Friday October 26, 2012

Being 12 is hard. Think back to when you were that age - 12, 13, 14 -- and see where it takes you. Perhaps you are that age, and are living this first hand. Bridging childhood and adulthood, the things you are experiencing at this age really challenge and stretch you. It’s a crucial part of growing up, this learning to become comfortable with who you are, the responsibility of decision-making and finding your place in this complicated world.

At that age I loved my newfound freedoms, my community of friends, the certainty that I knew everything and was always right as well as my ability to handle any situation thrown at me on my terms. What I would never admit to you was that these freedoms could be terrifying, friends hurtful and frustrating, I wasn’t always sure I was right and that yes, I wanted advice, not to mention hand-holding and even just a hug. For no good reason. But wait, that’s not cool, so never mind. Sigh.

My husband and I watch our 12-year-old with such a mixture of emotions. She is so mature, bright, responsible and respectful. She loves people and helping them. She asserts herself in ways that I never did, and handles tricky situations with ease and grace. And then, suddenly, like the flip of a switch, she can’t, won’t and doesn’t. And that’s OK, this is exactly where she is supposed to be developmentally, although the switching around will often leave our pride and awe in her deflated and our frustration mounting. Being her parents, we check in with ourselves, and with her (to the degree that she will let us) and forge ahead, continuing to teach the tools she will need for her transition into adulthood.

Last weekend we experienced one of those "parental roadblocks." Marielle had endured a difficult week -- friend problems, boy problems, sister problems, school problems, boredom problems, hair problems, not to mention parental problems. She felt defeated and as though she could do nothing right, and boy, did it show! I was struggling between "Really? THIS is how you think you should act?" and just wanting to envelope her in a shawl of safety and love, something which she would absolutely never allow -- she was just too mad at everything. Stomping, surly, sullen mad. So I found a middle ground and we went grocery shopping.

When the girls were little, grocery shopping with them was always an unpredictable experience. On a good day, we could talk about what we were buying; where it came from, what we were going to make with it. I could send them 10 feet down the aisle to pick out a box of pasta that was an interesting shape and let them work on a bit of independence. On a bad day, however, it could truly be "parent clean-up on aisle nine." They could defeat me being obstinate, chanting "I want, I want, I want" with uncooperativeness and the dreaded shriek. Or better, lots of shrieking. Then I would have a choice -- push through and get done the ugly necessity of grabbing those last few items that we were completely out of, or save my fellow shoppers and flee, neither rewarding the tantrum nor getting dinner.

Saturday morning was one of those days that the shopping had to be done. Marielle was moping about, snapping at any creature who crossed her path and undoubtedly planning revenge for the injustices that were being done to her. Knowing that this couldn’t continue, I invited her to come along with me, keeping the "have to" tone invisible and "fun" neutral. She grumbled about it, so I took a chance and pointed out to her that some distraction and change of scene might possibly be good for her, plus it would be some time that we could spend together, just the two of us. She looked at me balefully, gave a good long pause, and agreed to go.

While she got ready and I steeled myself not to say anything about her wearing pajamas pants or no coat (pick your battles!) I tried to prepare myself for anything that could be about to happen. This could be a disaster that would end up with her running into her room and staying there for eternity. Or it could be just what she, really both of us, needed; a time to reconnect, a time to chat and feel at ease with life, all while conquering an errand or two.

Sure enough, it was just what we both needed. Entering into it with the right frame of mind, something that was essential for us to do, we took advantage of this window. We planned menus, talked about pricing and marketing ploys, chose a couple special treats. And in between the grocery parts of shopping, we chatted about the bigger things in life, both good and troublesome. There is definitely something to the advice I read years ago before I had a teen -- that talking about sensitive or difficult issues while driving in the car can be a great way to connect. Being unable to make frequent eye contact makes kids feel more at ease and not challenged or "ruled." Grocery carts work the same way, and if we felt we were straying into dangerous verbal territory, there was always something in the aisle to casually "distract" us.

Guiding Marielle through this age is some of the most challenging, yet certainly most rewarding parenting that I’ve done so far. I love watching her coming into her own beautiful person. I love the conversations we have, hearing her opinions and seeing how she engages with the world. Yes, I am constantly juggling when to step in, how much rein to give her and when and how to give her my support, seemingly wanted or not. It’s a much different kind of nurturing than what I’ve done in the past, but nurturing just the same.

This past Saturday reminded me that the right ratios of the ingredients time, respect and understanding are all crucial to add to the love that you have for your children. When that recipe is right, beautiful things result. And it never occurred to me that this simple reminder would come from a routine trip to the grocery store.

Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn’t have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at jpottercooks@gmail.com.