  And I have to be honest – I am loving every single thing about these teens.   In fifteen plus years of parenthood, I have grown accustomed to – perhaps, in some ways, inured to – the many and diverse aspects of wonder in babies and children.  But I find myself surprised and overjoyed at the sheer beauty of teenagers today.

My friend Doug describes my feelings perfectly:

I continue to be dumbfounded, flummoxed, and gobsmacked by my kids, in all sorts of great ways.

The conventional wisdom is that teens are “challenging”.  And, no question about it, there are challenging aspects of parenting teens.  But I think teens get a bit of a bad rap in our society. I know I’ve had many people say to me over the years, as I struggled with sleep deprivation, no “me” time, etc. etc.:

 “Just WAIT until you have teens!”

But now I am starting to wonder. I wonder if it could be possible that I was misinterpreting these statements for all these years?   Instead of a dire warning of impending misery (based perhaps on my then-existent sleep deprived misery coupled with a tired, old societal cliche), is it possible that what they actually were trying to say to me was:

“Hang in there, it WILL get better! Teenagers are the BEST!

Because now that my oldest son is 15 and a freshman in high school, I am finding that this stage of parenting is a comparative cakewalk.   Here are a few reasons why:

Teens have the capacity for So! Much! Joy! The photo above, which my son took of his high school sailing teammates at practice last fall, illustrates what I mean. Teens can make anything fun.  Sure, there are pretty major hormonal changes and brain development going on that help explain this facet of teen behavior. But I also think that teens are just not afraid to show it when they are having fun.  Somewhere along the way, most adults seem to lose the capacity for emotion that they had as teens.  We keep it in, stuff it down, don’t laugh out loud. Living with a teenager is a good reminder that sometimes you just need to turn up the music and dance around wildly.

You can reason with them.  This will come as a pleasant surprise to parents who have spent more than a decade living with toddlers and young children.  And I say this as a mother who freely admits to having resorted to Tootsie Pop bribery – believe me, one day your child will in fact become a rationale human being.  Stuck in a situation that he would (no doubt) have preferred NOT to be in recently, my teen son summed it up like this:

“I understand what you are saying. I understand why I should do this. I’m just frustrated, that’s all.”

Then he sucked it up and did what he had to do for his family.

The social relationships of today’s teen reflects a lot more equality. My son is friends with both girls and boys.  Heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual.  I don’t know about transgender yet but I have no doubt that he wouldn’t give a rip.  My teen and those he hangs out with just don’t seem to care that much.  This is a huge step forward from when I was a teen myself.   Sure, there is still plenty of drama.  But things seem to be, somehow, just a little bit less – fraught. And so much more accepting. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I think that is totally great.

Teens can contribute.  Carrying in groceries, washing dishes, shoveling snow – it struck me recently that my teen son is doing a lot to help keep the wheels of of our unwieldy family of of five moving forward. This is huge! A total sea change from the days of constant care and feeding of babies and small children when the parents are always, always DOING for the kids.  Sure, you often have to remind a teen to do a chore.  But if you give them the challenge of responsibility, by and large, they will accept it.

They expose you to new – and sometimes wonderful – things.  My son introduced me to Avicii way before his music made it to the mainstream; that was just the beginning of the new music he has exposed me to.  The other day, I was doing laundry and I heard him in his room playing his guitar and singing “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved”.   I had never heard of The Script or this song before.  But before suddenly,  I was loading the dryer with tears in my eyes.

But it’s not just music. My teen curates movie and program selections us (his lame parents) based on our tastes. His recent recommendation of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to his dad was spot on.   I’m sure I would never have even heard about the growing popularity of eSports if not for the influence of my teen, who competes for his high school Starleague  team.   I’ve also learned several iPhone tricks that I would never have figured out on my own.  And, by the way, my in-house teen tech support can’t be beat!

