How to live with that creature from outer space – a teenager

I was only two pages into Beth Harpaz’s new book when I started laughing uncontrollably.

See, this woman was writing about all the changes her son went through when he entered puberty. And one of them was the 13-year-old compulsion to buy Axe deodorant, the world’s most horribly smelly product that makes a stockyard seem pleasant by comparison.

The reason I was laughing was that only the day before, my own son had acquired some Axe deodorant, requiring us all to roll down the windows of the car to keep from being gassed out by the smell. My eyes are still watering.

I knew then I would like the book, written by this New York City mom who writes a column on raising teenagers for The Associated Press, and, sure enough, it’s a support group to document the alarming changes your kids will go through as they enter middle school. It doesn’t hurt that there are plenty of belly laughs along the way.

Even the title is funny, “13 Is the New 18: And other things my children taught me while I was having a nervous breakdown being their mother.”

Why did you start your book with an anecdote about Axe deodorant?

The Axe thing is huge. So many people have told me they live in nuclear clouds of Axe – their entire houses smell like an Axe factory. I called the Axe people, and they insist they market it to (grown) guys, but I never saw a 25-year-old wearing it.

This is part of the mystery of parents: We can never figure out how all kids know to do the same thing on the same day. Everyone should go to school today in little ballerina skirts with cutoff tights. How do they do that?

What prompted you to write this book?

I went to a bar mitzvah, where everyone walks around saying, “Today, you are a man,” and when I saw how the girls were hanging on my son, I thought, “Today he really is kind of a man,” and it scared me. Nobody warns you.

Everything happens so suddenly. I read a lot of books when they were babies, so I was always prepared for the next step, like when babies get colicky or start throwing things on the floor, you don’t blame yourself for that.

But there was no book saying I would get shook down by my son to buy $100 sneakers, or I would have to live in a cloud of Axe. When your son makes a scene at the mall or the teacher calls you, you think it’s your fault. So I thought if I wrote the book, maybe I would spare someone else the agony of wondering, “What did I do wrong?”

What does the title of your book mean?

Thirteen is the new 18 because young teenagers are doing things now we didn’t do until we were in college. I played with Barbie dolls until I was 12. I had pimples. We were funny looking. Now, all the teenagers look fabulous. They all look like Hollywood movie stars. They are already finishing with their braces and have beautiful smiles. They’re much more sophisticated than we were. They have study abroad programs at every high school. It’s taken for granted that a 14-year-old could have gone to Argentina.

What is the scariest thing about becoming the parent of a 13-year-old?

That, seemingly overnight, you no longer have control of your child, not even their whereabouts. Now they are texting each other to go meet and you don’t even know where.

Also, it seems like overnight they have become physically enormous and their tastes have changed. I used to buy my son’s shoes at Payless. All of a sudden, he’s demanding $100 sneakers. I am basically a cheapskate; I wouldn’t buy myself $100 shoes, why would I buy them for a 13-year-old?

When we were kids, we were grateful for what grownups gave us. Not anymore.

What is this “tunnel” you talk about?

This book is a chronicle of the 13th year. I just thought if I wrote the book, maybe I would spare someone out there the agony of wondering, “What did I do wrong?” – giving parents some perspective when they are in this tunnel. By the 14th year, things start to get better. Your kid starts walking the dog, trying to do better in school, and playing nicely with his brother.

In the book, you write about feeling inadequate to all the Perfect Mommies you knew who seemed to do everything better than you. Do you still feel that way?

I have a different perspective, now that I’m out of the tunnel. Now, at 16, my son is sweet and considerate – the other day he even made me a sandwich without me asking him. I was very touched when he made me this little sandwich. He put it in a bag with my name on it. Now that I’m out of the tunnel, my kid is showing me he really has incorporated a lot of the way I live my life. Kids model what we do even if they say they’re not listening. This is hard to believe when they’re 13, because whatever we tell them, they do the opposite.

I didn’t necessarily want to raise Einstein or Bill Gates; I just wanted to raise a kid who’s a caring human being. I’m less intimidated by Perfect Mommies now because I know that most kids go through a period where they are perfectly awful. We don’t want to admit that because people are judging us, but now I take it more in stride.

What have you taken away from this experience?

I have found that teenagers are very adaptable. If you say “No,” to something like high-priced sneakers, they will hate you for a little while, then they will figure out how to get it without you. To me, the takeaway for parents is, you have to figure out what your rules and values are, and then you have to draw a line in the sand. They will hate you for awhile, but then they will get over it.