The milestone that strikes fear into the hearts of dads who looked like Paul Pfeiffer growing up: middle school

While this might look like Jeff Vrabel's first day of fifth-grade photo, it's not. This is Paul Pfeiffer, a character from the 1988 TV show "The Wonder Years."
While this might look like Jeff Vrabel's first day of fifth-grade photo, it's not. This is Paul Pfeiffer, a character from the 1988 TV show "The Wonder Years." ABC

I sing to my 2-year-old every night at bedtime. Usually it's a combination of one or two or 18 songs from "Frozen," a Jimmy Buffett song about a house party gone awry (role models, people) and "Goodnight Sweetheart." Now, I am not what musicians or artists or humans with ears would call "a good singer," but I'm apparently especially lousy at "Goodnight Sweetheart." The other night, midsong, my 2-year-old stood up in his crib, leaned toward me, put his hands gently on each side of my face and said, "Stop."

That was 8 p.m. At 7 a.m. the next day, he requested a shower, asked for diaper cream, told me he didn't want to wear a diaper (thanks, but not your choice, Poops), announced he wanted a waffle and fetched one from the freezer (we eat really healthy), got a chocolate milk box, put the straw in and waddled out to the porch table to await his warm waffle. In the span of a few hours, he developed an ear for pitch and also grew up.

He's doing other helpful things now too, like talking in complete sentences ("No, I want Daddy to do it"), remembering where he lost things ("My baby blanket is in the pool!"), and using the same words to describe things as the rest of us. That doesn't work all the time; last night we argued for 10 minutes about whether an animal in his ABC book was a zebra or a horse. I went with zebra, because it was black and white, it was on the page labeled Z and also -- this part is key -- it was a zebra. The 2-year-old, with enviable sincerity, looked at me with cold gunfighter eyes and said, "Horse." This went on two and a half million more times. I actually just gave up and let him believe ungulate-related lies, because I was tired of losing an argument to a person who eats Pop-Tart frosting with a spoon.

In all events, he's expressing his own ideas and opinions. That's great, except it means we're entering that phase where he expresses his own ideas and opinions, which will last for the next 85 years and, if his brother is any indication, be forehead-slappingly frustrating. Yes, yes, I know my job is to raise bright, educated and ethical boys, but I kind of like this part where they don't have their own ideas and opinions yet. Because then you start running into conversations like this:

Me: "Jake, can you come down here for a minute?"

Jake: (from upstairs) "UGGGGGGH."

Yeah. Ideas and opinions. They're the best.

That part will only worsen with age. The 10-year-old is preparing to enter middle school next year, and by that I mean I'm preparing for him to enter middle school next year. (If he's noticed, he's not letting on.) He's approaching this seemingly crucial milestone with enviable nonchalance; I am approaching it by making panic noises, projecting my many middle-school problems onto him and daydreaming occasionally about how hard home-schooling can be really.

He's going to a new school next year, one that I didn't realize counted fifth grade as a middle school. Have you ever woken up with a 10-year-old and found out by lunchtime that you have a middle-schooler? It's a lot to take in.

Middle school isn't his first milestone, of course. He's had plenty of those: first word, first broken bone, first bowl of cereal with milk in it (pending), first potato (he didn't eat it). It's just the first milestone that seems outside childhood somehow. Bigger, more distant.

The little one's milestones are all still adorable and friendly; I can still look at it as cute when he's begging for me to stop singing. It's candy-topped, precious, covered in pastels and sharing games and untouched adorableness. The older one's will be just as meaningful, of course; it's not like pride shuts down at the age of 10 or anything. And it's not like he's graduated to another level of living because a new school corporation delineated middle schools differently. But then again, maybe he has? Or I have? In either case, his milestones are different now, a little harder, with a little more edge. They might not be all good anymore. You've been to middle school.

He tends to look forward, whereas I look back at a decade of accumulated milestones, big and little, some with certificates and medals and some in notes I scribbled down before I forgot them, before they got lost to memory too. But even with those scraps and memories, I fear I've let too many of the older one's slip by. All parents do, I suspect. For a while it seemed there'd be an endless river of them, always coming, always getting bigger, always precious and untouched. Then, over a lunch break, some part of childhood ended. Well, that's not entirely true. There's still one summer left.

Jeff Vrabel was told throughout middle school that he looked like Paul Pfeiffer from "The Wonder Years." THAT PROBABLY EXPLAINS THE WORRIES ABOUT MIDDLE SCHOOL. He can be reached at and/or followed at