Friday, April 25, 2014

Toddlerhood: The Second Coming

The other day, my husband and I were recalling the diaper days, those messy, smelly, never ending years of baby- and toddlerhood. I guess I had blocked out the memory, just as I've blocked out most of the joyless aspects of parenthood: things like sleepless nights, food jags and tantrums.

Someone once told me the reason all babies are so cute is so their parents will keep, care for and not harm them, despite the tremendous amount of work and sacrifice they demand. It made perfect sense. My kids' cuteness certainly saved their young lives more than once.

So why don't we turn them out of the house when they are teenagers? If you think about it, the teen years are a lot like the infant and toddler years combined. The children become noisy, smelly, disagreeable, back-talking eating machines that can't be reasoned with. They're emotional, throw tantrums, make you want to tear your hair out and cause you to lose sleep. To top it all off, they don't appreciate a single thing you do for them.

Despite being a teenager, my son Jacob is one of the sweetest kids I know. He frees insects that get caught inside the house. He doesn't go fishing because he hates that the worms have to die. He's kind to everyone. But when he was in middle school, he was bullied. He was small, had glasses and braces and was very chatty. Some kids decided these were good reasons to push him around.

The fact is that too many kids in too many schools get bullied for multiple reasons, and sometimes for no reason at all. It tore my heart out to see my sweet boy hurting, especially because I knew he would never fight back--it's just not in his nature to fight.

Fast forward three years. Yes, he still has glasses and braces, but he's grown. He's found his "tribe" in high school and feels accepted and respected among his fellow drama club members and artists. He's no longer bullied. Some kids would put the negative experience of those days behind them, maybe chalk it up to one of those things that "all kids go through," or just block it out of their memory. But he didn't.

This week, Jacob participated in the GLSEN Day of Silence. The DOS is a national youth movement aimed at bringing attention to the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. It's intended to echo the silence caused by anti-LGBT bullying, name-calling and harassment. This was no small feat. Jacob is still very chatty. I knew that going a whole day without speaking would probably be one of the most difficult things he ever tried to do, and it was. But he did it.

Though Jacob isn't bullied anymore, I realized that he carried that experience with him. He hasn't forgotten what it felt like to have no voice, to be unable to speak up or fight back when he was being picked on just because he was different in some way.

Teenagers have a bad reputation. As they approach these volatile years, parents tend to brace themselves for "the worst". We're warned that they will start experimenting with drugs, alcohol and sex. They're going to fight the rules, push back and make life difficult for everyone in the household. They're going to start acting like big babies all over again.

But what's really happening is, they're growing up, and figuring out who they're going to be. And just like when they were little, they're learning how to  make choices. These choices have higher stakes though, and consequences much more serious than the time-out sessions of their younger years. So as parents, our job of guiding and teaching them is even more important. No wonder we worry and cringe.

I have yet to walk on eggshells with my teenager, and I know I'm lucky to be able to say that. I'm sure there will be tough days ahead. But seeing my child making selfless choices, based on his priorities and convictions, is an amazing experience for me as a mom. So if the bad days are tempered by moments when he's thoughtful and respectful of others (even if it's not me), then no matter how bad those days get, I'll take them. Because in those good moments, I see a young man that I'm proud to call my son.

And I can just block out the bad days from my memory later.

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