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The Earnheardts | Rites of passage

Some rites have earned their place in Earnheardt family lore. For example, when an Earnheardt kid turns 6, they get to go to their first Pittsburgh Steelers game with Dad. At age 8, an Earnheardt kid gets to chew gum.
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The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

There are several rites of passage for Earnheardt children.

It’s likely you have similar transitional moments in your family. Things like big birthdays, learning to ride a bike or graduating. 

Some milestones are big. Others are smaller, but serve as transitions that signify maturity. For example, turn 5 and you’re off to kindergarten, probably with the first-ever school bus ride. Turn 15-and-a-half and you’re eligible to get an Ohio driver’s permit and free lessons from Dad. 

Others have earned their place in Earnheardt family lore, in part because they’re extra special, but also because the older kids have been talking to the younger kids about these events for years. For example, when an Earnheardt kid turns 6, they get to go to their first Pittsburgh Steelers game with Dad. 

Yes, we get why that might not be appealing to some (here’s looking at you, Browns fans). One reason why we chose this special event was because it teaches our kids about fandom and community, about our extended family’s passion for Pittsburgh sports, and the love we have for the region where we grew up (certainly that’s something any sports fan can relate to).

The other reason why we chose it is because Adam needs more people willing to attend Steelers games with him — so he’s intent on making at least one of our kids a lifelong member of Steelers Nation. Unfortunately, this rite didn’t really take. Most of our kids are not football fans, and so they’ll likely only go back to Heinz Field because Dad promises bottomless cups of hot chocolate and popcorn, and a Primanti Brothers sandwich. 

At age 8, an Earnheardt kid gets to chew gum. This is a much anticipated moment for the kids who dream of blowing bubbles. It’s celebrated with all the Bubble Yum you can chew. Mary Beth stocks up on all sorts of flavors in the week leading up to an 8th birthday.

Maybe it’s because we let him start a little bit early, but chewing gum didn’t really stick with Oscar (pun partially intended). “Meh,” he said, after his first piece. “I don’t get all the excitement over bubble gum. I’ll stick with Jolly Ranchers, thank you very much.”

But it’s at age 11 that an Earnheardt kid experiences the most anticipated, glorious milestone of all, much more important than the Steelers game, or bubble gum, or a big birthday. In fact, when Katie turned 10, she said with a sigh, “I’m just trying to get through this next year, so I can finally be 11.”

This is because, at age 11, Earnheardt kids get their first smartphones. 

Last week, Sadie turned 11. And so, a new smartphone was bestowed upon her, as if being crowned or knighted with a certain kind of power and great responsibility. Although we’ve been through this twice now with Ella and Katie, there was an added level of excitement with Sadie’s smartphone celebration this year. Sadie is our social butterfly and, to hear her tell it, she has been “literally dying” without this particular accessory.

It’s clear to us that her already-heightened sense of excitement has been amplified by the pandemic. When she was younger, a cell phone represented being grown. Now it represents the sort of connectedness we’re all hungry for. Unlike her older sisters, we didn’t wait to prepopulate her phone with contact names and numbers of close family members. In fact, we even asked our family to text her happy birthday greetings so that when she powered it up for the first time, it would chime and vibrate to signal new messages and connections.

So, as we approached Sadie’s birthday, all the kids were excited. Heck, Mom and Dad were excited, too. There was extra teasing and plans were made regarding apps and Spotify playlists and access to the Google Play family plan. Sure, it might have been Sadie’s big birthday, but for all Earnheardts, the end of April is madness. This is because it’s a double birthday week. Katie turned 14 two days before Sadie’s birthday. 

Before the pandemic, we’d try to cram them in between the million end-of-the-school-year activities, but now things are slower and we were ready to party. We ended up with a week-long celebration, not two distinct parties. Every day we wanted to do something special, like make a special cake, open presents, call family and let them tell the kids happy birthday. It was a lot of fun. 

Like most of the world, we’re looking for reasons to move on, to transition away from death and disease and seemingly insurmountable odds. We want to leave the masks and Plexiglass behind and enjoy hanging out with friends in the fresh air. Many of us are looking for reasons to celebrate. We’re striving for change, but not just any change. We want the kind of change that propels our lives forward — and we want more than anything to bring our friends and family along with us, to celebrate with them, and to rekindle those dormant connections with humanity.  

Even if our kids can’t name it or give voice to it, we see them looking for this, too. They want reasons to go out and explore, to find new adventures. We see them looking for ways to make new connections, to find their friends online and in the real world, on their mobile devices and at school.

It’s been good to feel that sense of connection with them, and we plan to savor it. If Sadie is anything like her sisters, we’ll soon lose a little piece of our baby girl to the online world. She’ll start telling us how she’s feeling by sending us memes and emojis. Instead of coming to see us at night before she goes to sleep, she’ll text us. It’s all part of growing up. We’re just hoping that by creating these habits now, by providing her with different ways to connect, she’ll never want to stop. 

Then, when she’s a grown woman out on her own, she’ll remember to take a few minutes to drop a big heart in her family group text.

Adam Earnheardt is professor of communication at YSU and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists executive board. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn. Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.