This week, my youngest child turned thirteen, making me the mother of three teenagers.
For those readers who have raised (i.e., survived) teenagers, I could end my column here. There’s no need for lengthy anecdotes. Upon reading my first sentence, other parents of teens most likely heaved a collective groan, and instantly understood the prickly muddle of pride, anguish, adoration and frustration involved.
But for the benefit of the rest, I’ll trudge on with my story.
“I’ll take a hot chocolate with whipped cream and a large sausage Calzone,” my 18-year-old son blurted to the waiter before anyone else had a chance to order. It was his youngest sister’s 13th birthday dinner out, and he was starving.
Incidentally, that was after he had polished off a barrel of popcorn and a gallon of soda at the Island Cinemas, where I spent $60 and three-quarters of the movie covering the birthday girl’s eyes to shield her from what I realized was a totally inappropriate horror film.
The next morning, I got up early to drive my son to his first job at Yagoog Boy Scout Summer Camp. I tiptoed to keep from waking my new 13-year-old – she slept with me thanks to my stellar movie choice the night before – but I had no idea that I’d be tiptoeing around my son’s attitude all morning.
“Hey Buddy?” I gingerly hailed my son as he carried his sleeping bag through the kitchen, “I think you should wear a troop shirt instead, because there’s a pretty strict dress code for Scouts at camp.”
He stopped with his back to me, and like the demon-possessed character from the previous night’s movie; he turned his head slowly, squinting his eyes. In a low, guttural tone, which spewed pure aggravation, he muttered between gritted teeth, “I’m not a Scout, I’m on the Staff.”
Ten minutes later, my son appeared at my minivan, wearing his troop shirt and a scowl.
After a silent drive, we arrived at Camp Yagoog. While checking in, we realized that my son needed uniform socks, so we stopped by the Camp’s Trading Post to buy a few pairs.
Knowing I was about to leave my only son there for the rest of the summer, I was feeling generous.
“Hey Buddy, don’t you need one of these belts like the other Staff had on their shorts?”
My son spewed, squinted and gritted, “NO, MOM, my shorts have a built-in belt,” stated in such a way that implied, “you idiot!”
That was it. Something in me snapped. I dropped the socks and announced, “Buy your own socks. I’ll see you on pick up day.”
I could see mild panic in his eyes. The six pairs of socks would wipe out his spending money, and he had no way of cashing future paychecks without a ride to the bank. And then there’s the issue of his laundry.
I stormed out of the Trading Post to find my minivan.
Three yards from the store, I was seized by a rush of overwhelming realizations. This person, my son, was a huge bearded ball of contradiction. He wanted nothing to do with me, yet he was totally dependent on me. He believed he was omniscient, yet there was so much he needed to learn. He was technically a man, yet he behaved like a petulant boy.
Despite the fact that my lioness instinct was urging me to cut the apron strings and go, I didn’t want to leave him on such a sour note. I found my son in the Trading Post, still looking stunned at the socks.
“I’m sorry,” he offered, “I didn’t realize I was being disrespectful.”
Leaving the camp and my son behind, I wondered what it is that possesses teenagers. An instinctual drive to alienate the tribe and strike out on their own? Raging adolescent hormones? An underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex? Evil mutant zombie demons?
Whatever it is, I’m scared and my teenagers are too.
But I learned an ironic lesson from that inappropriate horror film: When things get really scary, parental guidance is strongly suggested.