Seriously, what in the world happened to them?
They have died and been buried eight feet deep. I think Brittany Spears killed them. Want to know what I was doing as a preteen girl? I guarantee you it had nothing to do with contouring or houndstooth skater dresses.
First of all, I was terribly awkward. I had large turquoise-colored wire-rimmed glasses, a cowlick the size of Kentucky, and buckteeth that I had absolutely no conscious awareness of. Don’t worry, by seventh grade I’d gotten it figured out. Except that is a joke… I did not have it figured out. It was even worse than before because the glasses had turned to tortoiseshell, my favorite outfit involved an oversized, faded NASCAR t-shirt of my favorite driver, and then you can add emerging teenage acne into the picture. I had no magical Disney-movie experience where I realized how awkwardly uncool I was and became transformed by a much cooler, and surprisingly nicer, friend I met on the cheerleading squad. That did not happen. And hey, you there reading, don’t act like I’m some anomaly. You have these pictures, too, I know it!
I’ve been talking about girls in particular, but this concept applies to both genders today. Boys, too, are expected to be cool from an early age. In addition to having to wear the “right” sneakers and brands of t-shirts, they are expected to know the right songs, get the right jokes, watch the right shows, and play the right games. A friend told me his kid said, “Dad, when I tell my friends what my score is in Fortnite, they all make fun of me!” His dad kindly reminded him that he is more than his Fortnite score and not to worry for two seconds about these “friends.” Kids these days feel a pressure we parents cannot understand to be “someone” and to look like it too.
I submit to you that with the death — nay, the murder — of the Awkward Years, we have lost something beautiful for our children.1
If you want to give your kids a real gift, give them the freedom to be awkward. Guard them from ridiculous expectations. Let them meander awkwardly into adulthood.
But how? How exactly does one impart this gift to their kids? I have three suggestions.
- Realize your kids are not you.
Work it out in your head that your kids aren’t a reflection of your own coolness or togetherness, and let them be who they are. Don’t ever allow them to have the power to embarrass you. You are you and they are them. This isn’t easy. It feels good when people tell you that your kids are cute or funny or nice or great at sports, and you can’t unfeel the internal satisfaction those comments bring. So it can be a bit of a fight to hold it loosely. Don’t bolster yourself or rely on affirmation. Yes, that’s the best way to say it; hold it very loosely.
Your kids are their own little beings. What a tremendous gift you give them to mature and grow freely without you hovering above them at all junctures hoping they’re turning out to be specimens pleasing to everyone everywhere. My friend Jessica is one of the coolest people I know and legit looks like a supermodel. Yet I love how she lets her five kids be perfectly themselves, even if it means they do not always look like mini versions of her, aka mini supermodels. Jess says, “The kids I’ve been given are like surprise packages. I can’t wait to see who they will become. Life’s a journey. So I encourage them as they emerge individually. Be nerdy, be awkward, be accidentally trendy, but please, above all, be you!”2 Amen!
- Don’t be afraid to go against the current.
In love, shelter your kids from anything or anyone that will pressure them to be something they aren’t. I know the word shelter often has negative connotations, as if to shelter kids from the real world is overreactive, irrelevant, and harkening to a more puritan society. I say there is a time and a place for a shelter. If you were plopped on a forsaken island, you’d long for a shelter from dangerous elements. We offer our children the kind gift of a comforting shelter — not just a physical one in our cozy homes but a figurative one, which protects childhood.
You know that feeling you get when you scroll through Instagram and feel ugly, friendless, uncool, unsuccessful, and miserable? Give your kids the gift of a childhood without that feeling. That means you wield your adult-sized power and control to shelter them (I know, I know — that word again) from stuff that tends to trigger that ickiness. We want to gift our children with the ability to be authentic. That means when you are eight years old, you act like you are eight — not thirteen. My goodness, this a difficult job. But it’s not impossible.
It’s hard to predict what specific steps this may mean for your family in your culture. But my guess is, for me, living this message will eventually involve the following: spending next to no time on that vehicle of self-comparison, aka social media; limiting the time we spend with anything geared to teenagers such as Claire’s, the Target teen section, and all the other preteen stores that will spring into existence after the writing of this book; and not letting the youngest ones in the house do and see everything the oldest ones can do and see. You are the grown-up and you are wise. Use your power and influence as a parent to allow age-appropriate activities that will be a positive influence. Go with your gut.
- And, maybe most importantly, speak love and like and confidence into your kids. They so desperately need it.
I taught seventh-grade English literature, and in my class was a girl we’ll call Madison. She was as awkward and gangly as they come. Crooked smile hinting at impending braces. Acne and frizzy hair. Skinny as a rail. What struck me as a pleasant surprise was Madison’s confidence. She didn’t seem bothered by her awkward legs or funny smile. She would breeze in the door, smiling at everyone, and run to tell me of her recent dance competition or family vacation. She had a little group of friends and happily did all the silly things that seventh-grade girls did in Christian schools before social media was everything.
One day Madison’s daddy came into class. Oh, did she beam. And so did he! He was bringing flowers for her birthday. A well-dressed, nice-looking man, he headed straight for his sweetheart with brownies and red roses. Madison was in heaven! And suddenly, it all made sense.
Her confidence was because she knew she was loved.
As I watched her grow up, the awkward smile and acne disappeared. She reached out to me a few years ago to tell me how much she had loved having me for a teacher and to catch me up on her plans for her life. What a gift she had: a father who thought she was the most precious thing ever! She became what he told her she was.
I am not saying it will be easy, but allowing an awkward, meandering, growing-up time is one of the kindest things we can do for our children. After all, what a tremendous gift — freedom to be just who you are.
Let them be kids. Let them be awkward.
- Parts of this essay are from my blog post “Reinstate the Awkward Years,” “Smartter” Each Day, http://smarttereachday.com/give-kids -80s-childhood-step-2-reinstate-awkward-years.
- Jessica Gray, personal interview, October 29, 2019.
Excerpted with permission from Let Them Be Kids by Jessica Smartt, copyright Jessica Smartt.
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Isn’t it awesome to picture God the Father who loves us that way?! He does! Are your kids or grands in the awkward years? I love it! Someday, they’ll look back on that goofy stage with half a cringe and half a happy laugh. There are few things more important than letting our kids know that they are loved and treasured! Come share your thoughts on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full