on the up side

It's a funny kind of up side, and might not sound like one, unless you're an ACON. 

My oldest son is hitting the very beginning edges of puberty. We're not dealing with body odor and hair in strange places and long showers and such yet, but oh, the mood swings. It's bringing me back to when I was his age, and emotion was JUST SO INTENSE, out of the blue. Gotta love those hormones.

I spend a lot of time lately feeling like I am totally failing at this mom stuff. The pre-teen challenges make me feel so, so, SO out of my depth. Babies are easy. You change their diapers and snuggle them and feed them and carry them around and their needs are met. Preschoolers are a little more challenging but you can still keep one step ahead and figure out strategies for handling the tougher days. And there are oodles of books and websites and people in general out there in the world handing out information about little kids and ideas for how to live with them. But this. THIS. I have no idea what to do with preteens and teenagers. I have had no role models for how to be a great parent to a teen. There are very few books about interacting with adolescents and guiding them in a way that jives with how I want to raise my kids. I am SO lost.

Suddenly, kiddo numero uno is very, very, very aware of people all around him. People who can see what he's doing. People who can hear everything he says. People who might be JUDGING him. I can see little adolescent insecurities getting their nasty goblin fingers around his guts. And I know so well, having been that age once myself, that there is no amount of logic that will convince him that other people are not paying close attention to him. That it really doesn't matter what you wear, that you can just get over being insecure and not care.

He and I were in a children's clothing store the other day. This store carries a comfortable brand of underwear that kiddo #1 has been wearing for years. Recently, I have retired some of his underwear because they are worn out or too babyish (airplanes and cartoon moose are a definite no-go now). So I suggested that we pick up a package or two of new ones. He immediately started looking angry and upset.

Me: "what?"

Him: "I don't need any underwear."
Me: "Yes, you do. You don't have enough pairs and some are wearing out."
Him, between his teeth, getting pissed: "I Don't Need Any Underwear."
Me: "We're buying some. You prefer solids, right? No stripes? I know you don't want the other patterns."
Him: "MOM. I Don't. Need. Any. Underwear."

By this time, he looked really mad and he was starting to tear up. Apparently buying underwear is a big deal. I didn't know it was a big deal. Besides, he needs some. I ignored him and went to look through the rack. They were missing his size, so I asked a saleswoman if they had any in the back. She went to look. I turned back to kiddo #1 and his eyes were wide with RAGE and brimming with tears. I was irritated with him. He does need new underwear. He was being unreasonable. What's the big deal? It's just underwear!

What I wanted to say: "OH. MY. GOD. Will you GET OVER IT?!?! NOBODY is looking at you. NOBODY is paying attention to you. NOBODY CARES that your mom is buying underwear for you. It's JUST UNDERWEAR. THIS IS NOT A BIG DEAL."

What I actually said: "Honey, almost everybody buys underwear. There's nothing embarrassing about it. Even that saleswoman probably buys underwear, and sometimes she probably asks people for help. It's not a big deal."

Less than perfectly empathetic, eh?

The saleswoman came back and told me that they were out of his size, so we left. He was fuming. I suppressed the desire to roll my eyes.

But then, as we walked to the car, I suddenly got it. It IS a big deal to talk about or be seen buying underwear in public. Not to me, but to him. This is his reality. And I am not going to be able to logic him out of this. There is not going to be a convincing argument. Because he has hit that age - the age at which everything is embarrassing, especially if your parent is doing it. Oh, god. Are we there already?
I thought back to being his age and embarrassed, and said what I think pre-teen me would have wanted to hear: "I'm sorry that that was so embarrassing for you. It didn't occur to me that it would be embarrassing."

After getting to the car, I checked in with him to see if he was still mad. He was, so I waited a while, and after he had cooled off, this is what I said: "So, I'd like to know how I could do things differently so you're not so embarrassed. Right now you don't feel like you need underwear. Sometime in the future you might need new underwear. What kind of plan should we make so that you can let me know what you want, but you don't have to feel embarrassed?"

I realized that my kid is in the perpetually-embarrassed stage, I apologized to him for not getting it, I thought about whether or not it's absolutely necessary to ask him in public about underwear (it's not) or to shop with him for it (also not). There are other ways to do this, ways that respect his right to be an awkward, self-conscious pre-teen. He will grow up later. He will, one day, be a twentysomething guy who can walk into a store and buy a pack of underwear without a care. Ok, maybe it will take him until 30. But it'll happen. Right now, this stuff feels hugely important to him, those feelings are very real, and I can recognize his feelings for what they are without getting my own panties in a bunch about it.

I'm sure I will embarrass him again in the near future, and again, and again. I'm also sure that there will be times when I'm not willing to change what I'm doing, and he will be forced to deal with his own embarrassment. But there will also be lots of times when I decide that I can give the poor hormonally-addled, frontal-lobe-growing, mortified kid a break. Because I have the ability to empathize and show compassion. 
And THAT is the up side, my friends. 


  1. Sounds like an upside to me: to you and to your kiddo.

    Poor guy, I can just imagine his mortification ;). Growing up is rough.

    I think you did a lovely job and appreciate you sharing this. I'll think of this story the next time I want to roll my eyes at my kiddo.

  2. lol - oh, I feel your pain. My son is now 22, but that time in his (our) lives is still so fresh in my mind!

    Not about underwear - but about the same age my son got interested in what he thought was 'vintage' rock and roll, which IS NOT VINTAGE I'M NOT OLD but heh - I had him listen to things like 'My Generation" from The Who, and told him 'teenagers have been thinking that grown-ups are STUPID since time began. (♪I hope I die before I get old♫!) This music was written by people around MY age - WE GET IT. As a parent, I totally get it. Just talk to me, I'll do what I can to help!" - it seemed to give us a relating point and to take him down to a more manageable self-conscious level.

    On a personal-memory level - I HATED that time in my life when I thought everyone was noticing my pimples and my out-of-style jeans. I'm still self-conscious, but that was almost physically painful back then! Good luck with the next few years. Testosterone is helped a LOT by making him run around the block/chop wood/dig a hole - something PHYSICAL and almost violent, lol!

    You will get through it. If I can, you can...

  3. Gladys, I remember that time in my own life, too! As a teen, you really, really do believe that everybody can see every single flaw, and that everybody actually cares about everything you say and do and wear. It sucks that such extreme self-consciousness is also paired with bad skin for so many of us.

    This boy is the first of three. I am going to be SO OUTNUMBERED (as if I weren't already) when they are all teens!

    How lovely to be older now, and to have the ability, when I do have a pimple or I'm feeling yucky in what I wear, to use a little perspective and realize that I love my friends for who they are and seldom even notice the things that they are self-conscious about. Zits and love handles really don't matter. It's too bad that we can't actually teach this to our kids - we can only stand by sympathetically while they learn it themselves.

  4. Whatever my parents did for me growing up, I did the pretty much the opposite for my kid. She's thirty-one in a couple of weeks and we're best friends.

    This is from an old broad who used to teach boys from age twelve to about fifteen:
    It may be that your son wants to go underwear shopping with his dad. Think how a young girl would feel if she had to go bra shopping with her father. Better yet, if he's old enough, give him the money to go buy his own underwear.

  5. Oh, man! The dad approach hadn't even occurred to me! This is one of those things about being a parent of only boys that takes me by surprise. Riiiiight, boys might want their dad to handle this stuff.

    Can't I just have a daughter, please? I'm totally ready to talk about boobs and periods. I have no idea what to do with pre-teen and teen boys!