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Own the Cringe: Be the embarrassing generation until these adolescents turn into adults who can take their turn.

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Photo by Dr. Julie Schlegel

Recently, I spent two weeks in the mountains with my family, including a 7-year-old and six adolescents between the ages of 12 and almost 18.

Almost everything I did made the adolescents cringe. For example, someone walked by us on a hike. The hiker said, “How are you guys?” I responded, “Great, how are you?” Horror of all horrors, he didn’t respond and left me hanging without an answer (cringe). Never mind that I didn’t really care how that random man was, no offense to him.

When we were playing mini-golf, we were a party of seven, which can definitely clog a mini-golf course. I agreed with my nephew to let a party of five go ahead of us, but disagreed that we should allow every single family to pass us. I was happy to keep putting badly while the players behind us approached, watched and waited for us to finish (cringe).

On the rafting trip, during the safety speech, I was the one member of the large group who was asked, “What do you remember about rafting in the past?” My answer, “summer teeth,” was a major cringe. In case you’re not aware, this is where you don’t hold your oar correctly and your neighbor gets “summer teeth: summer in the boat, summer in the water, summer in the mouth.”

Extremely embarrassing was when I asked the teenaged boy at the ice cream shop — by name — if the restroom was a public one. The kids talked about how awful that was into the evening (cringe).

Also, every single conversation with a waiter made them shrink in their seats. In that part of Colorado, there are a lot of European workers. To make polite conversation, I said to the server, “We’re taking bets where you’re from.” He smiled and answered “Bulgaria” and told us about his university studies overseas. The kids nearly had to leave the table (cringe) at my embarrassing question.

Spending time with adolescents takes us back to that time where it really feels like the whole world is judging us. It is a uniquely self-conscious time of life. It can be an uneasy time, even for the most confident teens. I remember being there like it was yesterday.

It’s our place as adults to be horrifying and cringey. It’s our job to be ourselves, whether it’s embarrassing or not. With every moment they see us being awkward and surviving it, they get time to develop their own securities. We have to take the cringey shift until their egos are strong enough to handle being themselves. It’s a gradual process, but eventually they’ll be the cringey generation and we’ll be the sweet, older one.

One day, we all took kayaks and paddleboards out onto the lake. There were a few cringeworthy things happening as I got on the paddleboard: my bright orange pants; my ever-present visor; and, most of all, the way I had to go from all fours (imagine cat-cow stretches), to a deep birthing squat, to a forward bend, to finally standing on the board.

This year, instead of gracefully standing and paddling peacefully around the lake, I plunged into the water. Well, technically, I fell backwards and then did a back somersault into the 45-degree water. When I say it was breathtakingly cold, I mean I literally had to concentrate on breathing through my laughter as I swam back to shore.

The second attempt, my nephew was holding my paddleboard. As I was on all fours with my nephew behind me, I heard my own son say, “Don’t look up — it’ll scar you for life” to the cousin steadying the paddleboard. He responded, “Don’t worry, I’m looking straight down at the water.” How could I possibly balance while laughing about that? That time I did a quick-shuffle with my feet and fell into the lake sideways.

I can’t actually remember the circumstances of the final fall, but I was never going to let all these kids (or myself) see me not make it to standing, so I just kept getting back out there. A pontoon of people actually waited on the dock so they could enjoy the show as well. And finally, I made it to standing.

My legs were literally trembling and numb from the cold, and my orange pants were giving me a wet wedgie as I clenched all my muscles to stand upright, but I stood on that paddleboard. As my son said, I got the participation award.

I have to admit it makes me laugh as I and my contemporaries take our shift being the cringey ones to these adolescents. I’m happy to stand out so they can get to the point in their own lives where they are truly comfortable being themselves. Right now they have one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, just trying to stay upright for the day.

So to all the kids who are passing through the self-conscious period of their lives, hear this. When you are in your 40s, or maybe even before, you will be yourself, good or bad, take it or leave it. You will learn that, if you are your authentic self, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks.

And as I love you and live with you through these years, one of the best things I can help teach you is to laugh at yourself and hoist your mid-life, overweight, unathletic self back up into the paddleboard of life.

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