R.M. Vaughan is the 2019-2020 University of New Brunswick writer-in-residence.
Like many Canadians, I was displaced by the pandemic when everything shut down in March. But I’m one of the lucky ones. My landing was soft and safe: friends with an empty basement apartment took me in, and within days I became one of the family. It’s just us; the lady, the man, four cats of varying dispositions (snuggly to scratchy), a four-month-old puppy the size of a piano, and me. Us against the world!
Plus the 12-year-old.
I have not lived with a child since I was a child. I’m a 55-year-old gay man with about as much energy for the daily ups and downs of child-minding – on my good days – as a melted car battery. I might be the only person on Earth undergoing a bigger learning curve than Donald Trump.
No two kids are alike, but 12 is 12. And like all tweens, the kid wants to be both an adult and a child, often within a six-minute span. The isolation is particularly tough on kids, and especially tough on kids who were, only weeks ago, practising (and faking) being teenagers. I have nothing but sympathy. And bills for self-medicating.
All across the country, domestic life is topsy-turvy. Adult children are spending Father’s Day weekend sleeping in their old bedrooms; partners are seeing more of each other than they do at Christmas; blended families are back in the blender, and roommates are getting used to seeing each other in their underwear. I suspect the only thing that’s kept my new housemates from smothering me with a coffee-stained duvet is the presence of their 12-year-old – kids make great Crown witnesses.
If you, too, are suddenly child-adjacent, here is a guide – in-no-way comprehensive, and inexpertly informed – to living with a tween. Accuracy is not important here, because you’re going to get it wrong anyway. The question is, how wrong? Side-eye glance, back-to-their-phone wrong? Or stomp-out-of-the-room, “you’re ruining my life!” wrong? Note: One can lead to the other. Quickly.
This particular kid is typical in ways even I understand. They are anxious and bored, but also a bit fascinated by how their world has changed. And that’s the back end of lesson one: Fascination quickly turns to alarm. Stop making apocalypse jokes. There is no de-escalating after you’ve casually suggested, in front of a tween, that eating the dog is not off the table.
Childhood anxiety is anxiety on amphetamines. Yesterday, I talked the kid down from a psychological ledge by explaining how it would be against the laws of physics for the COVID-19 virus to spread through electrical outlets. I know nothing about physics.
Which brings us to my second tip. Just lie.
Kids don’t want 100-per-cent honesty. They’re smarter than that. What they want is enough information to make it through the next 20 minutes.
Question: “Oh my god, is that an ambulance siren!?”
Answer: “No – no, buddy. It’s a Eurasian fan-tailed jay. On its way to Nunavut. It nests every summer on the tundra.”
The kid knows you are lying, but an immediate, forgettable answer is better than a lingering mystery. You’re not a perp in the last three minutes of a Law & Order episode – get over your compulsive truth-telling. People who think it wise to give kids “something to think about” (or homework) during a pandemic deserve all the stress coming to them. They are the road-ragers of parenting.
Third tip: Remember that however much of an added burden you’ve become around the house, you are also being weaponized. Every time the kid wants to do something foolish, messy, or gaspingly unsafe, your name will be dropped.
“Don’t jump off the garage, sweetheart, [non-parent] is afraid of heights.”
“If you eat all that sugar, you’ll look like [non-parent] by the time you’re 20.”
“We’re having salad because [non-parent] is allergic to ketchup chips.”
Some people would be offended by being used as a prop. Pfft. I used to be an art critic. Demonization is nothing new to me. Being an almost-parent makes me useful. To date, just by keeping quiet, I’ve saved four dinners, three bonfires and several visits to the dollar store. Because tweens are hyperconscious of their standing with adults, a permanent but inscrutable expression is best.
Finally, we have to talk about nudity. Forget your personal privacy. Tweens don’t understand doors. Why should they? They’re not allowed to own keys. They are going to see you in a state of undress and you’re going to be mortified.
One morning, the puppy and his favourite cat decided to spend a very early morning knocking things over in my bedroom. The kid walked right in. I was barely awake, standing around in a blanket topped with a tuque. And nothing else.
I have never sworn at a child, but I have sworn near a child. The kid was less embarrassed than horrified. That’s what an old body looks like? At least I temporarily knocked COVID-19 down several notches on the Ladder of Fears. And really, isn’t that the main job?
Keeping a kid safe is easy – lock them indoors. Making a kid feel safe? That takes a lot more talking, a lot more fronting bravery – and a housecoat.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.