By Catherine Newman
UMPTEEN: Motherwell’s not-so-ordinary advice column for the parents of teens
My son is 14, the younger of my two kids. He’s happy, has a lot of friends (boys and girls) and seems to be enjoying high school so far. He’s always been really affectionate and cuddly, and he still is. He’ll wander into the kitchen just to kiss me on the top of my head while I’m cooking dinner. Several times a day, apropos of nothing, he’ll announce “I need a hug.” If he’s really tired or not feeling well, he likes to lie on the couch with his head in my lap. I swear he’d still sit in my lap if he weren’t half a foot taller than me now. I don’t discourage any of this because I love it, and because he seems perfectly well adjusted to me. And it’s not like he’s randomly hugging and kissing anyone other than me. So I guess my question is: should I be discouraging this? Is it unhealthy? Am I being selfish just because I love it and know that he’ll be moving out before I know it and then I’ll miss this?
When our 17 was in preschool, daily drop-off goodbyes involved a prolonged ritual of hugs and kisses, followed by a mandatory interaction called “blowies,” whereby I stood just outside his classroom’s window, and he, palm-to-lips, blew out a long and counted-out series of silent, tragic kisses. This is the same child who couldn’t fall asleep without a hank of my hair in his little fist, and who begged to be carried everyeveryeverywhere! I pictured hauling him up in my arms to receive his high school diploma, standing in front of his college dorm for an extra-long sequence of blowies.
But it turns out that many childhood phases are, for better and worse, just that: phases. They pass by, even as you’re anxiously lunging after them with the fervent wish that they would end, like the fear of drains or dragons or teddy bears. Or even as you’re praying that they would never, ever end, like the way that they look at you as if you were God’s very gift to them alone, a magnificent and shining being, radiant and magical and to be smiled at in a gigantic and heartbreaking way.
I mean, maybe your teenagers still look at you like that, but mine don’t. And, in fact, my own crazily-attached, excessively held and breast-fed, slept-in-our-room-til-they-were-ten children have grown into teenagers who are, if anything, not affectionate enough, at least by my liking. If I were you asking me a question, I’d say: Should I force them to hug me goodbye and hello, mandatory affectionate bookends of the school day, to keep them grounded by contact? Or should I, as I do, respect that they are turning into what I like to call the dreaded patters—the kind of people who, instead of giving you a correctly breathtaking two-armed squeeze, gently thap-thap your back with one lackluster hand until you release them. I mostly leave my kids alone. I do, after all, want them to get the message that physical affection should never, ever feel mandatory.
Sorry. Your son! This detour has brought me around to a different point, besides my own envy that you’re still getting hugged so much: in our shitty #metoo world of the ongoing sexual harassment and assault of women, your son is gaining valuable experience in gentleness, mutuality, and consent, and even, should the occasion arise, in respecting boundaries: “I’m actually sautéing onions right now. I’m going to hug you afterwards,” you might end up saying at some point, for example. And that’s a wonderful thing, as is the fact that he’s unselfconscious about gender norms—like the one that says boys should grow out of affection towards their parents. “Isn’t mama’s boy an expression?” Fourteen asked, when I read this question to the kids. “Is that just a homophobic thing?” It is. Our children’s defying of expectations and stereotypes is so often, I feel, an occasion for reverence and joy.
Fourteen had more to say: “He’ll stop when he’s ready. He’ll grow out of it—or he won’t, and that will be great too.”
Seventeen said the same: “Most habits that could turn into problems—you just grow out of them. Like how I was too shy to order for myself at a restaurant, but then I started going out with my friends and so I did. Right when it would become a problem it stopped being a problem.”
So I, and the rest of my family, feel like you should enjoy the physicality while you can. After all, comfort is a beautiful thing, and knowing where and how to seek it is a gift. I promise your adult son is not going to reverse-Love-You-Forever, and show up at your house with a ladder to climb into your window and rock you in your sleep. And if he did, I really hope that I would recognize that that was creepy and weird and that I would not, instead and inappropriately, be jealous.
Do you have a question for Catherine Newman about the inside-out or upside-down of life with your teen? Submit it here. And don’t miss her next column of UMPTEEN, coming soon!
Catherine Newman is a contributing writer for Motherwell and the mother of Seventeen and Fourteen. She is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, and also the new children’s book One Mixed-Up Night.