The Last Dance
I have alarming news. I didn’t want to believe it, but all signs point to it being true: I have a teenager, even though she’s only twelve. The situation is only going to get worse from here.
People have been warning me about this for years. "What are you going to do when your daughters are teenagers?" they ask all too often. I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. What are my options? I suppose I’ll continue to keep them alive and financially support them. That approach has been going pretty well so far. There’s no exchange program where you can dump your kids on someone else from the ages of thirteen to nineteen and then pick up with them again when they hit their twenties. Although if you know of a place like that, I wouldn’t mind getting a brochure.
People assume that teenagers are harder to raise than kids at any other stage. They’re more irrational. More defiant. More everything. Until recently, I believed all children are the hardest to raise at whatever stage they’re in right now. My non-teenage children aren’t exactly easy. I told them I want to get a poster on the wall of the only two rules in this house: Pick up your stuff, and don’t touch your sisters. If my kids followed either of those policies even some of the time, it would bring the number of mysterious black eyes down to zero. But recently, I discovered teenagers come with challenges outside of messes and fighting. I now have a person living in my house with the body of an almost adult but the responsibilities of a kid. Instead of using her last few years of freedom from jobs and mortgages to be happy and carefree, Betsy mostly uses her burgeoning intelligence to point out how I’m doing everything wrong. Maybe I am, but I don’t need a PowerPoint presentation on it. I’m doing my best. That’s a lie. I’m doing enough to get by. There are no bonus points for being a perfect parent. You’re graded on a pass/fail system. You win if you eventually get your kid out of the house.
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Kids take a million years to grow up, but somehow it also happens all at once. I had one of those surprising moments Saturday. We dressed up like we do every year for the elementary school’s family dance. My kids love putting on fancy clothes and rocking out. At least they used to. This year, Betsy didn’t want to go. We made her come with us anyway, mostly due to inertia. We’d never gone to a family dance without our entire family. It wasn’t called the "family dance minus that one kid who’s now old enough to be embarrassed by you." Not that there’s a lot of dancing that goes on there anyway. Mostly, there’s just a large swarm of children running around the gym popping balloons. To be fair, that’s closer to dancing than I ever come, even when I actually dance. No matter what song is playing, I always look like I’m doing the robot after pulling a back muscle. I call that move the chiropractor’s dream.
Before we left home, Betsy was on the phone with her friend making plans for afterwards. The dance ended at 9 p.m. My only plan for the rest of the night was to be unconscious in bed. For Betsy, though, that’s when the sleepover at her friend’s house would just be getting started. Of course, even though she’s a quasi-adult on the inside, Betsy can’t drive. I’m still useful for something. I agreed to take her to her friend’s house after the dance as long as she actually went to the dance. The stage was set for three hours of grim forbearance. It was the stuff magical evenings are made of.
I realized we’d made a mistake as soon as we got to the dance. Betsy is in seventh grade, and this is a dance for grade schoolers. In previous years, the older siblings of other students would often come back, but this time, Betsy was the only one. Without any friends there, she was forced to hang out with Lola and me. It was a double punishment. In the past, Betsy hadn’t minded being the oldest one at events like this. She was more than happy to go to the daddy-daughter dance thrown by the parks department at the end of the summer. Then again, that dance had walking tacos and ice cream. In hindsight, most of her choices seem to be motivated by food. So are mine. She’s practically an adult after all.
She certainly looks the part. Betsy has always appeared to be a miniature version of her mom, but now she’s more of a regular-sized copy of her. They’re nearly the same height, and if I see one or the other out of the corner of my eye, I sometimes get them mixed up. They can share clothes, although Betsy is already wearing larger shoes. She’ll likely be taller than Lola, which isn’t hard since Lola is only 5’1 ¾”. She’ll tell you she’s 5’2”, but that’s a lie. Don’t let her steal that extra quarter inch. I assume Betsy will be taller than her mom because of my tall person genes or possibly because of the nutritious, calorie dense food I’ve helped provide. Each of our epic trick-or-treating candy hauls increased her height by at least an inch. We’re only a few full-size Snicker bars away from getting her on the basketball team.
Of course, Betsy is nearly too old for trick-or-treating, although I suspect she’ll apply the same personal exemption she used for the daddy-daughter dance. She doesn’t mind playing down an age group when it involves junk food. It helps that she’s surrounded by younger kids. She’ll still lead various imaginary games with her sisters if she’s feeling bored—or malicious. Being an oldest child involves equal parts of both. Even if she herself is too old for most toys, those toys are still all over the house. It’s easy for her to slip into kid mode again and play a classic game of dinosaurs versus Barbies. It’s hard to run when your knees don’t bend, but it makes for some awesome flying kicks. But then one of her friends will initiate a video call and she’ll immediately revert back into teenager mode. How old she is at a given moment depends directly on who’s watching. She can be ten different ages in a single afternoon.
