My youngest son turned 13 a few weeks ago. This birthday messed me up far more than I anticipated.
In fact, it did such a number on my brain that I started sort-of keeping score of my mistakes as a way to track the impact. So far, the data says that I’m generally holding things together, with stretches of calm punctuated by moments of embarrassing confusion.
Twice in the last couple of weeks, I got his name wrong and introduced him as “Joe,” who’s his 26-year old brother. In other conversations, I described him as 11 years old instead of 13, a fail of epic proportions with any teenager.
Then, in the midst of my emotional turmoil and various social faux pas, a new threat emerged: My son’s Kindle tablet.
Apart from occasionally poking at the Raspberry Pi his brother gave him a few years ago, the Kindle is his main technological pal. It’s also his connection to the Internet, since he doesn’t have a computer of his own or a mobile phone (that’s coming in a couple of months).
But it’s the “pal” part that really concerns me. And I didn’t know exactly what to do about it.
When our older kids hit this age, they reacted in divergent ways. Our son went toward technology, spending hours on a computer in the basement and becoming enamored with video games (especially Pokemon) on his now-antique Game Boy Advance. Our daughter seemed to grow both introspective and social, reading, hanging out with friends, and spending time with the family.
Those paths continued as they grew older. In the case of our older son, his growing connection to technology worried me. It felt like every time I saw him, he was connected to a device.
Granted, he still read books — quite a lot of them, actually, since he and his sister were part of the library’s Teen Advisory Board — and he usually joined in family game nights. He did things with friends. But in my memory, whenever he had a free moment, the Game Boy would immediately appear, and he’d be lost in a world of chunky 8-bit graphics and catchy theme music.
On more occasions than I care to admit, the Game Boy became a flashpoint in our relationship. I didn’t know how to respond. Was I seeing a growing technology addiction or just witnessing a normal stage of development? Should I try to engage and overcome this, or step back and give him space to be himself?
Memories of struggling through those years with him aren’t my proudest parenting moments. I rarely thought I got things right. Mostly, it felt like I was losing him into a digital void.
If I fast-forward the teen from those days into the man my oldest is now, I see how his love of technology shaped his college experience and career goals.
And if I’m really, really honest about it, I can see the same pattern in my life.
Personal computers were close to magic when I hit high school. I spent all of my free time in our school’s math lab, laboriously typing BASIC programs into Tandy Model 1 computers, learning how to debug my typing errors, and hoping a power glitch wouldn’t erase my work. I desperately wanted a home computer, but it was far outside the family budget back then.
But what if we had managed to get a home computer when I was a teen? What might’ve happened?
Truth be told, I probably would’ve behaved just like my oldest son. And then my father — a hands-on mechanic and former pilot who seemed both bewildered and fascinated by computers — would’ve fretted over the same things that kept me awake.
Fascinating how life goes around and comes around, isn’t it?
Returning to today’s Kindle conundrum, I decided to try communication. I shared my fears and frustrations with our 13-year-old, including how unsure I felt about my techno-parenting track record with his older brother. We talked about what he saw and what I saw in his tablet usage, how he felt when he used it and how to make sure he stays connected to the family.
It was a good conversation. We both learned a lot. It turned into an opportunity to help him see how he fits into the family and how the choices he makes affect the world around him.
And, truth be told, it was a good reminder to me about putting down my phone, closing my computer and paying attention to the people I love.
Maybe the dad-olescent can grow some new connection skills after all.
Here’s wishing a very Happy Father’s Day to all of my readers. We’ll make it through this, I promise. So will our kids. And it will be awesome!
Fort Wayne resident John Kaufeld is a best-selling author, speaker and dad. He enjoys playing games with his family and letting others know about them. You can email him at email@example.com and read more of his work at www.johnkaufeld.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.