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The Ugly Years

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May 27, 2015

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As if feeding, watering, cleaning, clothing, educating, exercising and protecting them wasn’t enough, there is increasing evidence that parents now are expected to help develop a child’s personality as well. This addition to the Parenting Deliverables is a newfangled thingamajig. In the old days, our parents just stood by and waited for The Ugly Years to show up and do the needful.

The Ugly Years—my entire generation had them. Puberty’s tide of hormones brought in the physical flotsam – too-big teeth, acne, sweat patches, the stoop – and the emotional jetsam – dark thoughts, feelings of alienation, a paralysis of all facial muscle except those needed to scowl. I saw children, no matter how beautiful (and some are more beautiful than others, sorry, parents), get caught in The Ugly Years, their child-ness leached from them as Mother Nature hefted her welding gun to process them into adults. We lurched about like discards from Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, a mess in mane and maw.

It was a terrible time for all of us.

But there was one, undeniably positive consequence. To paraphrase Calvin’s father from the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, “Misery builds character.” And there was no one more miserable than us, almost-adult-sized, leaden, lumpen teens, with all the entitlement of our recent babyhood but NONE of the survival-skill cuteness. We learned to focus, read both books and social cues, develop humour, smarts, a can-do attitude. By the time our faces and bodies settled, we had minds to match.

The Ugly Years did build character.

I should have known things were changing. When Kid A was 11 months old, we were accosted by a host of cooing nine-year-olds unlike any I had ever met. Stylishly dressed, assertively accessorized, their eloquent articulation came from somewhere between the bridge of their noses and the middle of their foreheads. On the receiving end of a barrage of questions about Baby A, I felt confused and totally intimidated.

“What’s her name Aunteeeh?” one of them asked through her gorgeous, long curls.

“Uhhhhh….” I said.

“She’s so smiley … is she always like this?”

I came back with an eloquent, “Uhhhh no.”

“But does she even like French Fries?” said another, drawing my attention to the huge home-style, ketchuppy chip, right in the middle of my baby’s chest. I’d dropped it when the conversation started—in panic.

It’s only worse now. A lovely 20-something I met recently told me how she peeked in on her 14-year-old niece’s birthday party and was taken aback. “How do they manage to look like they just stepped out of a magazine? I have never felt less fashionable. How is this possible?” How indeed?

Parents can take the credit/blame. Our kids are fed optimally, taken to sports, and don’t wear ill-fitting hand-me-downs. They’re also exposed to a much wider range of influences from which they pick and choose, often without the tempering guidance of parents; the teen-market is being catered to like never before—age-specific books, films, television shows, fashion, technology. And absolutely NOBODY gets Haircuts By Mom anymore, a former, major cause of teen stress and sudden-prayerfulness. No wonder they look so great.

The only question is, are they going to grow up okay without the misery?

A very, very wonderful young woman I know was blessed with ridiculous, ha-ha beauty from the day she was born. Always a lovely person, she got adult acne at age 24. The physical pain and the emotional jolt to her confidence turned her bitter, wry and absolutely hilarious. Her acne cleared up, she’s still amazing, but with an incredible edge to her that makes her writing stand out and her personality shine.

And this is what I want for our selfie-taking, duck-face-making children: a few years of oompah-loompah’ing around, carbuncular, sprouting huge feet and weird facial hair, with cracking voices. Hating the way they look so much they stop caring and are forced to see beyond the mirror, into themselves and into others. Anecdotally, time spent being slightly ‘invisible’ is a great breeding ground for bonding, especially for teenage girls. Forming connections with the other sex based on common interests, whether it is sport, literature or early political debate, seems much more productive than just physical attraction.

I may be worrying for nothing. Perhaps our gorgeous teenagers will manage to develop well-rounded personalities without the misery. Or a new spectrum of miseries looms, invisible to our middle-aged eyes. Or maybe, like rotary phones and the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Ugly Years will be replaced with something superior in speed and algorithm.

I’m standing by. But if it looks like Kid A isn’t showing signs of depth and feeling, I’m going to start cutting her hair myself.

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Written By Genesia Alves

Genesia Alves is a writer who began her career as a journalist. She has also doubled-up as several Asian Age editors’ gopher, her Channel [v] production crew’s ‘emergency replacement presenter’, a late-night radio host on Go 92.5FM and development of new shows at BBC Worldwide, India (where she was also enforcer of women’s rights to good quality chocolate biscuits). This did little to prepare her for working from home around three children and a constant yearning for quiet time with an Earl Grey.

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