The Secret Lives of 12-Year-Olds

We all have troubles, but I really can’t think of a time when my burdens have exceeded my blessings. Two of the gems in my menagerie of good fortune are 1) my son Joseph, who is 12, and 2) the career change that allows me to spend more time with him at this crucial stage in his life.

If you have visited this space before, you likely know that I am very glad to be a parent, especially of this particular kid. That’s not to say that parenting is easy, or even pleasant every moment. Such is the way with many worthwhile pursuits in life. (Think of running or weighlifting. Multiply by 30ish. There you go.) One wants to be accurate about this, but I wouldn’t even describe the joys/tribulations of parenting as a dichotomy; that would require the coexistence of two markedly different things. The good and bad of parenting are so mystically melded that it can be hard to see where one ends and the other begins. It’s always a blurry, moving border.

An example: upon becoming a parent, it’s natural to want to establish as much solidity as possible in your life. You naturally want to do this job without being knocked off balance by the winds and earthquakes of adult life’s mounting uncertainties. You want to lash yourself to a rock of safety and decency, an island with a big harbor, safe from storms.

And most of us do a good job creating some certainty. But it’s less secure than we think, although not necessarily because of any failing of ours. No, it’s because of the nature of the task. The fact is, as parents, we have much less control than we think of our children. To a great extent, they raise themselves.

The dude his bad self, taking a brief break from studying.

The dude himself, taking a brief break from studying.

Don’t get me wrong. The boundary business is strictly ours to control as the moms and dads. We set the limits, the rules, the benchmarks of behavior and achievement that promote health, safety, self-respect and many other personal assets. But to allow ourselves to believe we know our children’s minds wall-to-wall is folly.

This revelation need not be an occasion for panic. But it does untether you from that rock. When we say, “What is he thinking?” we are usually wondering out loud which synapse failed to fire to keep a child from misplacing his math book again. But more and more, I find myself in moments of repose truly wondering, “What is on my Joseph’s mind? What is he thinking about? What conclusions is he drawing?” Of course, I talk to him as much as I can. But unless safety is concerned, my curiosity alone is not reason enough for poking my mental flashlight into every corner of his privacy. He has to be allowed to be his own person in his own brain.

Still, a parent wonders. We watch behavior for cues and clues the way a hunter in the forest watches the subtle turning of leaves in the breeze. And how do I know there’s even something to watch for?

Simple. Same as you. I was once him. At 12, I had a full-blown mental life, same as any 12-year-old. I had my views on what adults did and why, and whether it was smart (I was right about half the time). I heard the news and drew my own conclusions. I went out and got the information I wanted — before 12, I was riding busses by myself all over Pittsburgh, often to the Carnegie Library to get out books and listen to music. I walked five miles to the soccer field at the high school to play with my friends. When I wanted to, I bought Rolling Stone and National Lampoon and read things that my parents might have been considered contraband.

The fact that my son is less self-mobile than I was (times are not as safe) doesn’t change the overall analysis. He can use a keyboard better than I ever used a library card. He has all the info he wants, whenever he wants it. (Only rule: clear your History on Safari or Chrome, and you’re automatically grounded from electronics.)

So what are his views on….Syria? God? Abortion? Jobs? College? Girls? Sex? Ben Zobrist against lefties with runners in scoring position? Some of these things, it’s important for me to know, so I can be ready to help. But by this age, he has to meet me halfway. And if he chooses to build walls…I can’t stop trying, but there’s not much I can do about it.

Except…be available, be welcoming, and provide an example of enlightened parenting based on love and respect. This is a job that does not involve consistent daily reward, and takes more faith than just running or weightlifting. But so far, so good.

Here’s how I know. Joseph, who is ever-increasing in size and manliness, comes to his mother and me with questions. And he still gives, accepts, and asks for hugs from his Dad. One day I know the physical hugs may stop. I pray every day that the spiritual ones never do.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photo by Adam Barr

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3 thoughts on “The Secret Lives of 12-Year-Olds

  1. k8efitz says:

    You’re a fantastic Dad, AB. Any kid would be lucky to have you! Hugs from your friend in PA 🙂

  2. […] may recall a piece I wrote about the mental life of 12-year-olds and related mysteries. Quite unbidden, I recently received a glance into that world. My son Joseph […]

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