Category Archives: parenting

What You’ve Taught Your Children About Alcohol Without Saying a Word

This puts into words what so many people know without knowing it, and is one of the most talked about excerpts from Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends. The book is for parents of pre-teen girls, but this concept can be applied to girls or boys of a much wider age range.

I get asked a lot of parenting questions by friends and people that I meet. Sometimes I have to ask people “do you want me to answer this as a friend or as a psychologist,” because the answers are often different. When our kids were smaller, people would ask me about negative behaviors that their child was exhibiting. As a friend, I would probably say “wow, you DO have the most difficult child in the whole school” or “you poor thing, I’m sure this phase will pass.” But as a psychologist, I would be more likely to say “he’s acting out because you are not providing any structure or stability!”

I have been faced most often with this dilemma when people ask me about alcohol use by parents. Like so many of you, the people that I socialize with enjoy wine or beer with dinner, or drinks when out with friends. This is not necessarily a problem; there is a way to demonstrate responsible drinking. But I will say this in all seriousness: your tween has learned how to drink long before she ever takes a sip. Here’s how:

  • She knows why she should drink – maybe it’s to combat stress, or if she has had a bad day, or because she’s out to dinner, or because she’s sitting down to watch tv.
  • She knows when she should drink – has she seen that this is what people do when they get home at the end of the day, or because it’s what friends do when they get together, or because it’s 8:00?
  • She knows how she should drink – one drink in her hand before she even sets down her purse after coming home, one glass of wine with dinner every night, more bottles than she can count during a party, or as many beers as it takes to get from being a ball of stress to a couch potato.
  • She knows how she should feel about drinking – she knows if it is something to be ashamed of and done as secretively as possible, if it is done as a habit without giving it a second thought, or if it is something entertaining and something to brag about because she’s heard so many ‘funny’ stories about people she knows being drunk.

When it’s put like this, I think fear is struck in the hearts of all who suddenly see a tape reel of their drinking history, problematic or not. We suddenly realize what our tweens have been exposed to by us or those around us. I am not here to judge how much you should or should not be drinking. But I have found that a lot of parents downplay the impact that they believe their drinking has had on their children, or insist that despite their actions, they have told their children not to drink and believe this is sufficient.

There is a significant amount of research that concludes that children who grow up in a home in which one or both parents drink alcohol are at greater risk of beginning to drink and drinking excessively. This research extends to tobacco use as well. In fact, parents who smoked at the time their children were in the third grade had children who were 64 percent more likely to smoke by the time they reached their senior year in high school.*

No lecture here, but a suggestion to take a good, hard look at the drinking habits of your family and friends. If there are unhealthy messages being sent to your tween, you probably already knew this but may have been hesitant to make any difficult changes. Please hear my psychologist take on this, not my friend take. Take this opportunity to make the changes you need to make. And feel free to switch the word alcohol to Xanax, cigarettes, or marijuana. You get the idea – don’t kid yourself.

As far as what you should be doing to model responsible drinking, make sure that you:

  • Never drink and drive
  • Have plenty of times where you opt for something other than alcohol to drink
  • Don’t make drinking look glamorous, and challenge those who do
  • Talk about ways other than drinking to deal with stress
  • If you are with a group that is drinking excessively, leave the situation and tell your tween that you are leaving because you don’t approve of what is going on

You need to ask yourself how you expect your tween to behave around alcohol. And then ask yourself how much of that she has seen modeled for her. Children have a hard time becoming something they have never seen.

*Sources:

Ten tips for prevention for parents. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, inc. Retrieved from http://www.ncadd.org.

Peterson A., Leroux, B., Bricker, J., et al. (2006). Nine-year prediction of adolescent smoking by number of smoking parents. Addict Behavior. 31(5), 788–801.

 

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What Leadership Means for Tweens

I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.

– Alexander the Great

I am not calling tweens sheep… entirely. But I like this quote because it does bring to mind the idea that when someone gains a lot of attention, whether someone in their school or a celebrity, there is suddenly a mass following of that person. For better or worse, they are looked at as leaders.