Teens are more connected to the global community.  My son, who plays eSports, routinely chats online with teens in other countries.  Thanks to his fantasy geopolitics team, he knows much more about what is going on in Iran and Ukraine than I do.  Part of this is without question due to changes in global society and technology that have made our world smaller and more interconnected for all of us.   But I think this increased connection across borders can only be good for the future of our planet, particularly when it comes to solving big problems (like, say,  human rights abuses.) I am hopeful that this is the generation that begins to truly live out Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Teens know how to find the information they need. Today’s teens came of age in the era of Google – they know how to use a search engine.  But I am referring to more than just their search skills.  What I mean is that this is a generation that has a unique attitude towards information as being infinitely accessible and independently attainable.  Information is easily and immediately obtained, disputes are easily settled.  Pearl Harbor happened on Dec. 7, 1940 or 41? (1941) Pizza dough is two weeks old and slightly gray? (edible) Who wrote the Art of War? (Sun Tze) What are the requirements for an out-of-state resident to get a driver’s license in New Hampshire? (this one for my nephew Eli, another great teen.) In a sense, this attitude makes them a generation of empowered autodidacts.

Teenagers are downright hilarious.  My son, his friends, and the other teens in my life crack me up.  They make me laugh all the time.  They have mastered puns; they have evolved into excellent purveyors of sarcasm. They get (and make) jokes that reference popular culture  – even when the popular culture being referenced occurred well before they were born.  (For example, they totally got it when I described them during their kitchen rampage as “Gremlins who had been doused in water and fed after midnight”.)

And they can be so very creative in their humor!  For their vocabulary homework for Spanish class, my son and his friends made this video.  The assignment was not to make a video; the assignment was to come up with a dialogue that involved specific Spanish vocabulary. But remember my point about how teens can make anything fun?

Teens give you the gift of revisiting things that you’ve done before – but with a new perspective.  Here’s just one example: If I didn’t live with a teen, I may never have gone back and re-read books that I read in high school.  Classics – books like The Giver, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill A Mockingbird – where  I fully recall the plot and the major characters but not the details.  The author’s tone, poignant quotes, turns of phrase that knock your socks off.  All the things that really make these books classics? These I had forgotten.  I was surprised to discover how much my perspective has changed on some of these books, my opinions shifting and resettling after years of life experience.  I empathize with some characters that I used to have nothing but disdain for; I’ve lost patience with others that I used to love.  When my son gets a new reading assignment, I now see it as an opportunity.  I started re-reading Romeo & Juliet because my son, describing the priceless hilarity of his teacher reading 500-year-old bawdy humor out loud to the class, reminded me that “Shakespeare was a BOSS!”

Although not yet fully formed, you can see in a teen glimmers of the person that he or she will become.  Teens today have opinions and they speak up for themselves. (My son has even shared his opinion on this blog before.)  They are not afraid to like something just because the LIKE it, even it it is not the current thing.  I was surprised that one of the first songs my son taught himself on guitar was Semisonic’s Closing Time – from 1998, the year before he was born.

Perhaps because they are more open and expressive than previous generations have been, you can catch glimpses of today’s teens’ developing inner selves.  Between this and his external behavior, I feel like I can truly see the proto-adult that is growing in my adolescent son – and I really, REALLY like him.  The guy who stays cool in a pinch.  The guy who doesn’t hold a grudge. The guy who can be counted on to be there for his friends.  The guy who always walks the girl home at night (for safety reasons).  I look forward to watching him grow into the wonderful adult that I can now say that I feel sure he will become.

My middle son turns 13 in two weeks.

With him, I’m looking forward to discovering the beauty of teens all over again.

Closing time
Open all the doors and let you out into the world

Closing time
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

Yeah.

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CALL OF (Parental) DUTY: Part II “Freedom To Game Is Important”

This is the second in my series of CALL OF (Parental) DUTY posts about the discussion we are having in our house about violent video games. Today is my 13 year-old son Sevrin’s chance to share his point of view.  Below is a letter that he wrote to us (his parents) about his frustrations with not be able to get Call of Duty: Black Ops II.

