The Little Monkey, once known as the Little Monster, turns 13 this month.
Since we met him close to his 6th birthday, this means we have finally tipped the scales: He’s now been our son for more than half his life. Last year’s milepost of being a family for half his life seemed it would never get here, but now the time is rushing by, and our scales will soon look like the heavily lopsided comparison of our wedding-day weights to our current poundage.
According to my bossy sidekick, Merriam-Webster, “teenage” begins at age 13, so I dread a return to more Monster than Monkey. The L is also now more Large than Little.
However, as I dozed off to an audio book recently—as I do at an embarrassing early hour every evening, missing great swaths of books but still proclaiming I have “read” them—my eyes popped open at this sentence by Bill Bryson:
The word teenager had only been coined in 1941.*
Even more incredibly, I remembered the sentence the next morning.
Teenagers as we currently know them (and wished we didn’t) did not exist 75 years ago?
If you ask me, it’s no coincidence that a World War began in the same year as the birth of the term teenager.
I wondered: Was the word coined to describe an already insufferable life stage (not for themselves but for those around them) and state of mind? Or did the word itself lead to the fall of western civilization, resulting in the eventual fall of waistbands past butt cracks?
I borrowed a copy of Bryson’s book to find the answer:
Teenagers had become the number one fear of citizens in the 1950s. There had of course been obnoxious, partly grown human beings with bad complexions since time immemorial, but as a social phenomenon, teenagehood was a brand new thing.
Bryson concludes: …teenagers weren’t bad by any measure. Still it’s true, when you look at them now, there’s no question that they should have been put down.
Hot diggity dog! Etymology has set me free!
If the western world existed without teenagers until a recent hiccup in time, WE CAN THEREFORE EXIST WITHOUT THEM AGAIN. Just as many old downtown main streets are now being revitalized after shopping malls killed them in the 1950s, we can turn back the clocks on teenagers. We can hike up their baggy pants, push back their hoodies, and comb back their hair to expose them for what they are: human beings on the cusp of adulthood, not cave dwellers who have never made a bed or used a fork.
Instead of creating yet another subcategory of excuses for insolent behavior—with marketing words like tween, designed for the sole purpose of selling us more crap—I decided to erase the household blackboard of the word teenager.
I made the announcement at dinner that night: in this house, we will not use the word teenager. We will use the term young adult.
LM frowned at my announcement and began to argue. (He has been preparing for this teenager attribute for years.) It was evident that he had already become married to the idea of the word and felt that I had just thrown out the cocky with the Clearasil.
“What category of books do you read at the library?” I queried him.
“Not subject. Category. You no longer read the books marked J for Juvenile” (delinquent), I pointed out. “You read the YA books, for Young Adults. Right?” If librarians—sentient beings who should run the planet—did not cave to T for Teenager, neither will I.
“It’s yes. Not yeah. Use your knife, not your fingers. Do you want to go back to reading the books marked J?”
“Nnnnn.” He looked appalled, as if I’d just had the gall to serve him mushrooms.
“Well, you read YA books, therefore, you are YA. We have a Young Adult in our house.”
He was struck speechless (never happened before or since). He could not figure out how to argue with this fact.
The term young adult, versus teenager, sets up a different expectation and frame of mind. While we are not suddenly expecting a proper Windsor to live with us (after all, we’ve all seen how well Prince Charles turned out), we are expecting that LM will not use his teenager status as an excuse. He will strive to be a young adult, on the way to becoming a contributing member of his community, rather than lamely offering up the pretext that he’s a teenager, a creature who acquires cheekiness along with acne. Puberty is not synonymous with lobotomy (on second thought, I’ll get back to you on that one). He has opposable thumbs that can operate an alarm clock and a sponge, a tongue that can articulate please and thank you, and muscles that can push a mower instead of my buttons.
It’s not that I expect our eighth grader to suddenly join the adult discussion of whether Occam’s Razor or Gillette is preferable in cutting edge, cutting teeth, or cutting the cheese.
I’m not seeking a return to William Blake’s chimney sweeps, or Charles Dickens working full-time at age 12 to support his family while his father lounged in debtors’ prison (although this scenario has its appeal).
But I believe that the word, and therefore concept and dread of teenager, gives permission and grudging acceptance of sullen, monosyllabic, slouching, nonproductive, know-it-all, night-owl, screw-the-rules, antisocial, blame-shifting (to skim the surface) persons who confuse the fact that they are now taller than us with being smarter than us. That may well be the case with some adolescents, but we will always lap them in experience.
We can give him expectations to strive to live up to, not shrugs that we are helpless to prevent the deluge of big-mouthed blarney that’s comin’ our way like a bad case of B.O., judging by my recent experience of eighth graders during my year as a junior high hall monitor. Not all of them, to be sure, but it was apparent that a great many had never read a Miss Manners column while waiting at the orthodontist’s office. In the trenches of the junior high hallway, I acquired a great deal of empathy for my kid and also a healthy dose of trepidation about what’s around the corner for our family. So far he’s a champ on most levels, except for the mouthiness that’s somehow traveled undiluted along with fluoridated water from the Wild One to the Brady Bunch to the Cosby Kids and into the new millennium.
I’m not asking anything of him that I’m not asking of myself. I do not use the word menopause in this house, and I don’t use it as an excuse for my poor behavior. I assure you that all of my recent lapses in temper and patience are caused not by my change of life, but by the provocation of a teenager in my house.
*The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir, chapter 7
Teenage Crime Wave: www.moviepostershop.com
Teenagers From Outer Space: moviesstarting.blogspot.com