Jack is eleven, soon to be twelve. And, as Tom Hanks’s character said in reference to his slightly younger son in Sleepless in Seattle, “He’s good at it.”
Over the past year, Jack has been perfecting his monosyllabic responses, his grunts, his multi-octave, contemptuous replies that he pulls out whenever he is required to respond to any question or statement that, duh, the offending party should never have uttered in the first place. I mean, fail. How could you even think of asking him that? (It doesn’t really matter what “that” is.)
Jack’s attitude can change without warning, of course. One minute I’m talking to the top of a non-responsive, blond-haired cave-boy’s head, and the next minute he’s making jokes or laughing about something one of the kittens just did. Blink, and cave-boy returns. It’s exhausting.
When Jack first began to exhibit this metamorphic, unsociable behavior, I asked our beloved (and, sadly, recently retired) pediatrician about it. Huddled in the hallway while Jack dressed after his check-up, I described Jack’s behavior.
“Is he moody a lot of the time?” the pediatrician asked.
“Turns on and off like a faucet? Grumpy, sullen, then he’s his old self? Turns on a dime?” His face lit up, and if I had been paying better attention, I would have figured out the answer then.
“Yes!” Recognition! Eureka!
The pediatrician laughed, a full belly laugh. He laughed so hard at me he had to turn away, presumably to keep from damaging my hearing.
Okay, I got it. Diagnosis: my son is an Adolescent. How do they code that on the insurance form?
Now that I know this behavior is normal, my husband and I have been trying to figure out where to draw the line. The surliness is part of growing up, and to a certain extent, we accept that. But we don’t accept rudeness and a lack of respect for others. It can be tough to find the proper point of division between these two areas, and downright painful to explain it to Jack, over and over again.
But we have to be persistent, both in figuring out how to give him the space he needs and in not letting him get away with unacceptable behavior, no matter how frustrating it is to explain for the eighty-eighth time that it is not okay to talk to one’s sister like she’s the stupidest, most useless person on the planet–and for him to argue in return that actually, he was justified in talking to her that way. Like so much else in parenting, more patience and tolerance for repetition than I ever thought I possessed may be required.
The key to all of this, I think, and maybe to most of the problems we face in parenting, is respect. We need to teach our kids respect for the people they love, respect for themselves, respect for the world and respect for people with whom they disagree. We need not only to speak this truth to them in words, but to show them that we mean it by treating them with respect, too, especially as we discipline them. We must explain to them our expectations, show them how to apply them and call them out, respectfully, when we see them fall short. We need to apologize when we fall short ourselves.
It’s not a solution to getting through the adolescent years, but it is something of a guidepost. If you’ve got a clever solution, by all means, let me know. There are a few million parents out there who’d like to talk to you.