The term leadership continues to be a buzzword for just about everyone. Most schools include leadership among the qualities they try to develop in their students, and all kinds of extracurricular activities aim to produce leaders now and in the future. But what does leadership really mean to tweens? Who do they consider leaders and why? We can’t expect them to become leaders if we aren’t even sure what this means to them.

The first thing to know is that for tweens, leaders are not usually global figures or Hollywood celebrities. People in high-level positions who have done significant, heroic, or momentous things seems quite out of reach for most of us, and today’s kids often look more to the cyberworld to find their leaders. These are reality stars, YouTube stars, or simply people with huge followings on social media platforms. I’ll give you a second to shudder as you recall what you’ve seen trending lately among the people your tween follows.

If you can have ongoing conversations about leadership with your tween, you can help to inform their idea of what a true leader is, and guide them to this role using the values important to your family. One way to start is by thinking of this: True leaders are best judged by how they affect those closest to them. Show them that someone can have a million Twitter followers, but if they have not positively influenced those closest to them, they are simply famous, not necessarily a leader. Tweens have a tendency to focus on what post might garner the most ‘likes,’ and therefore they tend to see the people whose posts have a lot of likes as leaders. Encourage them to view others in terms of what they do that makes the lives of those around them better before looking at their reach across the internet.

A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.

– Max Lucado

I was just talking to a friend who has a seventh grade son; she was telling me that there was a debate during one of his classes. Apparently the debate went poorly when her son was the only one who had an opinion that differed from his classmates and the teacher. The teacher did a poor job of managing the class, and this boy was chastised by everyone – including the teacher. He was left feeling angry, embarrassed, and hurt that he asserted and maintained his view and was not supported. Just before the end of the day, he opened up his locker and there was a note from a classmate. It said “I think you are so awesome for standing up for your beliefs, you’re my hero today!” I’m sure you can imagine that this changed everything for him. All he could think about, and all he could tell his parents, was how this one message made him proud of how he’d behaved in class. And even though the girl had not made a loud, public gesture, her kindness showed exactly what we’re talking about – viewing leadership as what one does to make the lives around them better.

True leadership does not just appear. It is shaped, guided, practiced, probably failed a time or two, and always evolving. You can help by defining what leadership means to you and your family, discussing the leadership qualities (or lack thereof) of the people your tween sees, and celebrating even the smallest examples of leadership efforts that they show throughout their day. There are some amazing people out there, and they started out looking a lot like your kids!

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Decoding Tween Friendship

Tween friendships between girls are notoriously difficult. Friendship problems are what I am asked about most often, and what I have the hardest time answering. How many talk shows or articles have been devoted to the ‘toxic’ friend, yet many of us aren’t sure how much effort we need to put into a friendship or when to realize it’s unhealthy. I think the point is that we don’t often encounter clear-cut scenarios, so we need a foundation to work off of, and then we do our best. No doubt your daughter has come home with stories, and you were unsure if you should advise her that issues among friends are normal or to ditch that friend completely. Here’s a rundown of some common tween friend behaviors, and how to tell whether your tween is in a healthy friendship or may need to cut someone loose.

Bossiness. Thinking of all of the bossy co-workers, PTA parents, friends, family members, and strangers that I have experienced over my life, I think we can all agree that bossiness is a pervasive issue. She will encounter bossy people the rest of her life, so when is it a problem in a friendship?

There are people who naturally take charge, and people who naturally follow, and this isn’t a bad thing. A friend who tends to be the one to come up with fun plans or initiates topics of conversation can be great. It becomes a problem when your daughter’s feelings or opinions are disregarded or if your daughter starts being told who to be friends with (or not), and being encouraged to make bad choices or engage in mean behavior.

You are not likely to change a natural follower to a natural leader, but it is important to teach your daughter how to assert her wishes. Role play scenarios where she practices saying things like “going to the mall sounds fun, but I’d rather go for pizza before and not burgers.” You’ll see very quickly if her friend is open to negotiation or if she is only interested in getting her way. The more your daughter maintains her positions, the friend will either adjust and evolve because she values your daughter as a friend, or the friendship will fizzle out on its own because Miss Bossy Pants will want to find someone she is able to control.

