I was going through my 12-year-old’s sock drawer when I realized every single pair smelled like butthole. Is that too strong? No. No it’s not. They smelled really bad. They had sweat stains. (And yes. They were sweat stains, not the other stains that sometimes boys put in socks. I know the difference. I was once a teenage boy. You can trust me).
I had been in his room, helping him pack for a weekend father-son camping trip. Not that he’d asked me to help. I told him to pack. He went upstairs, and came back down almost instantly and announced he was finished, so I checked his bag. There was one pair of dirty socks, zero pairs of underwear, and no sleeping bag. No toothbrush. No comb. No water. Just some sweats and a T-shirt, a couple bags of candy, and his Nintendo Switch. You know, the essentials.
I was rummaging through his sock drawer after finding some underwear, when I realized I couldn’t, for the life of me, find a single clean pair of socks.
“What is going on?” I asked. “Why do all of these smell bad?”
He looked up at me with that confused “I-know-you’re-going-to-get-in-my-business-just-leave-me-alone” look preteens often give. His hair was shaggy brown and hung well past his ears. It was a little greasy and still mashed on one side from sleep. He slumped his shoulders like he often does when annoyed, which had, more or less, become his default stance.
“You told me to change my socks every day,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“In the morning I put on new socks, and put the old ones back in the drawer.”
He shrugged like he was nailing the hygiene thing.
I corrected him.
Listen, I’ve made some stupid assumptions in the past, but I suppose the new winner was that my preteen understood that dirty socks go in the hamper and clean socks go on feet. But now, suddenly, I understood why when he took his shoes off as we drove home from soccer practice I had to practically stick my head out the van window to keep from vomiting.
I don’t know what it is with hygiene and preteens. I don’t know why I have to ask Tristan if he used soap in the shower, only for him to say, “I forgot.” I don’t know why I had to ask him if he changed his underwear, only for him to ask, “Why?” And I don’t know why he has this “outfit” he insists on wearing 24/7.
It’s nothing special, trust me. It’s a blue zip-up hoodie, a pair of black Adidas track pants with white stripes up the side and a small hole in the right knee, and a grey T-shirt with the cover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. Once a week, I pry the outfit off his body, soak it in stain remover, and wash it, and you’d think I actually removed his skin. I once missed a week because I didn’t feel up to fighting with him. I now know what teen spirit smells like.
We are in this stage where even something as basic as putting on clean socks is a challenge, and I’m at my wits’ end with keeping his smell down. I feel like I have to micromanage everything about keeping his body clean. I have to state the all too obvious. I used to check his toothbrush to make sure it was wet. Once he caught on to that, he’d just put his toothbrush under the sink for a bit, so now I have to actually watch him brush, a timer going on my phone, him staring at me, grudgingly, all pissed off because I don’t want his teeth to rot out of his head.
And you know what, I keep using the term “have to.” And frankly, I don’t have to do anything. It would be easier to let him live his life as the stinky, greasy, yellow-teethed little boy he wants to be. But I just can’t. I need him to understand the importance of hygiene. If not for his sake, then for mine.
Of course, we pick our battles. I only make him comb his hair on Sundays, because approaching him with a comb is like approaching him with a chainsaw. And as much as I want him to floss his teeth, getting him to brush is about all I have the strength for at the beginning and end of the day. But when it comes to taking a bath with actual soap, and putting on clean socks, I just can’t let those things slide.
All of these hygiene battles are driving me bonkers. And I cannot get over how often I have to state what seems incredibly obvious. I should admit, however, that I’ve been at this parenting game long enough to realize that nothing should surprise me. When my kids were born I literally had to teach them how to eat and sleep. Raising children means working with a pretty raw product.
And I hear from a lot of parents that this is normal for his age. Well, as normal as taking a shower and forgetting to use soap can be. I take comfort in that. And I take comfort in knowing that he’s a kind kid who does well in school. People seem to like him despite his disregard for hygiene.
Fingers crossed that in a few years, it will solve itself. But in the meantime, I’ll be there, sniffing his sock drawer and asking him the important questions like. “Did you put on deodorant? Because you smell like a locker room.”