Beth Harpaz had a bad feeling about her son’s middle school prom. For good reason, it turns out. Her 13-year-old, “Taz,” got busted for arriving with a group of friends trying to smuggle alcohol into the dance.
When she got the phone call, she was in the middle of a massive house-cleaning project. She dropped everything and stormed off to the school, grimy and furious. When she arrived, she could feel the chaperones’ eyes on her and imagined their looks said it all: “No wonder her son is a delinquent. Look at her.”
Harpaz, a veteran Associated Press reporter, has written about the incident in an honest and witty book about parenting: “13 is the New 18: And other things my children taught me while I was having a nervous breakdown being their mother” ($23.95, Crown Publishers).
As a parent, Harpaz does the “right” things. She reads all the expert books. She Googles the abbreviations her son uses for instant messaging to decode what he’s saying. Her family eats dinner together regularly. She talks openly and often about the dangers of smoking, drugs and irresponsible sex.
And still her son got Cs when he was capable of better. He wanted and bought $100 sneakers. He got in trouble for mouthing off in school. He longed for a cell phone signal at the most scenic spots on family vacations. And she found a stash of condoms hidden in his room.
“I wanted to show how confusing this landscape is,” she said. “You are groping in the dark to find the right way to respond.”
Oddly enough, the book is reassuring.
It is easy to feel helpless, out-of-date and old-fashioned in the constant barrage of media and culture that erase the lines between child and grown-up. Harpaz’s work captures that anxiety: the hyperconsumerism and sexualization of our children that starts at a very young age.
It also reminded me that the meaning of childhood constantly evolves. Historically, it has shifted from viewing children as small adults, capable of work and marriage, to our modern notion of childhood: a vaunted age of innocence, to be protected and nurtured well beyond the onset of puberty.
It’s not that every generation grows up more quickly. In fact, my own grandparents and great-grandparents married at ages now considered criminal. It’s that the chronology of what we remember and how we experienced our own childhoods seems out of sequence with today’s coming-of-age experiences.
In our culture, we’ve shifted to little ones who grow up too fast and to bigger ones who never grow up. Harpaz joked that her next book could ask: “Is 5 the new 13? Is 25 the new 17?”
It’s confounding to parents whose internal points of reference are thrown off by childhood today. Harpaz says she distinctly remembers being 12 and still playing with Barbie dolls. Not too many 12-year-olds are playing with dolls these days — unless, of course, it is in some “ironic, hip way,” she said.
Of course, we were younger at 13. Today, Harpaz says, it’s safe to assume that whatever trouble you dabbled in during your late teens, your child has seen much earlier.
–By Aisha Sultan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch