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The Gifts of Seventh-Grade: The Joys of Traveling with Teens

There are many gifts we’ve received from our journey away, some were expected, others less so and some were complete surprises. Enjoying spending nearly every moment for a year with my seventh-grade son was not something I expected.

First off, I hated seventh-grade. I mean hated it. It was a rough year for me on so many levels; my sister left for boarding school and left me alone at home with just my mom, I didn’t have the nicest of friends even though I was the second best friend of the most popular girl in school (at least for part of the year), and that was the year I experimented with rule-breaking way more than any other year of my life. Yeah, it wasn’t a great year, but likely even worse for my mom. I figured that part out pretty quickly when I saw how hard she was working with herself after I broke into her tiny stash of booze without asking (her main rule) along with said “popular girl” best friend. Yes, this was seventh-grade. And while it’s hard for me to imagine my now 8th grader doing the same sorts of things, I remember it vividly and have dreaded his seventh-grade year for most of his young life.

I guess that’s why I decided to spend every s i n g l e moment of his seventh-grade year with him. Clearly…WHAT was I thinking?! That’s the year we decided to travel together for a year! Seventh-grade had to be the worst year ever to spend with no release from togetherness! How would we make it through?

Perhaps the biggest shock of the year of travel for me had to do with the reality of our time in close togetherness. Yes, we witnessed our 12-year-old become 13 in all the ways that manifest and some days it was beyond rough! Even still, the majority of time was pretty good verging on great.

But the biggest shock is how our time together has sent ripples into our lives at home. I truly enjoy spending time with my 13-year-old! The same is true of my ten-year-old although far less shocking as he’s still cute, tender, and likes to be read to at night. But to be close, connected and enjoy the company of a teenager, my teenager? That’s, well…magical! That’s the word that sums it up best, the trip had a magical effect on the relationship I share with my older boy.

It was the time we spent together yes, but it was more than that too. Being together for so many uninterrupted days also allowed me to see him more clearly. I got that he’s no longer the super cute little blonde-headed boy with the sweet way of talking, but rather a good human being,¬†growing into a wonderful young man.

When he turned 13 he asked for privileges, specific privileges and laid them out for us to discuss. He gave us time to consider them and get back to him. Even in the way he approached his birthday and his own aging process showed me his deepening maturity. How could we NOT grant him his requested privileges? I wanted him to know that I could see how he’s grown. Giving him more responsibilities, as well as privileges, was a tangible way to say to him, “I see you are growing and I trust who you are now.” I want him to feel that from me.

What changed? I’m not sure exactly. I’m not sure when it changed or exactly how. We started by letting up a bit on what we thought was right and wrong based on what’s comfortable outside of our family unit. What mattered to us was only what mattered to us as no one else was ever really around. Clarity of our personal family values was deeply aided by only being around one another.

For example, we really don’t care much about swearing and my boys will be the first to tell you that “Granny has the biggest potty-mouth around.” We talked about swearing and when and with whom you are allowed to swear (Granny was OK, but older generations, in general, were not). We found that letting a few F-bombs and so forth go at times of stress or frustration actually cut the intensity of the situation for all of us. The kids kind of enjoyed hearing us catch ourselves tongue in check in the midst of a good old-fashioned curse session. For the kind of potty mouth I have, I’m really impressed how clean my language has been around my kids for the past 13 years. And as a result, when the reins loosened a bit, it was enjoyable for all of us.

We watched things together that families (particularly in our Waldorf-inspired school community) would find beyond inappropriate and loved it. We laughed, discussed and allowed boundaries to expand. Same was true with our audiobook selections which did create opportunities to explain, express and swallow our own best intentions.

More than how we broke our own rules was how we showed up for our boys. We weren’t their friends, but we were their parents and we were always there. They watched us and we shared nearly every moment. We taught them our favorite complicated, highly-strategic, card game and they learned to beat us. We struggled to get along. We fought. We argued. Doors were slammed. But after every fight, we were still there and so were they as there was nowhere else to go. We were forced to figure out how to make up after a fight better than ever before. Upset could not hang around long… there just wasn’t room in our suitcases!

Now as a result of these struggles through the moments where we wanted to run away, I have found that I really like being with my kids. We still argue and my 13-year-old still drives me crazy, but it feels different. Mostly now, when he’s driving me crazy, I can still somewhere find a smile on my face to go with my irritation and frustration. I see him beneath his upset and often it makes sense.

One of the exercises we did at Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in France called Plum Village was what they called “Beginning Anew” ceremony with the teens. During that ritual teens got to speak to their parent in a particular way and express what they may not have expressed previously. I had always thought I knew what my son thought of me and our relationship. I thought I had a pretty good sense of what he liked and didn’t like. I knew we triggered each other pretty easily and that neither of us liked that much. But what I didn’t know was that one of my favorite parts of our relationship is also one of his and that he values it possibly as much as I do. Now, when I find myself with time to just chat, like I did tonight, I let myself fall into his space, his speed, his rhythm, and his story. I ask, but mostly I listen. We laugh, I get laughed at, and we connect.

It’s been helpful to me to remember being in eighth grade. That was the year I left home for boarding school. It’s an easy year to remember as I was only on that particular campus for one year and it was my first year away so the memories are stark, vivid, and close to the surface. I was 13. He is 13 now. I was soooo grown up. He’s…well it is highly possible that he feels as grown up as I did back then and maybe he’s more mature than I might believe is even possible for this child-man who was a newborn such a short time ago.

I know I’m messing some things up. I know I’m imperfect as a mother, especially a mother of a teenager! I’m new at this. I remind him of that. Just as his being older is newish to him so too is it new to me. We’re figuring this whole thing out together. One thing is certain, we aren’t done growing yet! I’ll do my best and fail a lot. He’ll do what he can to be patient with me, but he’ll suck at that too. But this bumpy awesome ride is the nature of adolescence. It isn’t boring.

My main question now…where are we going when our now ten-year-old enters seventh-grade? That much-dreaded year has come and gone relatively smoothly for one and is but two years away for the other. I don’t know…how about another lap of the globe?

About Dr. Britta Bushnell

is a writer, teacher, storyteller, and mentor who blends her eclectic training, years of experience, and areas of study into a unique offering for individuals, couples, professionals, and groups. Britta is currently deep at work writing her forthcoming book, Transformed by Birth: Illuminating cultural ideals to enhance the experience of childbirth.

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