Tweens are such funny people, aren’t they? Not quite teenagers, but no longer children, these pre-adolescents are simultaneously the best and the worst and the brightest and the dimmest. They are funny and fresh and maddening and gross.
When your oldest is eleven, you start calculating; five years until he drives, six years until prom, seven years until he walks down the long driveway and catches the bus for the last time.
And you find yourself wondering how this is possible, how the 7-pound, 11-ounce baby with the skinny legs and dark hair you brought home from the hospital is now a 100-pound pre-teen who stands well above your own shoulder. Sometimes, you do a double-take when he rounds the corner.
You think to yourself, who is this person?
Everyone warned you. Every mother and father and grandmother and aunt and neighbor warned you it would go by in the blink of an eye, and even though you still call him by the nickname you gave him when he was an infant—Boochie, or sometimes Buca—he is, indeed, growing up.
You hope and pray you’ve done enough, because you know soon his adolescent mind will snap closed to you, and open to his peers instead. You hope the times you made him share his Thomas train and say please at dinner and wash his hands in the bathroom will pay off; that he will turn into a responsible, polite young man who won’t drive too fast or take drugs or get some girl pregnant.
You will ache inside, for all the mistakes you made with him. For the times you snapped wait one minute I am busy with your brother and told him no, he could not have a second cookie or another popsicle or more slides down the slide. For the times you skipped the story at bedtime and told him no more bubbles in the bathtub.
And then you’ll see. You’ll see the way he eats runny pancakes every Saturday, even though he prefers eggs, because his unusual younger brother’s rigid rules explicitly state that Saturday is PANCAKE DAY. You’ll see the way he flexes and bends when autism cannot, and you’ll know.
You’ll know that you did—you are doing—the best you can, and somehow he will turn out just right.
You’ll wonder if he still believes in the magic of Christmas; the Elf on the Shelf named Cooper and the reindeer and the jolly guy whooshing down the chimney in his red velvet suit. Because 11-year olds, they are cagey. They are cautious, and they give nothing away.
An 11-year old will actively ruin every picture you try to take of him. He will smirk. He will fashion his fingers into rabbit ears behind his brother’s head and fake-sneeze on the count of three. This will make you crazy.
All the livelong day his three brothers and one sister ask, “Where’s Joey? When’s Joey getting home? What’s Joey doing?” You realize he is their leader, their center, their heart. Somehow, he holds them all together. And again you begin to calculate how old they will all be when the first of the flock leaves the nest. Their hearts will break, perhaps even more than yours.
Tweens don’t want to new Thomas trains or Lego sets for Christmas. They want technology. They long for screens and buttons and apps and racing games. Even if they don’t possess so much as a Wii controller to their name, they know all about memory and Wi-fi and social media.
“Mom, mom, see, if I had a ITouch, I could text you sometimes!”
Eleven-year olds still have to be reminded to brush their teeth. They will try to wear shorts to Christmas dinner and Boy Scout fleeces to church. And oh, how they sigh. They finish their sentences with a sigh. They sigh at mealtimes and at bedtime and pretty much all the time. That have perfected the eye roll and the exhausted, drawn out, “Fi-ne.”
An eleven-year old can imitate his father with such perfect sass, you almost fall off the stool in surprise.
“So, Mom, then Dad says to me, ‘Joe, Joe what is missing in these Christmas shows? What is missing here? It’s CHRIST, that’s what! Joseph, Christ is missing from Christmas these days,’ and I was all like, Dad, I know.”
You’ll feel as though you are somehow betraying your husband just the tiniest bit by laughing at these jokes, but this boy’s timing takes your breath away.
Yet, there is a hint of the adolescent storms to come. One afternoon you might question him on his math quiz, and wonder why he got such a low grade. You will be unprepared for the tween wrath; the screaming and stomping that follows.
“I’m sorry I’m not the CHILD PRODIGY you thought I’d be!”
It gives you pause, his comments. It makes you wonder if all this time it was a bad experience, growing up side-by-side with a boy who is special-needs, who held up the school bus in first grade and insists the entire family eats runny pancakes on Saturday mornings. Maybe the expectations to be good and perfect and smart and well, normal, have been too much.
The only thing you think to do is to tap into that pre-adolescent humor; to offer your own wit and draw him out of his crankiness.
“Boochie, listen. I never once thought you’d be a prodigy.”
And you might be rewarded with a small, wry smile. “This math, Mom, it’s just harder than I expected.”
One night, your own father might be in town visiting, and in an attempt to get out of cooking, you suggest dinner at the Japanese hibachi restaurant in town, the one where they cook on the long grill while you watch.
As you all troop into the crowded restaurant and wind your way around the full tables, your 7-year old daughter may suddenly burst into tears.
“I didn’t get into the MATH APPS,” she will wail and sniffle.
You’ll bring her out to the lobby to calm her down, but she is inconsolable; weeping and hiccupping about not getting into the accelerated math program. You try everything. You reassure her she is smart and she can still get in next year. Desperately, you dig deep for reassurance.
“But Rose, Joey never got into Math Apps either!”
But she only cries harder. You tell her everyone is waiting for dinner, and that you’ll talk again later, after you all get home. And both of you head back to the table, where the rest of the family and Grandpa Watterson are still standing around trying to pick seats.
You walk your daughter over to your oldest, and say, “Joey, sit next to Rose. Cheer her up.”
Then your 11-year old will sit across the hibachi table, next to his tearstained sister, and poke and snap and play with his chopsticks. As the chef slices the onion and lights it on fire in a mini volcano, you narrow your eyes at him and hiss things like, “Stop it! With those chopsticks!”
Throughout dinner, you feel a pit of irritation in your stomach at all this fooling around.
But as you’re all finishing up the meal, your father will catch your eye and say quietly, “Look, Carrie. He did exactly what you asked him to do. He cheered her up.”
And you will look across table where the Japanese chef is standing and wiping off the stainless steel grill. You will see your oldest son spear his last piece of chicken onto the long, wooden skewer, and offer it to his giggly pink sister.
See, 11-year olds, they understand. They understand that all it takes is some chopsticks to forget about the math.
On Christmas Eve you watch him frost cookies for Santa with the rest of the kids. You notice the way he adds icing to a gingerbread man to make a hat and chats good-naturedly with his 5-year old brother about how the reindeer will navigate the roof. And you wonder, does he still believe?
“I don’t know how, Henry. Somehow reindeer just know how to fly.”
The next morning he will be caught up in the chaos and excitement of Christmas morning; ripping through wrapping paper with as much enthusiasm as the rest of the kids. And when every gift is opened, he will come sit with you on the couch.
He will throw his long, skinny leg over yours and leans his head on your shoulder. For just a moment you watch, together, as his three brothers and one sister begin to play with their new gifts; Batman Legos and measuring cups and a pink Razor scooter.
Then he will confess quietly that he crept down the stairs in the middle of the night. Not to check on the presents or the stockings or the cookies on the plate, but to look one last time for the Elf on Shelf.
“I was worried you would forget to move him, Mom. To put him away. The kids would be so sad if they found out he wasn’t real.”
And then you’ll know. You’ll know this tween of yours believes in the magic after all. In fact, in many ways, he is the very spirit of Christmas and giving and joy.