Jake is seven and a half years old and he has been picking out the outfit to wear to school for a couple of years. Nothing is complicated. He chooses a top and then a pair of jeans. Sometimes I noticed that he wore the same shirt a lot. I asked him if it was because that shirt was his favorite.

“No. It’s only because it was on the top of the drawer when I opened it.” He said matter-of-factly.

So I remembered to mix up things a bit when I put laundry back in his drawers.

If little Jake hasn’t been paying too much attention to what he is wearing, he is starting to care about his hair. A couple of days ago, as Joe was giving Jake a buzz cut in our bathroom, I heard him asking, “Dad, do you have hair gel? I want shape my hair into a Mohawk.”

“I don’t have hair gel. Girls use that kind of stuff. Have you ever seen guys using it? Nobody does.”

“Oh, dad! You only know about science and mystery. You know nothing about kids!”

My chuckle was echoed by Joe’s loud laughter.

Yesterday, standing on a step stool brushing his teeth, Jake commented on his hair again, “My hair isn’t right. It just isn’t. I want to look like the cool kids. I want to fit in with the cool kids, you know?”

I paused for a second. His statement was “My hair isn’t right” instead of “I am not right.”

“You look like a smart cool kid to me. I am very proud of you. You know that, right?” I turned to him and asked.

Jake nodded and smiled.

Later when he climbed into my bed to get his goodnight cuddle. I stroke his hair gently and said, “Jake, you look fine just the way you are. You are handsome, happy and healthy. We love you very much!”

Jake rubbed his face against my cheek.

“If you really want to wear a Mohawk, you may give it a try and see if it makes you happier.”

Jake stood up in the bed and started explaining vividly what a Mohawk looked like. Sounded like he’d have to let his hair grow long, shave the sides and sculpting the middle strip. It was going to take some work and I knew Jake couldn’t stand long hair. So this may never happen. We’ll see.

Looking up at my precious boy admiringly, I remembered an unexpected conversation I had with my two colleagues on Monday when we had lunch together. I asked one of the guys Terry if he had a good Thanksgiving.

“I spent it alone.” He answered with a sigh.
“How come?”
“I refuse to go to my wife’s mother’s house.”

I knew Terry and his wife were having serious issues with their relationship. He had moved out to his mother’s place but still went home on weekends to spend time with his three boys.

Suddenly Terry looked at me and then turned to Jim, “My 14-year-old son is horrible. He keeps on saying that I am not his father. The kid uses the most derogatory language, even to his 3-year-old brother. I simply can’t take that! He has no friends and sits in front of the TV all day. I don’t know what to do with him anymore. It got ugly between us yesterday. I was so upset that I just got in my car and drove away, crying.”

The other guy Jim opened up quickly and told us stories about how his daughter used to scratch her older brother and leave long red bruises all over his arms. And how his son used to tell Jim he hated him and slammed the door on his face.

“What can we do?” Terry asked earnestly with a gleam of hope in his eyes.

Jim and I offered a lot of ideas from our experiences. Next time Terry’s son wanted to go bowling with his younger brothers, he had to promise that he’d stop the relentless verbal abuse of his brothers or he wasn’t going. Jim added that Terry had to prepare to sit in the car for hours if his son refused to accept the terms but wouldn’t get out of the car. I actually viewed his son’s eagerness to join family fun activities a sign of hope.

How can a loving cuddly child like Jake turn into an outrageous teenager who sticks up his middle finger every time his dad tries to talk to him? There can be many reasons: anger, guilt, low self-esteem, peer pressure … The adolescent brain goes through major construction and reconstruction, which can make them dangerously emotional and irrational. I pointed to Terry that he couldn’t cop out whenever things got tough. In his son’s mind, it could mean uncaring, unloving and giving up on the part of his father. Maybe that’s why he rejects Terry as his father.

I don’t know what Jake’s adolescent years will look like. We’ve been through it twice already. It was by no means easy. But both Jane and Michelle have turned out to be caring and productive adults who have goals and dreams. Like Terry, sometimes you may not see the light at the end of the tunnel, but there is. The fact that Terry is being vulnerable about the situation and asking for help is a sure sign of optimism. To get through the turbulent and unpredictable years successfully, parents have to be present physically and emotionally, and loving our children unconditionally.

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