June 07, 2005

When Boys Turn into Teenagers

The other day, I promised to pick my eighth grade son, Shaggy Hair Boy, up from school. Somehow, I mixed up the times and ended up getting there way too late. No one was at the school when I arrived.

"Don't worry," said Boy in Black, who was in the car with me. "It's a nice day. I am sure he started walking home." The school is miles from our house, but not an impossible walk, so he was probably right.

But I felt awful that I had missed him. And then I started worrying about him walking home. Inside my head, of course, Shaggy Hair is still a little boy, shy and quiet. Inside my head, he still has that innocent freckled frace and short hair, not the wild mane of curls that currently hides his whole face. We started home, taking the route he would have most likely taken.

"Stop worrying, Mom," Boy in Black said to me. "He is not a little kid anymore. He is a teenager."

He paused. "Teenagers are what people are afraid of when they worry about their little kids walking home alone."

That line put things in perspective for me.

We came around the corner, and I saw them: Shaggy Hair, dressed in black, his long hair in his eyes, sauntering along. His friend Skater Boy, also in black, was next to him, tossing down a skateboard and leaping on, moving along the road. Boy in Black was right: they looked like teenagers now.

And we live in a culture that fears teenage boys. I wondered what it must be like to be a teenage boy - and realize that.


Yankee T said...

Oh, yes, this strikes such a familiar note in me. Our culture also fears African American teenagers, both boys and girls, and I always wonder how my girls feel when they are in the mall or at the amusement park with a group of their friends. I have walked behind them and seen people step WAAAAY out of their way.
And isn't it bizarre, when we know how harmless our own children are?

Danny said...

As the father of two young boys and the unofficially adopted father to several older boys, I found this to be an wonderful post. Thank you.

timna said...

I really laughed out loud. Your older boy is quite wise!
my little boy (11) is spending the week with his grandmother. Mom has a twin sister in the same small town so picture this not-so-little boy walking all over town with his grandmas. He's so harmless!

Songbird said...

Shaggy Hair sounds like #2 Son's best friend, Boots. As a little guy, Boots was a silent angel with a halo of blond curls; he wore teeny little LL Bean boots year round. Now he is the first kid in bare feet and his hair is long and wild. He's a great kid.
Today they walked all over our downtown area with two other friends, ending up at the house furthest uphill (and furthest from work for me), some sort of teen Mecca, apparently. I know these kids and they are still little to me. I hear you, jo(e).

Friday Mom said...

I know this is true. I work with adolescents at the hospital, but it puzzles me. Where does the fear come from?

I, too, wonder what it's like for them.

BrightStar said...

When I was in elementary school, I was scared of the big kids. I don't know why. I would walk home, and I would cross the street to avoid the big kids -- boys or girls. Then, one day, I became a big kid and it hit me that I realized big kids were no longer scary. I forgot about thinking big kids were once scary until I read this post.

Mona Buonanotte said...

I had a "Mom-Freak-Out" moment reading this post when you said no one was at the school. Scariest thing is not seeing your child where they should be. But. They do grow up, don't they? And they'll always be our babies.

Lisa V said...

Along with the fear comes the complete lack of trust that most people have for teenagers.

I constantly have people telling me all the stuff I need to worry about Daughter #1 doing. There is no reason people would think she would do these things (outrageous stuff) other than she is 13. I am also told I can't trust her friends who are boys. I know these kids I work with them at school. They are sweet boys, they didn't suddenly just become untrustworthy.

What happened to trusting that we raised our kids with decent values and characters, and at their core they are still the children we love.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

And we live in a culture that fears teenage boys. I wondered what it must be like to be a teenage boy - and realize that.

I was an incredibly awkward teenager, even by teenage standards. The big problem was that I suffered from what would now, in the SSRI era, be labeled depression. I was slow moving and glassy eyed. I had long unruly hair that I cut off in random places when they bothered me, with the net result looking more than a little like a mullet.

I was always surprised at the assumptions people made about me. The biggest assumption was that I took drugs. For most of my youth, I didn't, if only because I had no social network that could link me to drugs.

Eventually, though, I became the person everyone assumed I was. Oddly, I never took drugs until I dropped out of high school. In fact, when I dropped out, I had never taken drugs, had sex, or even been kissed. I did all of these things within a month of dropping out.

