They told me back in the days when I had three little boys ages four and under that, while those early years might be tumultuous and exhausting, the payoff for crazed mothers and fathers comes in the teenage years. Then, while parents of girls are being whipsawed by operatic mood swings and battling over tube tops and short shorts, we parents of boys would be kicking back and enjoying life. I am here to report that it’s true!
Okay, not entirely. David was moody and irritable for pretty much his entire 13th year and while he has now reached the sunny uplands of 14, he still has his moments. Jon, 16, has developmental disorders of various kinds so that no age is without challenges. But for the most part, the teen years here are actually — and one doesn’t want to tempt the evil eye but — fun.
Well, of course, as the parent of a teenager you do have to have a sense of humor about certain things — like socks. They either fail to wear them when they should, or leave dirty ones in places they should not. They are heedless of their appearance and submit only reluctantly to daily ablutions. They consume prodigious amounts of food but regard two stalks of broccoli as a huge portion. When their hair is falling over their foreheads and tumbling down over the eyes to somewhere near the nostrils, they pronounce it “too short.” And they have a peculiar sense of time. After three hours on the computer they will wail plaintively, “I just got on!” But after six minutes of practicing the trumpet or clarinet they will affirm that they spent half an hour.
And yes, as the mother of a music-obsessed 14-year-old, I do yield radio control to whomever has first called “shotgun” in the car and thus am subjected to more heavy metal than a middle-aged woman should be expected to endure. Did you know that there are genres of heavy metal? Oh, yes. There’s hair metal and death metal and thrash metal and God knows what else. I once asked David whether every song amounted to its own genre. He was dismissive. David is very quick on the trigger. He knows my views and standards and after a year and a half of listening to heavy metal in the car, I don’t think I’ve heard a single swear word.
But enduring heavy metal is an investment because this boy also loves Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Rimsky-Korsakov. We split our time between the rock and classical channels. David can play Hummel and Haydn on the trumpet, and after spending three glorious weeks at Interlochen music camp this year, he returned appreciating opera, dance, and even (his mother’s skepticism notwithstanding) Mahler. If I can listen to Metallica and Rush for David’s sake, I can certainly give Gustav another go.
Ben, at 12, is not technically a teenager yet, but that hardly matters, since Ben is one of those people who was born mature. This is not to say he’s solemn. Quite the contrary. Listening to the news on the car radio the other day, the announcer intoned, “Next, is Bill Clinton a racist?” “He can’t be,” quipped Ben, “he’s the first black president.” I guess it’s possible that adolescence will transform this smiling prankster (I got an alert on my PDA recently that read “Buy Ben presents”) into a brooding shadow at least some of the time. But it’s hard to imagine. He has the gift of buoyancy, a talent for keeping busy (most underrated in this screen-dependent age), and too much impishness to remain morose for long.
I so admire parents who are more rigid and disciplined that I. Certainly for three boys a bit more martinet would not go amiss. (My husband is better, but he works long hours.) And I do look at teenage girls who seem to keep their notebooks so tidy and their hair combed and their permission slips signed and think: It’s a different world.
But I’m not complaining. I get in my car and the GPS spits out directions to our favorite sushi restaurant and I think “Ben!” After haggling with David about practice time, he finally puts the trumpet to his lips and out comes real music, beautiful music. Jonathan is learning the bass guitar, helping out with the younger kids at synagogue, and earning pocket money by gardening, cleaning, and caring for the four animals in our household. He’s so contented when he’s working hard, and that is no small thing in this world.
– Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.