This summer, after 16 dominant seasons, I retired as the Troy family baseball
pitching ace. Since my oldest daughter was two, I have been the designated
pitcher during our summer vacation getaways. While progressing from underhanded
lobs of oversized squishy cloth baseballs to overhand hardball throws to
teenagers, my skills have seemingly deteriorated – and the job has gotten
Last year, I nearly beaned my then-15- year-old, while my
then-12-year-old whacked a pitch that hit my shoulder so forcefully it knocked
me down. I bounced back up, disguising the pain of my largest
black-and-blue-mark ever so he would not feel so bad. My retirement, however, is
cause for celebration.
My being relegated to our ever-expanding outfield,
as my two sons pitch to each other and smack the ball ever farther, marks their
emergence as serious athletes.
I delight in their sports skills, even as
they eclipse mine. For years, playing tennis with my children was more like a
shooting gallery than a ping-pong match. I would lob ball after ball over the
net, as my children flailed around. We laughed a lot but I rarely broke a sweat.
This year, my teenage sons compete intensely with me, point by point, providing
an intense, fun workout.
As we compete – and I long ago stopped throwing
games or points – I am experiencing a fabulous parental win-win. When I win, I
win – and, I confess, I was happy that I dominated the first set this summer 6
to 2. But when I lose, I also win. Just as I remember our mutual delight when my
oldest son first beat me in ping-pong years ago, I feel a flush of parental
pride when my kids triumph on the tennis court.
Although while living in
Montreal for decades, acquiring a virtual second Ph.D. in family
businesses, I witnessed toxic generational power struggles between founding
fathers and succeeding sons (or daughters), I find it a fabulous feeling to
watch my children best me.
I marvel at my oldest daughter’s expertise in
science; my youngest daughter’s mastery of art; all my children’s superior
Hebrew fluency (and better accents). I also love arguing about books and ideas
with them, or, speaking their lingo, sharing links and Twitter
Watching the arc of their progress, remembering how helpless and
unskilled they were just a few years ago, amazes me.
My favorite years as
a parent originally were the first year, when your baby progresses so
dramatically in those first 12 months, and first grade when your six-year-old
starts deciphering these magical things all around called letters by learning to
But this summer, as I delight in my children during yet another
extended jaunt in the Laurentian mountains outside Montreal, I am coming to a
new, surprising, boldly counter-cultural conclusion: I love the teenage years,
as I count four new best friends.
Yes, I know, I am being unfashionable.
I am supposed to grumble about how my once-cherubic toddlers have turned into
Snow White’s hidden, dysfunctional dwarves, more Brothers (and Sisters) Grimm
than Disney: Snarky, Snotty, Snappy, and Mopey. And yes, I know, I am tempting
the gods by celebrating, especially in public, until each of my four children
has safely exited these frequently stormy, hormonally-challenging, supposedly
perpetually- rebellious years. But I am spending a month-long vacation with an
11- year-old, a 13-year-old, a 16-year-old, and an 18-year-old, two boys, two
girls, all voluntarily participating for all or part of this family adventure –
and we are all loving it.
There is in fact an alternative narrative of
the teenage years. Until the 20th century, people were either children or
adults, few considered this intermediate phase distinct. Historians date the
emergence of “teenage” as a concept to the 1920s, and the word “teenager” to
just before World War II, as child-labor laws, new visions of high school
education, the autonomy brought about by the automobile, and new understandings
of human development treated this adolescent phase as unique. The 1950s marked a
major jump in marketing to this demographic slice and the 1960s characterized
this period as particularly rebellious, frequently pathologically so but
This cultural construct overemphasizes teenage
dysfunction and downplays the delights. While recognizing the challenges, I see
in my children – and so many others – many positive characteristics emerging
with their new skills and freedoms.
I often see the best of me – and the
best of my wife – reflected and refracted into an exciting amalgam in each of
them, each in their own way.
It doesn’t make the headlines, but many
teenagers are Happy not Grumpy, many start showing the wisdom of Doc, and many,
like my kids, are Fun and Funny too.
At the risk of courting more
trouble, we are also starting to see the payoff of their Jewish education, their
Zionist upbringing, and their Israel experience. Jewish tradition provides them
a moral framework and vocabulary many others (but of course not all) lack, while
our weekly Shabbat time together has socialized us to spend much family time
together. Our summer vacation feels like 30 great Shabbatot in a row. The
Zionist orientation has made them more community-minded, collectivist and aware
of the web of mutual obligations that unites people, even while asserting their
individuality. Our Israel experience has bonded them as a family unit, making
them more family-oriented and loyal to each other.
In the modern world’s
far too Freudsteeped and deterministic culture, the conventional wisdom has
defined teenage angst as hormonal, biological, inevitable.
It is time to
celebrate adolescence’s power, prowess, and pleasures, asking how many of the
traumas of modern teenage-hood mirror media memes or bring to fruition an older
generation’s negative self-fulfilling prophecies? Meanwhile, I will keep
enjoying my kids – and our vacation.
The writer is professor of history
at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His
latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was
just published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment