A friend remarked the other day that "Thirteen is the new Eighteen." From my perspective, this is terrifying, but true, and has been painfully evident around our house recently.
Almost-twelve-year-old Curly Girl wants to grow up so quickly that it is heart-wrenching to watch. I recall the middle school years, but I certainly don't remember them fondly. They were hard enough to navigate twenty-five years ago, but the thought of my own daughter picking her way through the current minefield of adolescence sends me into an emotional tailspin.
At this point in my parenting career, I feel completely inadequate and incapable of accomplishing my goal of raising a well-adjusted, self-confident young woman. I regularly feel that I am driving her away from our family and/or into years of therapy. After surviving the physical exhaustion of parenting an infant, I thought my task would get easier. Seven-year-old Car Guy makes me feel the most confident about my parenting. Yes, he is a very active boy with lots of imagination, spunk, and spirit, but at least I feel that I can protect him and keep him safe. When parenting a preteen, the entire world seems to be at odds with me. Combating the onslaught of negative influences feels like a never-ending battle which I cannot possibly win.
Curly Girl wants so desperately to grow up completely, instantly, right at this very moment. Over the past week, I have been wrestling with a multitude of parenting-related questions:
When do you let her go and when do you rein her in?
Patrick and I have kept a rather tight hold on the activities in which our daughter is involved. She does a lot (piano lessons, soccer and swim teams, church activities, community theater), and her father and I have become well-acquainted with the other parents, adults, and children involved in these activities. Curly Girl is approaching the age, however, where she wants more freedom than we are willing to give her. She has recently started volunteering with our local teen Red Cross Club, and this week's activity was putting up posters around town advertising for an upcoming blood drive. Great idea! Great project, but I felt like the most over-protective mom asking the club's coordinator for more information (Where are you going? Who will be driving?) before allowing my daughter to participate. The activity turned out to be well-organized and well-chaperoned, and she had a great time. I'm just not ready to do the drop-off and pick-up thing on a larger scale (i.e. at a movie or the mall). I know it's coming; I'm just not there, yet, though.
When do you allow your children to be exposed to the world and when do you protect them?
Patrick and I have tried very hard to teach our children about the world while protecting them from information they may not yet be emotionally prepared for. For example, Car Guy enjoys reading the newspaper each morning. But since he is seven, I only let him peruse the sports section, comics, and selected articles (Science-related articles are big hits.). I just don't see any need for him to read articles about rape, murder, or other atrocities that occur in our world. On the flip side, we now allow Curly Girl to read all of the newspaper and watch the news. We want her to ask questions and search for answers. After reading The Breadwinner together, Curly Girl and I enjoyed great conversations about the role of women and the plight of women's rights around the world. She is certainly old enough to investigate social injustice, but, unfortunately, teen culture emphasizes sex and physical appearance over more important worldly issues.
The topic currently confronting our family involves how much freedom to allow Curly Girl in regards to tv, music, movies, and book selection. We do not and will not allow either child to have computers or televisions in their rooms. Curly Girl is itching to be set free in the Young Adult book section, though, which sends me into convulsions. So far, she has accepted that we monitor her reading choices, but how much longer we can reasonably do that, I really don't know.
How do you overcome your child's feeling of "no one understands me?"
This is one of the really tough questions. I so clearly remember the painful feelings of thinking that there was no one else like me in the world. Recently, Curly Girl seems to be wallowing in her differentness. Hey, I think different is good. I'm all about being different. Aside from talking and offering reassurance, how do you help your child genuinely realize that almost everyone feels completely abnormal as a teenager? Honestly, the whole talking thing is the parenting area where I struggle the most. I'm not a talker; I'm an internalizer. I just think about things until I work through them myself or push them down and forget about them. I'm also not a very "warm-and-fuzzy" person; I'd characterize myself more as a "Suck it up and deal with it" kind of gal. So when Curly Girl started bemoaning the state of her life earlier this week, my first thought was "Get over. You just got back from Europe, we're going on a mission trip to Kentucky this summer just so you can see how good you have it." See, I really need to work on this being-more-understanding-and-talking-about-feelings thing.
How do you encourage your children to be themselves, in spite of all the pressures forcing them to conform to the world?
This may be an impossible task. I love and value my children's uniqueness, but the world frequently doesn't. We withdrew Curly Girl from school and started homeschooling her precisely to avoid squeezing a square peg into a round hole. I want my children to blaze their own trails; I want them to be self-confident and do things their ways. The world doesn't say this, though, especially to girls. It says "You have to be a size 2, tan, make dazzling small talk, and be perfect in every way." I totally get wanting to look your best, but it is so painful watching your daughter navigate an awkward stage. To make it worse, tomorrow she gets braces on her teeth. As adults, we all know that the challenging adolescent years will end, but for preteens they must seem to never conclude. My daughter used to be so self-confident, now her reaction seems to be all-insecurity all the time.
I also want to encourage Curly Girl to utilize, not hide, her academic gifts. Nothing drives me crazier than to see a brilliant girl act less-than-intelligent around her peers. I get it; I so completely get this. I hated, despised the sixth through ninth grade years, but they improved when around tenth grade I decided that I would be myself, regardless of what others thought. For me, that meant shedding the worry of trying to fit in with the high school social scene, but I never truly felt normal until I went to college, anyway.
Retrospectively, I realize there is a light at the end of the dark hall of teen angst, but as a parent, I want to spare my daughter from the painful insecurity and social trauma that accompanies the adolescent years. That is most likely impossible, however, but I certainly would like to try.
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