Thursday, May 22, 2003

Teenager Too Soon

It came at us out of nowhere. I swear we never saw it approaching. And like two trucks on a narrow curve in the middle of the woods, the resulting crash has indelibly altered our lives.

Amir has become a teenager.

Too soon.

After all, he’s only eleven. That’s still over a year away from his bar mitzvah when, according to Jewish tradition, he officially becomes a young adult. But even at eleven, his behaviors already show the tell-tale signs a full-fledged teenager-in-training.

There are the emotional mood swings. I’m happy. I’m sad. No I’m happy again.

And the little things that set him off (God forbid the hot water should run out in the middle of his shower – you do not want to be within a three block radius at that point). For that matter, the very fact that he takes a shower regularly (and needs deodorant afterwards) is an even clearer sign of being a teenager.

There’s the sullenness. The rebelliousness when asked to do anything. The sudden lack of interest in anything other than action movies, video games and loud music. Can you say “Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?”

No, this is coming out too harsh. He’s still more of a “tweenager.” He can still be seen in public with his parents without undue embarrassment, and he still demands that we tuck him in at night. He doesn’t roam the streets until the wee hours, and there’s no peer pressure towards cigarettes or harder substances.

Jody and I have debated at length what this newly minted teenager really needs.

“More limits,” Jody says. Sounds good. But what if it’s really greater freedom that’s required?

Apparently, we’re not alone in confronting the early onset of teenagehood. The other night, Amir’s school invited both children and parents to the performance of an educational play called “Tragedies and Miracles.”

The show was intended to address some of the frustrations and raging hormones that have turned so many of our once-compassionate children into angry tigers, ready to pounce at any provocation, as they head down the twisting road to inevitability.

The plot was seductively simple: Twelve-and-a-half-year-old Amos is soon to be bar mitzvah. But no one understands him. He fights incessantly with his mother and ultimately declares that he won’t participate in his own coming-of-age celebration.

Just as things are getting impossibly hairy, Grandpa comes to visit. Stereotypically wiser and able to see what those more intimately involved in the struggle cannot, Grandpa weaves a complex story of his own childhood into Amos’ day-to-day reality.

He tells his grandson that he never had a bar mitzvah either. Amos is incredulous, until Grandpa explains it was because he was too busy fleeing the Nazis.

Just before he leaves home, Grandpa’s mother gives him a tallit, a prayer shawl, to remember her by.

He never sees her again.

Grandpa is the kind of surrogate parental figure every kid wants, and he very nearly pulls Amos out of his funk. That is, until his mother returns home from work and the fighting begins anew. But their moment of connection has worked its dramatic magic. Amos communicates his fears and frustrations for the first time in years. And his mother listens. The bar mitzvah is back on.

Melodramatic? Absolutely. But teenagers with raging hormones are not necessarily looking for subtlety.

We talked about the play in the car on the way home. Does our family bicker as much as Amos and his mother? We're certainly better communicators. Still, is it really necessarily to suffer through unspeakable tragedy in order to appreciate what we’ve got? There must be a better way.

We decide to choose a new method to deal with Amir’s emotional outbursts. Instead of sending him for time-outs, which have clearly not been working, we’ll try focusing on rewards. A week with no hitting = a meal at Burger King with Abba. Or maybe a night out at the movies. A win-win situation. For both son and father.

It's only been a week, but the plan seems to be working. Amir’s already earned his first Double Whopper Meal. He's counting on this being a regular gig. It might get a tad expensive, but who's complaining? We’ve still got another seven years of a teenager in the house.

From there on, it should be smooth sailing. Then all we’ll have to worry about is Amir in the army...

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