The Joy of Embarrassing My Teenager

by Cary McNeal
Originally Published: 

“Uh oh,” I think. “Am I late?” I look at my watch. Nope.

I turn down the radio as my child opens the car door and gets in.

“I could totally hear the music all the way over there!” she barks at me. “You’re so embarrassing.”

She might not have cared had I been blasting Bruno Mars or Maroon 5, but I wasn’t. When I’m in the car alone, I listen to my music, not hers. I was blasting Kansas—”Carry On My Wayward Son,” bitches! How can you not blast that song? The kid was lucky I wasn’t playing air drums, too.

I’m finding that it doesn’t take much these days to embarrass my 13-year-old. It wasn’t always this way. When kids are little, they love you when you’re silly. You’re the fun parent. I remember many days of driving her to pre-K, playing loud music in the car and singing along to “Under The Sea” or “I Like To Move It” or—later, after I introduced her to better music—”It’s Tricky” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” Then one day things changed forever.

Kiki and I are in the grocery store. She’s 10. A Lionel Richie song plays overhead. I’m not even aware I’m singing along. I may be dancing a little bit, too.

We’re going to… party, karamu, fiesta, for—


Her reaction surprises me. I thought she would laugh.

“What? Am I embarrassing you?”

Kiki whispers, “YES.”

And just like that, the fun parent era ended. It wasn’t just me, either—my wife reported similar admonitions around the same time. We had officially reached a parental milestone: the day your child becomes ashamed of you.

For a while we were careful to preserve our daughter’s dignity by not acting goofy around her in public, but the deeper into her tween years Kiki got, the more self-conscious she became and the quicker she was to scold us at the slightest action that might draw attention to her. By the time she became a teenager, even our smallest infractions—smiling, blinking, breathing—caused her shame. Finally my wife and I realized we couldn’t win, so we did the only thing left to do: we went on the offensive. We decided that embarrassing a teenage child is not only a parent’s right, but his or her duty, and we began to keep an eye out for opportunities to do just that.

Hey, it’s not like the child didn’t shame us when she was little. I remember her having the mother of all hissy fits at an arts festival when she was two, a brouhaha so horrifying that the little dad band on stage stopped playing halfway through “Peaceful Easy Feeling” until we could remove Kiki from the area. I remember her banging on the window at Quiznos at age four and yelling at someone smoking outside because we had taught her that cigarettes were bad for you. I remember her singing, “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity” in the town library at age five, giving away the fact that one of her parents (cough) let her watch Grease a little too soon.

So yeah, now it’s our turn, and sweet Jesus, it’s fun—and so easy that it’s almost unfair. All we have to do is call her by her pet name, Kiki-loo, in front of her friends, or show up at school wearing sweat pants.

Two nights ago we’re driving home from dinner. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” starts playing on the radio. Oh yeaaaahhhh. My wife and I start dancing in our seats, heads bobbing, totally grooving.

“Stop,” says Kiki. We don’t, of course.

I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’

You got to be startin’ somethin’

You wanna be startin’ somethin’

You got to be startin’ somethin’

“STOP!” Kiki insists. We don’t. We start singing now too.

Too high to get over, yeah yeah!

Too old to get under, yeah yeah!

You’re stuck in the middle, yeah yeah!

And the pain is thunder, yeah yeah!

“PLEASE STOP! PLEASE!” Kiki’s yelling now. We’re at a stoplight and there’s not another car anywhere in sight.

“Why?” I ask. “No one can see us.” Doesn’t matter. She’s mortified.

Here comes the chorus again, but this time my wife and I split up the parts into a call-and-response for added fun.

Her: Someone’s always tryin’

Me: To start my baby cryin’

Her: Talkin’, squealin’, lyin’

Both in unison: Sayin’ you just want to be startin’ somethin’.

A car pulls up next to us at the light. The people in it don’t even notice our shenanigans, but poor Kiki looks like she’s about to cry. I take pity on her and turn down the radio. My wife and I stop dancing.

A minute later we pull into our driveway. Kiki exits the car without a word, still pissed, and heads toward the house. Michael Jackson continues to sing on the radio. I roll down the window.

“Don’t leave,” I call out to her. “You’re gonna miss the best part.”

I crank up the radio again. My wife and I sing and clap our hands to the beat.

Mama-se mama-sa ma-ma-ku-sa!

Mama-se mama-sa ma-ma-ku-sa!

Kiki gives us a drop-dead look, runs into the house and slams the door.

We keep singing.

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