On the Relative Power of Parenting

Kids on a bus

Somewhere in this photo a revolution is happening.

Our son, 13 but soon to be 14, is a rather typical boy. He loves computer games, he has friends, he has troubles with some teachers yet does well with others, he plays a part of a large number of inside jokes and stories that take place at school, and he is a joy (at least to us) to be around. He is also at times an annoying prat, but all of this is fairly typical.

Also, like most boys his age, he has almost zero concept of personal grooming. Every day we have to remind him to shower, like its a chore worse than doing math homework. Every day we remind him to put on lotion (even though you can see his skin flaking off in drifts), to put on Chapstick (even though his lips resemble the worst cracked road in America), to brush his hair, to put on deodorant, to brush his teeth. All of these things he needs to be reminded about. Daily. Sure he’ll do them, but you have to tell him to. He’d never do any of these things on his own.

So last night when I came out of the office I came across him after exiting the bathroom. He looked at me and asked, “Notice anything different?” It was pretty obvious what he was referring to. Our child, who has never to my knowledge intentionally picked-up a comb, had actually combed his hair. He had also put on lotion, put on chapstick, and put on deodorant. All of these things without us saying a word.

To put it mildly, this was a shock. If he had come home from school and announced a sudden and intense love for all things glittery pink unicorns I couldn’t have been more surprised. But here’s the kicker; once we did a little careful questioning we discovered the reason: He’d held a girl’s hand. Sometime on the bus ride home from The Disney Music Hall in downtown L.A., a trip in which both of his parents had chaperoned, he had sat next to a longtime friend and calmly held her hand.

Now his interest in the girl wasn’t a surprise. For a long time he has been the two have been sharing barbs in class. They trade insults back and forth all the time. We know this because he tells us every day. Mixed in with his daily exploits involving friends and frenemies, was a consistent sub-plot, a growing set of stories revolving around the same girl. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that the daily barbs mask something deeper, a growing attraction.

But when I look at this sudden change after a night’s rest I find myself troubled. Here we are, Teri and I, almost daily badgering him, trying positive ways, negative ways, (hell any way) to get the boy to take an interest in the basic level grooming. The kind of grooming required of every human that wants to live in polite company. Yet all of our efforts have remained consistently blocked by his whim. Yet give him the nerve to hold a girl’s hand on the bus one day and suddenly he’s off and running.

If I look at the situation unemotionally like an engineer–that is measuring the efficiency of our parenting by measuring effort over effect–I can only come to one conclusion: When it comes to the power of parents vs. girls, we don’t stand a chance. Heck, we’re not even in the same league.

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