This summer, after sixteen 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 dangerous. Last year, I nearly beaned my then-fifteen-year-old, while my then-twelve-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. 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 feeds.
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 twelve months, and first grade when your six-year-old starts deciphering these magical things all around called letters by learning to read. 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 eleven-year-old, a thirteen-year-old, a sixteen-year-old, and an eighteen-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 twentieth 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 biologically propelled.
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 thirty 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 Freud-steeped 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.
Gil Troy isa 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 video!