A birthday letter to my 13-year-old son

A boy with a mug of coffee

Happy birthday for yesterday, Isaac. Not that any two are the same, but your 2020 edition is particularly noteworthy: a Covid birthday and your official passage into teenagerhood.

How on earth did this happen already? It seems like only yesterday blah blah yada yada blah …

It’s been a milestone kind of year, hasn’t it? I turned 50 a couple of months ago – and now you’re into your teens.

I know you don’t like us taking photos of you the way you used to. However, I couldn’t resist sharing this video from yesterday as documentary evidence of your official transformation into a teenager.

What do you mean, that’s not you?


You grow every year, of course. But this year has been about more than pencil marks on a wall charting your height progression. Yes, you’ve grown significantly in stature, but you’ve also grown up a huge amount too.

You now tower over your mother and you’re only about 3cm shorter than me. By this time next year – at the latest – you will be the tallest member of our household. Literally seeing eye to eye with you is something I’m still getting used to. Soon I’ll be wearing platform heels to pretend I’m still taller than you.

More importantly, though, I can see how this past year you have made huge strides forging your own path towards the man you will become. Gone are the days when you relied wholly on us to guide you. This has been a year when you’ve grown in independence. You make up your own mind, rather than always looking to us for guidance. At weekends, you take yourself off to meet up with friends for a bike ride or a coffee. You manage your own time; watch Netflix alone in your bedroom; disappear into your own social media bubble.

You’re your own person now.


Your bedroom is a great example of how you’ve grown. When we were discussing plans for your birthday, you came up with the idea of refurnishing your room. In the past, your involvement in this would have been little more than choosing a paint colour. But this time you were a real driving force, researching furniture with your mum and coming up with lots of little design flourishes to make the room your own.

When it came to assembling your new furniture yesterday, you actively took charge and needed little assistance or advice from me. You probably didn’t notice, but I was smiling with pride throughout. It felt like a proper passing-the-baton moment.

I’ll be honest with you, though. Pride isn’t the only emotion I feel at times like this. There’s a little sadness too. Why so? Simply because I recognise this passage of time for what it is. As you edge inexorably from boyhood towards manhood, I feel you drifting away. Don’t get me wrong: I love seeing your increasing independence. But independence also means you’re outgrowing us. In the blink of an eye, you have gone from being an infant totally dependent on us just for survival, to a child who relied on us for guidance and direction, to a young man striking out on his own a little more every day.

You’re outgrowing us; outgrowing me. I’ve spoken to you about how I’ve found this last year – the past 2-3 years, really – difficult. Learning to let go is one of the toughest things a parent has to do. At times I’ve got this horribly wrong, my instinctive reaction to seeing you setting your own course being to grab the tiller and pull you back. I find this particularly difficult when I see you making some of the same mistakes I made as a teenager. Or when I observe negative behaviours or personality traits that I recognise from my younger self. But these are all lessons I had to learn myself, and I’m learning to recognise that when I come down too hard too fast on you – which I do too often – it’s because I’m admonishing my younger self as much as I am you.

Sorry, kiddo. You’re learning to deal with a time of huge change for you, and I’m learning how to adapt at the same time. In truth, you’re doing a better job of it than I am. So, in the same way that I have to keep reminding myself to be more patient with you, maybe could you also do the same for me?

Settling into your own skin

Anyhow, you’re growing in many ways, and outgrowing your parents in others. But I also see you settling into your own skin.

This time last year you were still in your first term at secondary school and trying to figure out where your place was. You started out with the fear that came from gaining your place from the waiting list rather than automatically. And yet it was soon obvious to us that you fitted in more easily than you gave yourself credit for. Your nature is such that you will always question yourself – you have a diluted version of my occasionally paralysing lack of self-confidence – but you’ve more than proven your worth already. I see it in the fact that you’ve earned a place in the top set in maths. I see it in the behaviours that your form teacher recognises in you. Really, I see it in almost everything you say and do.

Despite your anxieties, I’ve seen you settle into your own skin over the past 12 months. You are already far more comfortable with who you are than I was at 13, or even 23.

I’m so delighted and proud to see this in you. The truth is I’m a little jealous too. I wasn’t even close to being as well-rounded as you are at this age. I was academically ahead of the curve but socially awkward (I still am).

That’s not to say you’re not without your flaws, though. But that’s okay. We all have them. Up until the age of about 30, I obsessed about my imperfections to the point of blinding myself to my strengths. I worried more about past failures than potential future successes; about what I couldn’t do versus what I could.

If you only ever learn one thing from me, learn this. Don’t look down; look up. Look forwards to the future, not backwards to the past. (There will be plenty of time for nostalgia when you get to my age and insist on listening to radio stations that only play songs from the 1980s. Don’t laugh. One day you’ll do something similar too.)

There’s more than enough to consider about your future without worrying about a history you can’t change. In a couple of months’ time, you’ll already be picking your options for GCSE. The decisions and milestones only get bigger and come at you faster from thereon. As fast as this year may seem to have passed, the next few will flash by before you or I know it. Savour the moments.

Welcome to your teens, son. There will be downs as well as ups, of that you can be certain. Just know that I’ll be watching on, trying not to get in your way too much, but always there to catch you or give you a little nudge if you need it. Enjoy the ride.

Happy birthday, Isaac.



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