A New Jersey mom discovers that she had it all wrong when it came to teens.

By Elisabeth Egan
Updated June 21, 2018
Nicolas Bertrand/Getty Images

On our first night in the house where we live now, I was tucking my son into bed when I heard a jarring noise coming from across the street. Roll scrape. Roll scrape. Peeking out the window, I spotted a group of kids skateboarding down the walkway of the school on our corner. The sound was their wheels on the concrete path, then the drag of the back end of their boards on the road.

Roll scrape. Roll scrape. I felt it in the soles of my feet.

My son popped his head up from the pillow. He was 3, his cheeks still as pinch-worthy as ripe peaches. “What’s that?”

“Just some annoying teenagers.”

The teenagers came back the next night, and the one after that, often lingering at the school until well after dark. Mostly they hung around in front, where the pavement was fresh, but sometimes they migrated to the playground, where their colorful conversations echoed off the blacktop and over to our porch. In the morning, we’d find tangled swings or a pyramid of Red Bull cans carefully balanced at the top of the slide. Before long, even my kids rolled their eyes. “Ugh,” they’d say. “Teenagers.”

Sometimes I’d march across the street and confront the skaters. I’d point to a sign on the side of the school, the one that said, simply, Skateboarding. (Some clever ruffian had inked over the No.) I’d say, “Guys, you’re really not supposed to be here. Don’t you have something better to do?”

Usually, the kids would just tuck their boards under their arms and disperse with the air of lambs being prodded along by an annoying collie. But a few times they stood their ground. One boy planted his Vans shoulder-width apart, crossed his arms over his chest, and said, “Ma’am, we’re just kids. We’re not bothering anyone.”

I said, “You’re not kids. You’re teenagers.”

Back inside, my husband broke it to me gently: “You know we’re going to have our own teenagers soon, right?”

One by one, our three kids started to grow up. They migrated to the front seat of the car. They stopped talking when we entered a room. They closed the bathroom door and leaned into the open refrigerator, their faces magnificent in the glow, declaring, “We have nothing to eat.” At some point, I stopped buying string cheese and started buying ramen. That was when I knew what was coming.

One afternoon last fall, I looked out the kitchen window and saw our 14-year-old gliding gracefully down the front walkway of the school on a skateboard he’d bought with his own money. Roll scrape. When he reached the bottom, he picked up his board, walked back up the little slope to the red door, and did it all over again. Roll scrape.

And again. Roll scrape.

He crouched low like a surfer—one arm in front, one in back, his mouth a serious line, eyes narrow beneath a gray knit cap. He’d been practicing for weeks in the backyard, then in the driveway, and now here he was, taking a wild airborne leap in front of the whole neighborhood. The noise was the same as ever—hair-raising—but the look on my son’s face made the racket bearable, even beautiful.

As I watched, I flashed back to a time when the kids were younger and I corralled them all on the front steps to snap a picture, one of hundreds I took in that exact spot. Back then, it was hard to get a decent shot of all three—someone was always complaining or pinching someone else. Plus, it was the early days of digital photography, so there was a delay between when I pressed the button and when the shutter captured the image. I delivered my usual line—“Say cheese”—and then the girls ran off to strap the new puppy into their doll stroller.

Only my son remained on the porch, brow furrowed. He asked, “Mommy? Is there an actual cheese?”

“What are you talking about?” We needed milk, wipes, and dish soap. Did we need cheese too? My older daughter needed a haircut. My younger daughter needed new shoes. My brain broadcast this endless loop of parents with small kids, making it hard to pay attention to the one standing in front of me. He couldn’t have been more than 5.

“I mean, you always tell us to say cheese. Is there an actual cheese?”

I tried to explain—“It’s just a word that makes you smile”—but for the rest of the afternoon, he hit me with philosophical questions above my pay grade: “But why cheese? Why does everybody say it?”

Later, when I looked at the pictures, I saw that the delay had captured a certain look on my son’s face—one I see now when he’s skateboarding. There’s that same concentration and focus, that same purse of lips and flash of blue eyes. It’s the face of a kid trying to figure something out.

Just some annoying teenagers. How I wish I could take that back. Grab that woman by the shoulders and whisper the golden rule of parenting in her ear: Never say never.

There are so many less productive things a teenager could be doing than playing outside, perfecting kick flips and ollies. (Sorry, hanging out. Not playing.) He could be glued to his phone, or he could just be heating up yet another frozen pizza whose petrified sausage flecks will take on a life of their own on the floor of the toaster oven.

Now, instead of seeing a nuisance across the street, I see a kid with pink cheeks and bright eyes. I see a kid who’s maddeningly monosyllabic and cuttingly funny, one who drives me to the brink with his study habits (“The whole class failed! I swear!”), then reels me back in with his curiosity about current events, movies, music, sushi, Korean barbecue, and, of course, sneakers. (Always sneakers.) Where I used to see a troublemaker loitering on public property, I now see a kid who outgrew soccer and is branching out into something new. I see a kid who added Clearasil to the shopping list, then pretended not to know who it was for, a kid whose legs are too long for boys’ jeans but whose waist is too narrow for men’s.

I thought I understood teenagers, having already been partway around the block with my older daughter, who is 17. She was a screamer in middle school, a textbook adolescent. We’d yell at each other, and then the air would clear and she’d ask me to test her on Spanish vocabulary. Saltar, to jump. Volar, to fly. Dejar, to leave. But my son would rather not step into the ring. He doesn’t raise his voice—he just won’t engage, apologize, or do whatever it is you want him to do. He’s intractable, which can be infuriating in its own way. The only thing our older two kids have in common is their need for space, and lots of it. They prefer my husband and me to be seen and not heard. But these lanky, moody, heavily backpacked teenagers are still my people, and I love being in their orbit whether or not they want to be in mine. Plus, they have decent taste in movies, and they give me an excuse to buy Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.

Here’s what I wish I’d known back in the days when I was huffing and puffing across the street to yell at someone else’s son, and here’s what I want people to know about mine: He is not the enemy. Fourteen-year-olds are still kids; the skateboarder who stood up to me was right about that. My son may not charm you—in fact, in his own silent, sullen way, he’s likely to do the opposite—but he has feelings. And, thanks to me, he knows what people think of boys his age. He won’t make much of an effort to prove me (or you) wrong. His charm lies in his predictability and his insistence on getting answers to the question you never thought to ask. (Come to think of it, maybe there should be an actual cheese.)

These days, when I look across the street at a new generation of skateboarders, I don’t hear the terrible scrape anymore or see a pack of loud delinquents. Instead I see my boy, nimble as a ballerina, soaking up fresh air and freedom, landing on his feet. My job here isn’t done, nor is the fun part of parenthood over. If the toddler years were the physical game, this is the mental one. And so I wait, I watch, and I hope. To jump, to fly. I thought I understood these words before; now I’m learning them all over again. The leaving will come later.