The Modern Momma: Navigating the Dawn of Adolescence is Challenging for Parents and Kids

Amid the growing appetites and potty humor of the tween years, there are still plenty of childlike moments to savor.

Kristy Eckert
Kristy Eckert

There are moments when Coop still feels like a little boy. The giggles during Monopoly when I land on his hotels. The adorable handmade cards for my birthday. The sweet prayers before bed. The occasional walks when he reaches out to hold my hand. The NBA dreams.

And then there are moments I feel him inching ever closer to the precipice of manhood. The fourth (often fifth, and sometimes sixth) meal of every day. The endless, groan-worthy references about boy parts (I basically live in an Adam Sandler movie; today alone we’ve turned both a zucchini and a butter knife into jokes). The sweat-drenched clothes he produces after practicing basketball in the driveway.

While there are days I want to pull out my hair—How many times does one have to overflow the cereal bowl with milk before pouring more slowly?—I actually find myself loving this age.

My dad taught middle school. Best job in the world, he said. And he meant it. In elementary school, kids are excited about everyone and everything. By high school, they’re basically adults who are set in their ways and uninterested in yours. But middle school, Dad said, is the time when everyone is figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Sure, they’re going to push boundaries and make mistakes. But they’re curious enough to listen and moldable enough to coach. It’s the age of their becoming.

And I dig it.

I relish big conversations—politics, women, Jesus, cancer, sex. There’s nobody I’d rather Coop be having them with than me. Sometimes said conversations can backfire, of course. When a ’90s club song came on in the car and I started dancing in the driver’s seat, Coop shook his head in disgust. “I can’t believe you’re dancing to this,” he said. “These lyrics are sexist. Of all the people.” I felt simultaneously guilty and proud.

As a parent, navigating this age can, at times, feel impossible. When do I push harder? When do I lay off? Am I holding too tightly? Not tightly enough? Which Will Ferrell movies do I let him watch? How much sugar is enough to keep all the kids coming to my house but not so much I’m wrecking their health? When does he get a smartphone?

The Great Cellphone Decision might be what kills me. Coop’s among the last of his classmates without a smartphone. But once the deed is done, he’ll be tethered to that thing for the rest of his life, and I want to preserve his ability to live fully in the now for as long as I can. I did buy him a $20, prepaid, super-embarrassing flip phone from Target so we can stay in touch when he’s running the neighborhood with his buddies. I told him I like the idea of him getting made fun of for being different and knowing how to handle that. I do. Yet I also understand all the reasons other kids have them. Rides. Uncomfortable situations. Learning now how to handle a device you’ll use from here to eternity. The list goes on. I’m not sure we can (or should?) hold out much longer, but right now, it’s a burner phone for the win.

I feel like the temptation to skip this period of parenting might, at times, be appealing. But then again, there are afternoons like this one when, as I type, Coop is in the other room rapping along to a song on his Xbox game with two friends. Despite the fact they don’t know I can hear them, they all go silent when a swear word arrives. It makes me smile.

They’re not little boys. And they’re definitely not men. And both of those truths are A-OK.

Dad never shared his theories on helping kids navigate this time, but I know them from watching. When they walk the line or push the boundary, don’t scream or shut them out or walk away. Stand beside them. Ask questions. Listen. Understand. And when they can’t find the way back on their own, gently take them by the hand and guide them there. Preferably while sharing a laugh.

In moments of frustration, I try to channel his patience. God knows I need it.

The age of becoming isn’t going to be easy, I’m sure.

But this time is far too rich to wish it away.

Kristy Eckert is a Powell mom and founder of Kristy Eckert Communications.

This story is from the Fall 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.