There is a lie, quite commonly circulated among parents, that as soon as kids turn 13, they immediately transform into soul-sucking vampires, desiring nothing more than the immolation of their parents on the pyre of their own self-destructed bodies.
This lie is utterly and totally untrue, for three reasons:
- The transformation is not immediate. it takes anywhere from a few weeks to a year to take full effect.
- It starts before they are 13.
- They do not desire destruction for its' own sake; they are just seeking independence, the way that a drowning swimmer seeks air.
If you can grasp the truth of item #3, you have a chance to see the teenage years as a good thing. Otherwise, you, and your kids, are likely to be in for some unnecessary and enormously painful conflict.
I speak from experience. I am 64 years old; I was 43 years old when my first-born son became a teen-ager. I was 51 when my youngest bio-child reached that milestone.
And today, this very day, my son Kenneth (grandson, really, but he's my kid and I'm his Papa) has also reached the landmark. Today is his birthday. He is 13 years old today, and he left for the school bus this cold morning wearing shorts, a nice jacket, and a Red Hot Chili Peppers necktie knotted around his neck over his T-shirt.
So what is my advice to myself, having all this parental experience, plus three college degrees in counseling and psychology, and 16 years experience as a middle school counselor? What do I tell myself to do?
Well, the FIRST advice I give myself is to relax, shut up, and sit down; it's too late to do anything drastic.
He's been my son since he was six years old, and before that, he mostly lived in a house full of adult and semi-adult women. So, from the beginning, I have been systematically pouring myself into him, attempting to make up for the years he wouldn't remember anyway, when I would have changed his diapers and rocked him to sleep at night and given him a bath. I missed that part.
Because we had missed a lot of important moments, at first, he simply didn't have a history of doing what he was told, particularly not by a male. He WAS the only male in the house when he was little, and with the high-energy adult and semi-adult women in his environment, he had learned that if he tuned everybody out, they would usually go on to something else and leave him in peace.
That wasn't going to work with me.
So, I had to explain the rules, and the reasons for the rules to him. I was amazed at how fast he picked up on the program:
- First time obedience;
- Logical consequences;
- Spankings in case of wilful disobedience or physically dangerous behavior (although we didn't have any of that; it's usually just to train toddlers not to run into the street).
Within a month, he was happily progressing along with the business of being a first-grade kid in the burbs, with a yard and a cat.
He stumbled ONE TIME in his behavior at children's church, when he refused to do what the teacher told him to do; she wisely brought him to us. I took him to the truck, explained that he was not permitted to be disobedient to ANY adult we put him in the care of. Then I paddled his behind, and sent him back, and he never had any problem at children's church after that.
He stumbled ONE TIME in his behavior at school. He had not yet learned that he COULD control his anger, and so when he felt he was being treated unfairly by the other students, he responded by telling them he was going to get a gun and shoot everybody. The school called me. I showed up for a conference with the principal, checked him out of school, took him across the street, and explained that it was okay to be mad, but not okay to make threats (particularly since I have a houseful of firearms). Then I paddled his behind, and checked him back into school for the rest of the day. That was first grade. It took some extra work for him to learn things he could do when he was upset, but he never got into trouble for losing it again.
I taught him how to act in church, by telling him to watch me, and do what I did. If I stood up, he stood up. If I sat down, he could sit down. I was having some problems walking then, and I asked him to let me lean on him from time to time. It was good for him. It was good for me as well. Nothing makes a parent behave like knowing their kid has INSTRUCTIONS to do what they are doing.
In short, as I said earlier, I have been pouring myself into him. While I primarily identify as Redneck Biker, I am also a man of the Book. Because it is something I do, Kenneth also does Bible study. He handles the money at church, so he will understand about tithing. Because he is of an age, he has moved up from the children's church to a youth-led program, and because my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant, foxy, praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA, and I participate in a church small group for mutual support, Kenneth (and his sister Alicia) have their own small groups that they attend at church.
And now he is 13, and I'm pretty much an interested bystander from this point on. I knew this was coming, and I thought I was ready.
But then, some things happened.
