It's been happening since fall, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. First, his clothes looked as if they had been made for someone else someone with shorter arms and legs. The school pants I bought at the start of sixth grade fit like clam diggers by Christmas. In February, I ripped out the hems and told my son to ignore the little threads hanging down on his sneakers.
That tactic got us through the winter until the school dress code allowed shorts again, but it didn't solve the sleeve-length issue on his uniform shirt. He looks like Frankenstein, but don't tell him.
Come to think of it, his sneakers were too snug just weeks after they were purchased. Jimmy lobbied for new ones for a couple of months, but I put him off on the grounds he was in a growth spurt and buying new shoes would be a waste of money.
When I finally had his feet measured at the shoe store, I discovered we had skipped two full sizes between purchases. Oops.
The next thing I knew, Jimmy announced he was growing out his hair. In my mind, this was his official proclamation that he is donning the mantle of the preteen. In no time, I expect he will give up bathing and the transformation will be complete.
With all the physical symptoms in evidence, I guess this week's conversation in the van between my son and his buddies should not have shocked me.
In the span of one short drive from our neighborhood to the gym where the boys had basketball practice, Jimmy and his pals discussed: girls, Jon's new instant-messaging buddy list, girls, the underarm hair on the guy from last summer's basketball league, a classmate's obsession with online computer games, girls and food.
Mind you, we were in the van for all of seven minutes. They didn't discuss these topics so much as mention them, giggle, mention something else, giggle, roll their eyes, giggle, and then I think someone burped. Such is the discourse of the sixth-grade male.
Sixth grade ends in five days, and that can mean only one thing: Seventh grade is coming, and it's time for me to draw the line in the sand.
On one side: the "culture of cool," a media-saturated, consumer-driven state of pseudo-adulthood in which otherwise sweet children are sucked in and corrupted by the vacuum of pop-culture values, graphically depicted on MTV.
On the other side: "geekdom," a place where childhood innocence is preserved and protected and children are (happily) uncool enjoying oddball pastimes such as reading, chess and playing outdoors while living under the banner of "late bloomer."
Figuratively, that line represents the barrier between us and a culture that would steal our son's boyhood and replace it with cynicism and worldliness gained not from life experience, but from experiencing life through the media.
Practically, it's the standard that will dictate Jimmy's social status for the next two years of middle school. While many of his peers will have access to the "culture of cool," we'll be making choices that limit the development of our son's social savvy.
PG-13 movies? Unlimited access to the Internet? A personal music download account? A bedroom TV?
In a word: No. In a phrase: No.
It won't be easy to hold that line; it's a struggle we've experienced already while fighting to maintain a wholesome environment for our two older daughters. There seems to be no end of potential threats to childhood innocence, no limit to how low the culture will stoop to spread its twisted notion of what's cool.
Just this week, our school counselor sent home a letter warning parents to be on the lookout for new and dangerous trends, such as "The Choking Game" (in which players asphyxiate themselves in pursuit of an "oxygen high") and the blog site www.myspace.com, the Internet craze that promotes self-expression to the point of risky self-exposure. The counselor's letter also included a laundry list of "stressors" that adolescents might be feeling, from pressure to succeed in school to concerns about family finances.
The letter was good. It spoke directly to parents about things we need to understand, and it offered suggestions for talking to our children and keeping the lines of communication open.
Nevertheless, it made me sad that my young son is growing up in a world where children aren't sheltered but instead must be educated about things that insidiously threaten their well-being.
As much as I wanted to slip that letter under a stack of papers on my desk and keep Jimmy from knowing about its content, I knew the issues were too close to home to avoid. Seventh grade is just around the corner, after all.
So I talked to Jimmy while he ate a bowl of ice cream. I described the letter and asked him if he had any questions. I reassured him that he could always talk to his dad and me when he hears about things he doesn't understand.
When it was clear he wasn't going to participate in a dialogue, I tousled his new longer hair and said, "Why is it when we have these talks you seem so uncomfortable?"
Jimmy sighed and said, "Mom, I just want to be a kid."
"Who could blame you?" I said. "Be a kid."
Then again, with that kind of wisdom, it's clear he's growing up already.