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JOSEPH N. BELL

The 11-Year-Old Kid Is Turning 12, but Why Change a Good Thing?

August 03, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

I have an ethical problem I need to resolve. The 11-year-old kid in our household turns 12 next week. That leaves me two possible choices: continue calling him the 11-year-old kid in the full knowledge that this is inaccurate (something journalists, of course, never knowingly do) or start referring to him as the 12-year-old kid.

I have a great reluctance to do that since it is rather like scrubbing a major character and introducing an entirely new one. I talked over this dilemma with the 11-year-old kid, and he emphatically prefers to remain 11, apparently in perpetuity. His mother thinks this is a rather charming manifestation of a boy who is enjoying this stage of his adolescence so much that he doesn't want to get any older. I think the reasons he doesn't want to get older are more pragmatic than aesthetic. He knows that when he hits his teens, he can no longer avoid such chores as taking out the trash on Wednesday mornings.

I think he also sees advanced age as increasing the danger of scaling down the Bacchanalian rites that now mark his birthday and numerous other holidays throughout the year. He composed a three-page birthday "wish list," which surprised me only because I couldn't conceive of him coming up with three pages of items he didn't already have. On close inspection, the bulk of the list is made up of three categories: comic book titles, Nintendo games and video movies. The total cost of these items would buy about half of a B-2 bomber; the producers of "Batman" would be in profit if the 11-year-old kid, alone, got everything on his birthday list.

If conspicuous consumption is his coat-of-arms, the kid is simply a part of his times and the area in which he lives--and he's much too smart to do anything to turn off this cornucopia of blessings. Like getting too old too fast. Or letting a social conscience creep in.

So the kid wants to stay 11, and I'm inclined to go along with his wishes. At least until I'm ready to make an issue about who takes out the trash. Although he's almost as tall as his mother, on the few occasions he has performed this task, he has strained over the trash cans as if they were loaded with bricks, an altogether impressive performance that will admittedly be considerably less amusing at 13.

Readers on occasion have taken umbrage because they feel I am depriving him of both identity and respect by referring to him mostly as the "11-year-old kid." Maxine Corcoran of Laguna Beach stated this case earnestly when she wrote: "Your reference to the '11-year-old kid' when writing about the child in your household I feel denotes a lack of respect for the younger generation. How can we expect children to feel (and show) respect for the older generation when we do not show the same for them?

"In my opinion, children are the hope of the world and should be treated with the dignity and respect to which they are rightfully entitled. Children need to realize their important place in the scheme of life and thus develop a high level of self-esteem as they mature. They will not be able to achieve this worthwhile goal when they are referred to as 'the kid' by their elders, with the implication that their existence somehow interferes with adult activities. Psychological 'abuse' can be subtle, but it is always perceived by the child."

I'll confess, it never occurred to me that referring to my stepson as "the kid" was a subtle form of psychological abuse. I asked him if he would prefer that I refer to him in some other way in print, and he said, no, he liked it the way it was. Said it vehemently. So I showed him Maxine Corcoran's letter, and he read it with a puzzled frown and said he really didn't know what she was talking about.

The reason, I feel certain, is that he recognizes and finds pleasing something Corcoran misses: I pay him the ultimate respect one male can offer another by addressing him in this way. I give him the respect--and love--that goes along with humor and irreverence. Although I'm sure he couldn't articulate it--and has no need to--it says to him that I recognize his intelligence, his sense of humor and his own self-assurance sufficiently that I can be irreverent without fear of being misunderstood.

The author of "Calvin and Hobbes" on The Times' comic page does this daily, and the 11-year-old kid in my household reads that strip and loves it because he recognizes Calvin's narcissism and excesses in himself and responds to them. With laughter.

Sure children are the hope of the world, but if they are to turn that hope into useful action, they have to be seen as essentially unformed human beings that need a little shaping up. And no one knows that better, at least subliminally--or responds to it more warmly--than the kids themselves. Especially if it's wrapped in a little humor.

So when my stepson says he wants to remain the 11-year-old kid, I believe him, and I'll respect that desire--even if it may be for some rather dubious reasons. If he can get away with it for another year or two, what the hell. I'll give it to him.

Meanwhile, happy birthday!

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