I’m proud of you, Sev, for expressing your feelings so eloquently and – especially – for putting the time and effort into writing them down for us. When I read this, I remember precisely how frustrating it is to feel that you are no longer a child but yet are not allowed to make many choices for yourself. Thank you for writing this and allowing me to share it with others. 

Freedom To Game Is Important

I want you to imagine, for a minute, that you are in a library. Or maybe a book store. There are rows and rows of books. Each book holds a story, unique and special in its own way. In this library filled with books you have the Fantasy row, the Action row, the Poetry row and then you come across the Childrens section. The library lady (or man) says that you are only allowed  to check out books from the Childrens row because she (or he) doesn’t think that you are “ready” for the big boy books. Now I ask you, how would you feel? You have rows and rows of books and yet you are restricted to the small corner and you’ve just been told to deal with it. If you were me, you’d probably feel sad, maybe a little frustrated, and a little bit confused on why you have to read Elmo and Barbie when you could be reading Shakespeare and anything you could possibly dream of. Alas, this brings me to my point. Of course I am exaggerating when I say all I can do is read Elmo but I’m trying to make my point clear. Why is gaming any different from reading in terms of age restrictions?

If it’s because M games are too gorey then I wonder why I’m allowed to read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The true horrors of war seep from that book. Kids get kidnapped, hopped up on drugs, and told to kill anybody who opposes their “Dad” (The General of the RUF). In the book, the character sees people get stabbed and shot all the time. He sees people with their fingers chopped off and the letters RUF scorched into their backs. He’s seen women running from the fight with babies on their backs, not knowing that their kin had just taken a bullet and saved their parent’s life. So now I’ve seen it too. And I know what war is like in real life. I know what war does to people and I understand how terrible it is. But I don’t see a problem with shooting a blob in the form of a human that is really just something on the screen. I’m not hurting anybody by playing an M game. That’s like saying that I can’t shoot a target at a shooting range because I might hurt the wooden carving of a person. Besides, do you really think that I’ll become some sort of stone cold killer if a kill something in a digital world?!

If you are concerned about exposing me to bad language then you’re going to have to do a lot more than not allowing me to play M games. Say we are to watch a movie like umm… let’s just go with Band of Brothers. Swearing in that series is important in the plot. It gives the viewer a really good sense of WWII and war in general. But it’s not just from movies and books, it’s also from people around me. Take you/Dad for example. If you/Dad get angry, really angry, you tend to have a fairly large potty mouth. But sometimes swearing is required to get it into my head that “Yeah, I do need to stop complaining about bedtime.”  Plus, there is no doubt that there is swearing in T games, too. On top of all of that, I don’t think that just because I hear people swearing in a video game means I’m going to repeat the words I hear to other people say or mouth off at you/Dad. Like I said, I hear swearing all around me.Now, if the problem is that I’m just not old enough to be able to have the freedom to choose any game I want well, I disagree. I’m turning 13. That means I’m a teenager. I am both physically mature and mentally mature.  I am shaving and my voice is dropping, no, plummeting like a giant rock. I am also taller than Mom (Mocky!) and catching you, Dad. As for mentally, I’ve been trying to keep all A’s in part because of this. I am smart and know I can handle M games but have not been given a chance for three years. I made the mistake of asking for Deus Ex. But once again, I was ten and had a squeaky voice. I need freedom and choice instead of getting advice (although, sometimes the advice is helpful). I’m asking for a chance to try it again.

The bottom line is, I think that I can take it. If I don’t get to play M games now, I will probably have to wait two or three more years! We have no solid date or age in which I can play M games and I think that 13 is the perfect time to start. I want the ability to choose what games I should and shouldn’t play. And believe me, I know what games I want to get and don’t want. I sit here and search and search and search. I research games all the time and the reason I chose Black Ops II is because I honestly think that it would be fun. I didn’t choose this game just to be with the Kewl Kids. I’m not, as you may well know, a “hop on the bandwagon” kind of guy. Maybe one of the reasons the Call of Duty franchise got so big is because people had a really good time playing them. One other thing about Call of Duty is that Treyarch is the company making BLOPS II and they are known for making a much better story than Infinity Ward and with the futuristic setting, they have opened the floodgates to creative ideas and lots of options. I hope you at least consider what I’m asking for and thank you for reading.

