Opinion: Our son suddenly sounds like Tennessee Ernie Ford

Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo

Our 15-year-old son's voice has completely changed.

For a while, his voice was alternating between Alvin the Chipmunk and Tennessee Ernie Ford. But now, it has settled in the bass end of the spectrum.

Comedian Richard Pryor used to do a bit where he talked about an old man talking to a teenager. "Take that bass out-ya voice when you talk to me, son," the old man fumed.

I know the feeling. There is something unsettling about a kid with a learner's permit, a 28-inch waist and a voice like Vin Diesel.

Other parts of puberty are lagging indicators. Our son is still rail thin and he hasn't started sprouting whiskers yet, but that voice is part James Earl Jones and part Darth Vader.

Our family was eating Easter lunch at a restaurant in Red Bank last week when all the adults chimed in with the same observation: What's up with B's voice? For a while the transition was happening little by little, and then the pitch of his voice simply fell off a cliff in a few weeks.

It's funny when you get a group of 14- to 15-year-old boys together. Their world quickly divides into the tweeters and the woofers.

Last summer we took a group of our son's friends to Florida for a week, and I remember hearing them all talking in the back rows of our SUV. It sounded like a group of grown men talking to children. Then, you turn around and there are only kids. What the heck.

For all the things teenage boys tease one another about, this seems to be one area where they pull their punches. If anything, it's the bass talkers who are the outliers in eighth and ninth grade.

It's a good reminder to parents that underneath that stoic demeanor most teenage boys adopt, there's a boiling stew of hormones affecting their bodily systems. Testosterone causes the larynx and vocal cords to get bigger over time, changing the pitch of a boy's voice. I read that the phenomenon compares to the strings on a guitar: The thicker the guitar string, the deeper the pitch.

Whether we admit it or not, most fathers use their voices to add authority to their requests. When I wake my son up in the morning, I use my deepest voice, and he seems to respond more quickly. I remember my dad used to do that, and it would startle and annoy me, but not enough, apparently, to keep me from repeating his tactic.

Communication has become so text-centric that we forget the power of the human voice. Kids barely ever talk on the phone, and on the rare occasions when our 15-year-old calls me now, I might mistake him for Andre the Giant. Still, he's the same sweet kid inside who cuddles with his dog and asks for a goodnight hug from his dad. Because he's the baby in the family, I wish he could have held on to his "little boy" voice for a few more years, but I guess that would create problems for him in college.

I remember when I was a kid, getting a kick out of finally being able to sing the bass lines in church hymns. Most modern praise music these days doesn't involve four-part harmony, so that's less of an option for today's kids.

But standing eye-to-eye with your dad and suddenly having a deep voice is a natural prelude to manhood. And who would have it any other way.

Email Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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photo Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo