If 40 Is the New 13, What Does That Make 13?

by Jennifer Li Shotz
Originally Published: 

She and I definitely did not listen to the same music—she was deeply enraptured by Dan Hill (you know you want to sing it: “Sometimes when we touch / The honesty’s too much / And I have to close my eyes aaaaand cry…”) and busily wearing holes in the “If” 45 (or was it an 8-track?) by Bread. When she was young, she thought the Beatles were too hard. THE BEATLES. When I was 12 and 13, my mom was not plopped down next to me, fiddling with the dials on the old Marantz, waxing deep on U2’s War and saying things like, “I am so stoked about that Edge solo.”

Cut to 2014, and parents everywhere are engaged in this conversation with their elementary-school-aged children:

Us: Can you go on Spotify and add “Shake It Off” to the Sunday Afternoons at Home playlist?

Them: Sure. As soon as I’m done with this level.

Us: Thanks. (Five minutes pass.) Okay, you’re done with that level. Time to turn off the iPad.

Them: But I’m not done with my game.

Us: Turn it off.

Them: But I’m just about to get my stripey next to my wrapped candy.

Us (voice rising in alarm): What level are you on? Are you messing up my level 127?! GIVE ME BACK THE iPAD.

Them: MommmmmUH! Stop! It’s MY turn!

My mother plays Candy Crush. I play Candy Crush. My 8- and 5-year-olds play Candy Crush. Have you tried Tiny Thief? Dude, that is a fun-ass game. Phineas & Ferb is brilliant TV, and I’d totally be friends with the little Ninjago fellas. I won’t lie—I actually like Taylor Swift, and I know all the songs from Frozen and Matilda because I want to, not because I was held at gunpoint by a singing snowman. My kids have a little dance number they do to Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” because we all love that song. They also like Beck and Arcade Fire and Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan and Radiohead and Beyoncé…I could go on.

I get that 8 is the new 15, and 40 is the new 13. It’s kind of cool that my kids and I have so much to talk about, so much overlap in our interests and cultural references. But here’s my question: If grandmas and moms and dads and children all over the world are into the same things, at the same time, are parents aging down, or are children aging up?

Every once in a while, as I download a new app, I fear we grownups are waging an epic—and ultimately fruitless—battle to avoid embracing our own mortality, our loss of relevance and usefulness. My peers and I have become the proverbial octogenarian in a miniskirt, clutching her iPhone in her gnarled death grip, elbowing the youngsters offstage. In the process, we’re breeding a generation of children who talk like Stewie from Family Guy and wear skinny jeans over their diapers.

If kids and parents are all reading the same post-apocalyptic dystopian vampire YA novel and sharing playlists, then what will our tweens and teens hide from us? What will they have that’s theirs alone to reflect their lives back to them? We’re limiting our children’s options for rebellion and anarchy: It’s a rite of passage to hate your parents for being hideous dweebs who misunderstand you. Can they do that if we get the whole family great seats to a Katy Perry concert?

It’s like if hippies listened to Perry Como, or Judith Light rocked it to Pearl Jam on Who’s the Boss: The world has no sense of order. What will they talk about in therapy in 25 years? That Mom was better at Minecraft? That Dad forced them to listen to the kick-in in that Band of Horses song, like, a million times, or humiliated them at a party by declaring that Kanye was better after Kim than before?

What it will mean for our kids, I don’t know. But I can already tell you what it means for me. By the time my mom was my age, she was free. She could nerd out to Loggins & Messina all she wanted. She could wear sweatpants to a ball because she had earned the right to rock an elastic waist anywhere, anytime. No one expected anything more from her. In society’s eyes, she was responsible and mature, investing all her energy in ensuring the survival of the species, rather than crushing on pre-Synchronicity Sting. In other words, she was old, irrelevant and invisible. She wasn’t a target audience for anything fun or cool; she was the margarine and General Foods International Coffee demographic.

Now we’re expected to be not only good parents, but cool parents. I have to look like I’m trying, but not too hard—that means Tom’s flats, but not the wedges, because those are for the college girls. Comfort is no longer allowed to win out over style, so even if I could afford Eileen Fisher, I’m not allowed to wear it (but, dear God, Eileen Fisher is JUST. SO. FORGIVING.). I’m supposed to know that Jack White is totes lame, but retro-semi-ironic listening to the White Stripes is acceptable. I’m not supposed to like that “Why You Gotta Be So Cruel” song, even though it’s as catchy as a cold in December, so we have to roll up the windows if it’s on while we’re driving through our neighborhood. I have friends who are surgeons—surgeons—who use Emojis.

The pressure is intense. In the ’80s, any grownup who played a lot of Frogger and watched cartoons was your stoner Uncle Jim who lived in your basement and had “some issues.” Now that’s just Dad.

Children and adults have morphed into a hybrid—kids are knowing and wry, not-so-patiently reminding us to update the OS on our devices. And we’re mature, responsible bill-payers with juvenile tastes and a winking eye on youth culture. We adults are a part of their thing, but not too much. Not enough to undermine our own credibility—just enough to enhance it. Kids are effortlessly cool nowadays (geek chic, where were you when I needed you?), but we’re still giving them the same “just be yourselves” message—only now we’re trying to be like them too. Are 40-somethings that insecure about our own place in the zeitgeist, or is it just a really rad time to be young?

I know what you’re thinking—this is all a problem of my own making. My children should not be playing on the iPad. I don’t have to care what jeans I wear or music I listen to. But I like feeling plugged in and aware. I like sharing things with my kids. Pop culture right now is smarter and funnier and slyer than it’s ever been, and we have more at our fingertips than ever before. Why would I want to let the kids have all the fun?

And besides, if I’m on level 400 and they’re only on 296, they have no excuse for using that tone of outright disdain and blatant mockery. And if they do, I can just school them on the proper use of the explosive candy with the sprinkles and send them to their rooms.

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