So, yes, the effect on teenage boys is dreadful.

liz said...

Wait, wait, wait! They grow up? Become teenagers? Nobody told me!

jo(e) said...

I just wanted to say, Yankee Transplant, that you are absolutely right about the way that African American kids (and Latino kids in this area) get treated. I see this with my students all the time -- these smart, polite, wonderful kids who get harrassed all the time in this conservative white community. Just because of their skin colour. Or because the way they dress or wear their hair.

My son talks with sadness about how teenagers get treated but he also knows he will in many, many ways be the beneficiary of male white privilege.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I worry about my 11-year-old becoming a teenager in this and so many other ways--is Shaggy-haired boy as lovable as he used to be? Mine still sits on my lap!

I do want to teach mine about understanding and not abusing the inheriting of male white privilege. This is something he was NOT taught by his other mother, who *seemed* to be striving for more of that privilege.

jo(e) said...

Taittems: Yeah, Shaggy Hair is as sweet and lovable as ever. He is bigger than me though ... so he doesn't fit on my lap any more. I think you'd love his hair. He stopped cutting it a year ago, and it's so thick and wavy, dark brown with red highlights. He gets lots of attention from the girls in his school for that gorgeous hair.

I am always saying to my boys: "Just because you are a privileged white boy, that doesn't mean you have to act like one." So far, they seem to get it....

Rana said...

I think it's great that you're teaching your boys that, jo(e). Still, it's hard all round; I always had to work really hard when teaching to get my students to understand the difference between structural racism and privilege and personal racism and privilege. A lot of the white male students were defensive and prickly about it because, for most of them, they were good, friendly kids operating in a system that elevated them over others whether they had any wishes in that direction or not. As you say, just because one has a certain status in society doesn't mean one needs or wants to take advantage of it. (Not to let all of those young men off the hook, by any means -- it was just that they found it painful in other ways to be on that side of the divide, even if their pain was the pain of privilege with a conscience.)

I was thinking about the whole "evil alien teenagers" thing after reading this -- I've thought about it before, particularly how frustrating it is that human beings between the ages of 12 and 19 are considered to be weird alien creatures, not adolescent humans -- and I wonder if other cultures did not have the right idea with having clearly defined rites of passage. On one side, you're a child. On the other, you're an adult. This odd liminal (and therefore threatening?) state seems to encourage this sense of teenagers as creatures existing in a world of their own, but with those odd moments where sometimes they are children, and sometimes adults, and neither fully either.

jo(e) said...

Rana: bell books distinguishes between institutionalized racism (which my boys will likely benefit from whether they want to or not) and personal prejudice (which they can learn to avoid). Separating these two helps when we talk about these issues in my classroom. Too often, a student will think that one bit of evidence that a person of colour has some kind of prejudice somehow evens the score when it comes to institutionalized racism. Yeah, right.

PPB said...

What a cool post. I have never, not even once, been a teenage boy. I do remember, very clearly though, the first time I was aware that people in a store were freaked out by me. I was on an extended canoe trip with some kids--just disgustingly dirty---and needed to call the camp doctor for a kid's medical need. The only place I could find was a very shi shi New England village (think B and Bs and Ski Resorts). After walking up and down the street for a while, I realized that people were walking away from me--shaggy, filthy, smelly, bruised, uncombed. I couldn't get anyone's attention in any of the stores I entered to try to use a phone.

I remember clearly the realization that I was a temporary visitor in the land of the scary, but others--like teenage boys--lived there permanently. Honestly, I think it would break my heart if those were "scary" in society's eyes were my own kids.

Such a cool post.

purple_kangaroo said...

This made me laugh out loud, too. There are lots of great teenagers out there, but your son has a point about the way people tend to view teens in general.

My sisters and I, on the other hand, were never teenagers. My parents simply refused to use the word. We were young ladies.

purple_kangaroo said...

Not that I'm advocating that. :)

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

The discussion of the fear of teenagers is really different now that we have brought up race and class privilege. Being a teenage boy is a transient state. Race is not, unless you can pass, and class is not nearly as transient as people think.

One of the things that being a white heterosexual male allowed me to do is fuck up for a while. People with even more money can be even bigger fuck ups, and go on to be president of the United States.

The difference between what I and ppb experienced and what african american teens experience is that our experience is not overlayed with the sense that this will be our whole lives.