Saturday night, Betsy was feeling especially old. That time, it was the lack of peer pressure that caused her to age up. With nobody else’s older siblings there, she felt out of place. I did my best to entertain her. At home, she has a million things she’d rather do than play games with me, but trapped at the dance, I suddenly didn’t seem like such a bad option. I subscribe to a board game service on my phone that lets me play virtual games with other people. It’s many of the same games I have filling up all the cabinets in my house, but with less clean up time. I offered to start a game with Betsy and Lola. Lola was still too cool to fraternize with me, but for once, Betsy gave in. We played a game of Patchwork on our phones. It’s a Tetris-style board game with a quilting theme. I put together one of the most geometrically precise quilts this world has ever seen. It was as beautiful as it was mathematically perfect. Yet somehow, Betsy nearly doubled my score on the last turn and crushed me. Apparently being an almost-teenager also makes you better at cheating. It’s weird how the app allowed that.
Next, we played an electronic version of Azul. That one went a little better for me. With the record split at one-and-one, I asked her what we should play next. She decided to go hang out with her sisters instead. Spending time with your siblings in public isn’t so bad after all. You just have to be presented with a worse option.
Her younger sisters were having no such crisis of identity. As usual, my seven-year-old, Waffle, was running amok and having the time of her life. She may or may not have accidentally stolen some popcorn. She showed up in front of me with a bag of it. I asked her if she paid for it, but she insisted that the lady behind the table let her take it for free. I gave her a dollar and sent her back to the concession stand to pay just in case. She came back with a newly purchased ticket for the photo booth. I’m not sure what exactly was happening over there, but Waffle is either a financial wizard or a master thief. Later, the principal and another person we didn’t recognize wandered over looking for Waffle. I thought she was finally going to get arrested for her low-stakes crime spree. Instead, the principal said the other lady used to be a helper in one of Waffle’s classes and just wanted to say hi. I suspect Waffle paid off both of them with stolen popcorn.
That wasn’t all that was going on. My eight-year-old, Lucy, got hit in the eye by a popping balloon. It was the same side where she got a black eye after Waffle hit her with a toy in retaliation for something else in a tit-for-tat series of offenses going back all the way to when they were both born. We should start making Lucy wear a full-face visor at all times. Meanwhile, my ten-year-old, Mae, fluttered around with a huge flock of friends. As fifth graders, they stand atop the pyramid of the school’s social hierarchy. It’s a shame that next year she’ll have to start all over at middle school, and again three years after that in high school. Having a social life as a kid is like being Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill over and over until you realize it’d be a lot less work to not have any friends.
At least Mae left a mark before she moved on from elementary school. As we walked around the gym, we saw her name on the wall of school records. Apparently she has the fastest half mile time for girls. Granted, it looks like they’ve only been keeping track of records since 2022, but it’s still an unlikely accomplishment for anyone who shares my DNA. The closest I ever came to setting a record was when I became the only person on my high school swimming team to start a race with an accidental belly flop. In case you’re wondering, it didn’t help my time, although it did elicit an impressive groan from the audience. Michael Phelps could learn a few things from me.
Hanging out with her sisters got Betsy into more of a dancing mood. We finished the evening strong with some of our traditions from previous years. We all crowded into the photo booth. Years ago, we fit easily with the kids on our laps. Now, it was more like squeezing a football team into a porta potty. The pictures didn’t turn out well, but we managed to confirm that none of the kids have claustrophobia. Then we hit the dance floor. At first, Betsy only wanted to dance with her mom, but you can’t keep me away from a good time, especially if it involves humiliating myself or others. In no time, I was out there, too. We were pretty much the only parents on the dance floor. All the other adults stuck to the sidelines to avoid being trampled by small children. Cowards. I got all the moves wrong—apparently it’s possible to mess up the m in "YMCA"—but we still had fun, and, for a little while, Betsy was a kid again. Then the dance ended and I drove her to her friend’s house so she could go back to being an almost-teenager. Life comes at you fast.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.
I have a 5 year old son and a 2 year old son. We saw my parents this weekend and I told them, on behalf of my and my sisters, I wanted to formally apologize for all the whining, complaining, and arguing we did as kids. It is exhausting to get all that pushback all the time!!
Having raised two daughters (two years apart), I can tell you that you ain't seen nuthin' yet. Teens can get in more advanced trouble due to their ages and somewhat more developed brains.
We must have done something right because they both have advanced degrees. One has her Master's, the other her doctorate. First Ph.D in the family. She teaches Criminology and Sociology at the college level.
There is some hope though. The Ph.D kid was very easy to raise. Her sister not so much. 😉