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'13 Is the New 18' by Beth Harpaz: At last, a handbook for when tots turn into teens

W hatever happened to awkward adolescence? Things have changed since we were 13, it seems. Instead of dandruff, pimples, crooked teeth and Spaghetti-Os for lunch, these trendy spenders have shiny hair, clear skin and orthodontia that starts at age 9, and they can give a lecture on the finer grades of sushi while sipping on a vanilla frappuccino.

That's just one of the epiphanies found in 13 Is the New 18, a funny, and surprisingly, poignant account of the startling year writer Beth Harpaz's boy was jolted from sweet child to a hulking, Facebook-addicted C student who reeked of Axe body spray.

Part field guide, part cautionary tale, Harpaz's book is stunning in its honesty. She is certain that "it's because I am a Terrible Mother" that the school is calling her about his attitude and missed homework. It's why her son gets kicked out of the prom when his group is caught trying to sneak in liquor. And it's why she has to turn to Google to solve mysteries like what to do if you discover a condom in your son's room. Google is her helpmate because no one will admit to their friends that this stuff happens in their own house.

Having grown up in a time when her friends followed Grateful Dead shows from town to town, she thought she'd be a hipper mom. But she was finding out how little she knows about today's teens.

Girls look like movie stars. They no longer need to be coaxed into math and science or talked into being club president instead of secretary. By almost every measure girls do better than boys, and now their studious behavior is considered the norm. When boys don't conform and write about their feelings or sit quietly, they are labeled as troublemakers.

Today's 13-year-olds are already focusing on the service projects needed for their college applications and learning SAT words — "epiphany" being the $10 word her son trots out for extra points in class.

Soon, Harpaz has an epiphany of her own when the school calls — again — and the boy is now getting Ds in the "mad fun" high school he so loves. The school counselor suggests the parents log on to the school's Web site to check what he's supposed to be doing and see that it gets turned in.

But her gut tells her not to. She'd already been through ninth grade, for one thing. "Big Mother is Watching You" didn't appeal to her as a child rearing slogan, either. So she did what few helicopter parents would try these days. She left it up to him to earn the grades to stay in this school he loved.

And so she begins her exit out of the psycho tunnel that is 13. As his 14th birthday approaches, she notices he's starting to say hello again when he arrives home, and walks the dog without being asked, and navigates New York City's intricate rail system better than she does.

There's the real epiphany: The parent's job while suffering with an insufferable teen is not to focus on abilities or test scores, but to raise a decent human being.

13 Is the New 18

Beth J. Harpaz

Crown PublishersGriffin, $23.95

'13 Is the New 18' by Beth Harpaz: At last, a handbook for when tots turn into teens 03/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 7:46am]

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