I'm not going to go into all of them, because it's not all my story to tell, but let me sum up: by the end of August, I was beat down into the ground from a combination of health issues and events involving family members and other people I am close to; and I was also pretty disgusted by the way my fellow citizens rioted in Charlottesville, VA, and other places. I wrote about some of that in this blog.
And then, I get hit by two DIFFERENT health crisis within two weeks. And, at the moment the second crisis was happening, without knowing what I was going through, Vanessa FINALLY quit her job, which was absolutely the right thing to do, should have done it a month earlier at least.
And then, my brother in law became deathly ill, in a very short period of time. And my dear, dear sister had to make some hard decisions, with no guarantees; and they had to be made immediately.
And I want to make sure this comes across: while these hugely significant issues were going on with us, there were other people who are very important to us, who were also facing very hard times. And because I care for them, my emotions were jangling.
So, one Sunday, at her request, I visited my beautiful, sweet, gifted sister in Macon, who was daily sitting with her husband in the ICU. Afterward, I stopped by for a visit with my beautiful and genius mother, in the pleasant care facility where she lives out her battle with Alzheimer's Disease.
And that afternoon, I pointed my truck north toward Woodstock, and if my emotional state came with a warning gauge, it SURELY would have been redlined. And I had no outlet for my stress.
Because I abused it so badly during my youth, I am denied the comfort many find in a relaxing drink of their favorite adult beverage. Same thing goes with ganja, man; it's not available as a solution for me. If I had been home at that moment, I could have gone to the range and taken consolation in poking small holes in pieces of paper; but home was miles and miles away.
So, I am proceeding north on the interstate, my emotions just racing away, just like an engine that is maxed out without bearing a load. It is an alien feeling to me; I have an IMPRESSIVE toolbox for dealing with stress; nothing, however, matched up with the circumstances of driving north on I-75 into Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon.
And then something else happened.
Maybe it wasn't an intervention from God. Maybe, I just figured this out by myself. I know that I am an astoundingly wise person, but I don't think I am wise enough for the insight I got next.
I realized I was all wound up, because I had all this emotional energy, and there was nothing I could do with it. Under normal circumstances, when I'm under stress, I quickly can identify the cause, and that almost always leads me to the necessary steps I need to take to resolve the problem, find acceptance, or just wait it out.
And I have that skill set because I have DECADES of experience in solving the problem; not only theory picked up in a hundred classrooms, but 30 years of recovery from alcoholism, 34 years of being a parent, and every other type of life experience that has come my way.
Ready for the punchline?
I realized my dear son Kenneth was about to launch out on an emotionally churned journey, where he would frequently be living in a helpless, whizzing, buzzing emotional state, very similar to what I was at that moment experiencing. However, he would have no way of knowing if it would pass, or if he would be that way forever.
Somehow, I was able to make the connection between my momentary emotional state, to the life-cycle ride that Kenneth is going to be hopping on and off for the next few years (followed closely by his sister). I need to remember this insight: he ain't crazy, he's just disturbed.
There is a difference:
Several years ago, I was visiting my best buddy Mylon at his house one summer evening. As he and I stood talking at the back of my truck, a bug flew up my nose.
IMMEDIATELY I started yelling and jumping around, and slapping at my face, while Mylon just stood there, wondering what in the heck was wrong with me.
Seemed like forever, but it probably wasn't more than 15 - 30 seconds, before I was able to blast the critter out of my nasal passages.
Mylon thought it was funner than I did.
But it has given me a never-to-be-forgotten illustration of the difference between acting crazy and being crazy. Sometimes, I ain't crazy; I'm just disturbed.
And, on this occasion of Kenneth's 13th birthday, I remember how I felt with all those powerful emotions running through me, without having something to harness them to.
And as Kenneth struggles for his independence, I hope I will remember the difference between being crazy, and being disturbed.
And I hope that the love and wisdom and integrity I have poured into him since he was six years old will have been enough;
And that he (and I) will keep a sense of humor;
And that on occasion, now and in the future, he will allow me to be his friend.
Kenneth on his birthday three years ago
(on the way to the gun show)
Peace be on your household.