My 12-year-old daughter is doing distance-learning at school. Her virtual classes are still operating over Zoom and suddenly “screen time” has gone from something that was limited to something that’s mandated.
Although she gets to attend lessons in her pajama bottoms, it’s far from ideal. For starters, the camera is firmly focused on her, so although she’s part of a pool of faces, she’s still being stared at the entire time. Sure, she can pause the camera here and there, but mostly, it’s the Olivia Show.
When I tiptoed into her room the other day with handful of laundry, I knew that she was live and in living color. I could tell by how straight she was sitting in her chair with her gaze fixated forward. She didn’t move when I walked in and placed the pile down, so I whispered…
…is your camera on?
I spoke so quietly that I pantomimed an old timey movie camera with my hand. She didn’t change her expression. Still frozen forward, she slightly nodded her head up and down, overly conscious of how everyone was looking at her.
So, I reached down slowly, picked up a shirt from the laundry pile, and threw it at her head.
It was a perfect hit as it flew from my hand to her face, briefly wrapped around her and fell to the ground. Her eyes popped out of her head as she paused the video and began chasing me through the house doing her trademark windmill slaps.
I laughed pretty hard. She did too, before veering into anger and then back to laughter. I promised her that none of her classmates will have noticed. I tried to dress it up as a lesson in how little other people really pay attention to us and worrying about what they think isn’t worth the time.
In reality, I’m a giant child and it was funny. Like really funny.
Moments like this are the rule, rather than the exception. I try to add levity to a lot of my interactions with Olivia. The more serious she presents non-serious moments, the more I hammer her over them. Her distance learning has been a breeding ground for it as I dance behind her laptop screen or reach my finger around to pretend that I am picking her teacher’s nose.
My dad-jabs aren’t limited to school either. As she begins to round the corner of teenage years, suddenly she’s testing the boundaries of appropriate shows. While there was a time she may have asked before beginning a “grown up” program, now she starts in on it and informs me when she’s firmly in season two. Sitting at dinner, she will grin like a Cheshire Cat as she tells me the plot of Riverdale.
Some parents would get mad and I guess I could too, if I wanted to. Honestly, though, it’s a losing battle. I trust her judgment, to an extent, and at some point, she’s going to have to pick her own shows. I don’t want to get phone calls at the old age home from my 50-year-old daughter asking me if she can watch a True Blood reboot.
When she told me that she had begun a show called “The Vampire Diaries”, she had the familiar grin. I think she expected me to grill her on the inappropriate content. Instead, I took it in another direction.
Oh. You watch vampires? You’re emo now?
She went from sly to shocked in less than a minute.
What? No. I’m not emo.
I doubled down.
Are you going to dye your hair black? Write poetry about your soul crushing sadness? Oh. Life. So hard. Emo.
I’m not emo!
Aw. Emo-livia. My little emo girl. I’ll buy you black nail polish. I remember when you were a baby emo. Now you’re a big emo girl.
It’s all part of the big picture that is our relationship. I annoy her to no end and she tries to do the same to me. We have a good balance and many interactions that should be volatile end up being jovial. We’re good like that and there’s a reason why.
Keeping things lighthearted allows me to keep communication open and stay involved in her life. When it’s time for me to listen, understand, and allow her to confide in me, I’m there. I’ve had a long-standing rule with Olivia that she can tell me anything and, as long as it comes from her, I won’t get angry. I might not condone bad behavior or allow her to do something hurtful, but I allow her to tell me literally anything. Being a zany dad during lighter times makes me approachable during those heavier ones.
I know about her friends and their sixth grade drama. I know about her issues with teachers, parents, and activities. I help with homework and keep up with her lessons. She even tells me when something has hurt her feelings or she feels left out. Emotions and stories that some kids might feel uneasy about expressing out loud at all, much less to a parent, she shares with me. I know about her life and I don’t need to snoop to make it happen. I know because she tells me and she tells me because she trusts me. She trusts me because I haven’t betrayed my word to this day. I’m here to help her navigate life, not browbeat her for “doing it wrong.”
I want to be her guide. Just because I make silly out of serious doesn’t mean that there aren’t times to make serious out of serious. She knows the door is open for her to discuss anything and she can always come to me without fear of being judged, mocked, or punished. I get to be fun, because I know when to be serious. It all balances out and all it costs her is an embarrassing Zoom meeting or two.
…or three. I think she’s doing a session now. Time to break out the ol’ water gun.