Joanna Schroeder admits that she thinks coolness matters…and she wonders if that makes her a jerk or a good parent.
Sometimes, as parents, we have to admit stuff we’re not so proud of.
Today it’s my turn.
My son is in third grade and is suddenly at the stage where you can look at him and see what kind of guy he might grow into. His big grown-up teeth are coming in and his hair is getting long and heavy. Suddenly, he walks like a dude and talks like a dude, picking up some unsavory phrases from his friends and shocking me regularly with them. I will admit that I love it as much as I hate it. The other day he called the bad driver in front of us on the highway “a douchebag” and told a creeper in Minecraft to “Suck it!” before blasting it away.
So, yeah, that’s happening.
I think the fact that I’ve always talked to my kids like they were little men is coming back to bite me. The other day we ran into a former coach, a really cool guy with a ponytail and the ability to do a standing back flip. The coach put out his knuckles for a fist bump and said, “What up, dude?” and my son said back, “I’m good, but I feel like a strange weather pattern is rolling in. My allergies are driving me crazy.”
Yeah, he can be kind of awkward. So can I. And I’m kind of a hypocrite. Last school year, when my son got glasses and kids called him a nerd, I wrote about how proud he should be that he is a nerd. Nerds rule the business world. Nerds know who they are and don’t care what other people think. Being a nerd is awesome.
But somewhere inside of myself, I wish he knew how to act cool. Not like an entitled popular jerk, but laid back and mellow.
This isn’t for me, I don’t care if he’s cool. I’ll love every cell of him forever, endlessly, every second, regardless of what he chooses to do with his life. But there are times when it’s just easier to be a cool guy. The cool guy gets a lot of breaks. The cool guy doesn’t get bullied (or so it seems). The cool guy knows how to make people comfortable, and put people at ease. That’s a real asset in life.
Call me shallow, but I look at what the older kids in his school are wearing and try to steer him toward those things. Left to his own devices, he’d be a mess. He doesn’t mind if his pants are way too short, but it drives me crazy. He looks like he’s about to go grunion hunting or wading in a shallow river. And yes, I make him go change because I don’t want him to be made fun of. The idea of someone teasing my kids and making them sad is just too much to bear. Especially when it’s over something as easy to change as a pair of pants that are two sizes too small.
Every once in a while I’ll even eavesdrop just to see how he’s relating to other kids. I was doing said sneaky thing last week while waiting for him to finish soccer practice. I sat in my car, windows cracked, and listened to him make jokes to the three best players on his team. The jokes weren’t flying. I saw one kid roll his eyes.
Why isn’t this easy for him? I asked myself. How can I teach him to just be mellow? Because isn’t that what coolness is—being the dude in the room who isn’t trying to be noticed? The guy who doesn’t have to say anything? The guy who can get along with anybody?
And so I tried talking to him about what it means to try too hard. I talked to him about the skill of reading the room. I explained that if people aren’t laughing at the first joke, it’s not the time to be funny. In this case, his teammates were working hard, and they weren’t in the mood for screwing around.
As I said this, I realized that I had no idea what was the right thing to do. Will attempting to coach him into coolness make him feel bad about who he is? I tried to be really positive and upbeat, but it still worries me. If I let him flounder socially, am I neglecting a certain aspect of parenting that could make his life better? Am I failing to teach him a very useful skill if I don’t try to push him toward coolness? At the very least, everyone should learn how to read a room for social cues.
Or am I trying to take away the things that make him unique?
The reality is, my son does really well. He gets along with everybody in his class and he’s a great kid. Every day I look at him and think of what an astounding person he is. If it were up to his dad and me, we’d say he was as near perfect as a son could get.
But as parents, we’re always trying to give our kids the skills they need to navigate the future. And you have to ask yourself, is coolness one of those skills?
For her indispensable book, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World, Rosalind Wiseman studied the lives and social habits of 160 boys in order to determine what makes boys successful and happy in their adolescent and teen years. In the book, Wiseman explains that boys’ happiness isn’t hinged upon being popular. What seems to matter most is having at least one really good friend who “gets” them. Even guys on what she calls the “Bottom Rung” – the least cool group in the school – just want to feel accepted by their inner group:
“Guys on the Bottom Rung know their low social position, know they can appear odd to others, and don’t care as long as they have at least one strong friendship. Many of them believe that because they aren’t even in the running for high social status, they have more dependable friends [than the kids in the most popular group do]. That’s debatable, but what is true is that the members of the group are usually very connected to each other and don’t feel like they have to constantly prove themselves to anyone.” (pp 41-42)
A lightbulb went off in my mind when I read that. The most important thing isn’t being cool, it’s the ability to build really strong friendships with the kids they can be themselves around—and not trying to please the rest. The real skill I’d like my sons to carry forth into their lives is knowing who they are, and knowing that they don’t have to make everyone like them in order to be happy.
But as his parents, we also owe it to him to try to guide him in how to read social cues. Doing that in a loving way won’t hurt his self-esteem, but rather it’ll give him a gift he can use his whole life. The ability to make people comfortable while still being yourself starts on the playground, is honed on sports fields, and eventually becomes an asset in the boardroom. But in the end, regardless of whether he’s popular or unpopular, knowing that we’ve prioritized building strong friendships is what really matters.
After all, if you know you’ve got good friends, you can stop trying to please other people. And that’s when you truly become cool.
But I still can’t bring myself to let him wear those short pants…