Read the introduction to the CALL OF (Parental) DUTY series here.
For more of the Weekly Writing Challenge: Just Do It!, click here.

CALL OF (Parental) DUTY: Part I

Target PracticeIt’s pretty rare that a national debate mirrors so exactly one that is raging within my own family circle.  But in the wake of the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary – and subsequent comments by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre blaming gun violence on video game makers – a public discussion has been reopened  about violent video games and their impact on society.  It is the same discussion that has been going on, on a micro level, all fall in our household.  Although, frankly,  “discussion” is too mild a verb to capture the emotions surrounding the debate between the parents and the teenager about whether he can have CALL OF DUTY: Black Ops II.

My oldest son turned 13 years old in October.  He is a great kid, the kind of kid that other parents want their own kids to hang out with.  He’s smart and self-confident, has good friends and does well at school.  He is, I think, exceptionally mature for his age.  And he likes to play video games.  He has always liked to play video games, going way back to when he would choose to play Freddi Fish rather than watch a movie for his screentime.

His father and I don’t enjoy playing video games, so we start from a position of divergence.

Allowing for a difference in entertainment preferences (which I do), there is a second preliminary point that we don’t see eye to eye on: I don’t understand why it is fun to shoot at things.  We’ve got a couple of BB guns at the cabin, and the kids are allowed to shoot them at targets.  I’ve tried target practice and found it completely boring.

When my son was born, I was very clear that we would never have toy guns in the house.  Then one day, when he was about 20 months, he saw a kid at the coffee shop make a gun with his thumb and index finger.  The kid pointed his finger at Sevrin and said,”Pew! Pew!”  And that was all it took.  Fingers, sticks, Duplo legos – it seemed like everything was turned into a “shooter”.  Before long, I had caved in to the reality of nature over nurture.  Over the years, I not only allowed, but I myself purchased, a vast assortment of Nerf gun products for birthday and Christmas gifts.  I didn’t understand it, but I saw no harm in it.  So again, I have to acknowledge that others, including my son, might find it entertaining to shoot at things.

But all of this seemed was a long way off from first person shooter video games like CALL OF DUTY: Black Ops II.   So when he asked for it for his birthday, we immediately said, “NO!”

Then I realized that, my general prejudice against video games and shooting things aside, I didn’t know anything about video games.  I didn’t know what standards were used for rating them or whether there were parental controls.  I realized that my son is a reasonable, intelligent person, even if he is still only 13 years old.  I thought that he did have a point – it wasn’t fair that we were banning the games without knowing anything about them.

So in November, I began to dig deeper.  My son and I both did research on violent video games and the impact on the brain.  We shared our findings with each other, emailing back and forth.  I spent hours not only doing research, but also reading comments by both parents and teenagers on the pros and cons of letting your kids play violent video games.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that CALL OF DUTY: Black Ops II is not appropriate for my 13 year old.  My son was bitterly disappointed, and I am truly sorry for that.  Sometimes a parent has to play the ultimate trump card, but I think it is important that we went through this process together.

This week, I will be writing about our experience in a series of posts I am titling CALL OF (Parental) DUTY.  I think my son deserves the opportunity to voice his opinions to a wider audience, so he will contribute his writing to the series as well.  Stay tuned!

Here are the links to other posts in this series:

CALL OF (Parental) DUTY: Part II “Freedom to Game is Important” (in which my 13 year old son expresses his point of view).

(I’ve been thinking about doing this series for some time, but it took a Weekly Writing Challenge: Just Do It – and a weeklong holiday – to get me motivated to actually do it.  That, and a promise to my son that I would try to be fair and accurate.)