2018-06-01 / Family Matters

Cringe Level 9.9

David Rockower

Flashback to 1985: I am in the car with my best friend, Steve, headed to a middle school dance. We are communicating in an indiscernible language, possibly quoting a Steve Martin Saturday Night Live skit, laughing. My dad is eyeing us in the rearview mirror as though we are hitchhikers he regrets picking up. I know my father thinks we are strange — we have mullets and tight rolled pants, and we are speaking gibberish. He drops us off and pulls away quickly.

At the time, I’m fairly certain my dad was wondering what was happening to his firstborn child. It must have been difficult to have a conversation with me. How do you communicate with a 13-year-old who has created his own language? Who looks nothing like your innocent boy who played with Legos only a year ago? Who now wants to be with friends more than family? I believed he knew nothing about being a kid. He was always in Dad mode, and his own understanding of teenagehood — I assumed — was long ago buried and forgotten. In reality, I had no clue what my father was thinking, nor did I have the slightest idea what he was like as a teenager.

When my own children were born, I remember silently vowing to be a cool dad, one who would know what kind of music they listened to, sing along with them, and even join in when they began quoting TV shows. I felt fairly successful until this past year. Sure, there was the occasional “Oh, Dad” eye rolling after an impromptu breakdancing session in the kitchen, but, more often, they’d laugh and play along. Not anymore.

Now, anytime I try to sing along, dance or speak their language, I get dirty looks often accompanied by curt responses. Just yesterday I was driving the kids to school when “Sunglasses at Night” came on the radio. I started singing along, and Nathan stared at me like I was born yesterday and didn’t know the rules of being a 45-year-old dad. He said, “Stop. Please. Just No.”

I paused and said, “Come on, I grew up listening to this song!”

He rubbed his forehead, put his earbuds in, and looked out the window.

Was I really that annoying? I continued singing.

Maddie chimed in, “Will you please stop. This song is terrible.”

“I thought you liked it when I sang,” I said, disappointed.

“Yeah, but not this song. I used to like it when you sang ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’ That doesn’t mean I want to hear you singing about wearing sunglasses at night.”

I stopped singing, but you know, when you’re a child of the ’80s, it’s almost impossible to listen to a Corey Hart song on a sunny Friday morning and not sing along.

It’s not just singing; I’ve learned that certain words and phrases may only be uttered by teenagers. Is it my fault if I hear Nathan say things like, “It’s Gucci, my dudes” or “Lit, fam” or “Get roasted, scrub” and then, on occasion, I use them in my house? The last time I suggested we go out for ice cream, I said, “Come on, fam, let’s go.” Nathan stopped in his tracks, made a noise like a wounded animal, and said, “Cringe factor 9.9!”

Maddie is only 12, so she technically has another year before I become a lame idiot. She is amused by it all, and I still catch her trying not to smile when I cross the line. Still, it won’t be long before I am shunned by both teens any time I dip a toe into their world.

Soon, I will be driving them to a dance, looking at them in the rearview mirror, not understanding a word. Maybe it’s better that way. Maybe being a cool dad is letting them have their own language, sparing them from hearing me sing songs from my childhood, and only occasionally breakdancing in the kitchen. Because, cool or lame, I will never stop doing that. •SCM

With a sports-obsessed 13-year-old son, a spirited 12-year-old daughter and a goldendoodle who looks like a muppet, teacher David Rockower has a lot to write about.

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