Users. There always seems to be the girls in the class who give away their lunches, toys, or necklaces to “friends” who are always demanding it. A normal part of friendship is borrowing clothes, accessories, studying together, or taking turns having parents drive them to the movies, mall, etc. And without keeping an actual tally, it usually becomes quite clear when this is one-sided.

If you begin to suspect that your daughter is simply being used, it may be time to face this head on. Perhaps have your daughter ask this friend to borrow something or let her know that you aren’t able to provide a ride and see what happens. This is another example of where a role play may be helpful. Have your daughter find a way to say “my mom isn’t going to let me lend out anymore clothes/toys/food for a while, and we need to make sure someone else can help drive, she’s having a hard time fitting it in.” (I always let my daughter use me as an excuse, it takes some of the heat off of her!). Once the free wardrobe, meal train, and transportation are cut back, your daughter will see if this girl is able to adjust the rules of their friendship or fade away.

Insults and backstabbing. Witty banter during the tween years can often miss the mark. Girls are trying to be clever and relevant in conversations, but sometimes these comments can hurt a friend’s feelings. It can be difficult for girls, and their parents when hearing the stories of the day, to decipher the intention behind a comment. Additionally, breaking confidences or starting drama with other girls can be upsetting as well.

It’s difficult to hear your daughter report something hurtful that happened with a friend and not go into mama/papa bear mode. But if your daughter ended friendships over every slight, she would be out of friends in a hurry. The best way to evaluate what kind of friend she’s dealing with is to look at the bigger picture. Her friend said or did something hurtful – did she say she was sorry or show remorse? When thinking of their time together as friends, has she done more hurtful things or more nice things? You’ll start to see if there are isolated incidents of wrongdoing, accompanied by genuine apologies and attempts to do better; or repeated offenses with half-hearted apologies and perhaps even blaming your daughter for not being able to take a joke.

Just as we do with adult friendships, over time we begin to realize if a friend makes us feel happy or miserable, and act accordingly. This is a good time to teach your daughter how to make her feelings known, to teach people how she’d like to be treated, and also to make sure she learns from how other people make her feel. Odds are, she’s offended someone as well, and being able to take responsibility for her actions and refine the skills of empathy and friendship will improve her friendships over time.

Risky behavior. This one seems like a no-brainer, but can be tricky. Often, friends will do something just risky enough to seem exciting, but not scary. It can be fun to be friends with the wild and crazy girl, but it can be a slippery slope into bad choices for your daughter or being guilty by association.

The best way to handle a friend who is starting to show a pattern of poor decisions is not to ban her (which will only make her seem more appealing). It’s usually best to acknowledge the situation. “I’ll bet it’s fascinating to see how much attention Ashley gets for drinking/smoking/sending inappropriate pictures. I know it can tempting to want that kind of attention, too. And it’s normal to be curious about what it’s like to try alcohol (or whatever). I want you to know that I get that, but I’m not okay with you doing those same things, there would be serious consequences.” Often, friendships with these kinds of disparities dissolve on their own, but if things escalate then it’s time to step in and protect your daughter.

Being a tween and figuring out how to have and be a friend is rough. Being a parent watching a tween deal with friendships is brutal. There are a lot of fits and starts throughout this process, and that’s okay! Remember that these friendships shift and evolve frequently, so don’t get too wrapped up in singular issues. If you listen to your daughter and help her find happiness, meaning, and lessons in everything that she goes through, she will end up with a good circle of friends – that will inevitably change.

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My Week of Perfect Parenting: I’m Pretty Sure You Can Achieve this Too!

One scroll through Facebook or glance at Pinterest, and it’s easy to feel like everyone else has better plans, better ideas, and better results than you. I would love to see a post that says “I overslept and created complete chaos before sending the children to school, we all have a terrible, cranky day ahead of us.” Of course, I’m not posting these either, so I can’t throw stones here. This is what a ‘perfect’ week of parenting looks like for me. If we’re Facebook friends and you’ve seen my posts, you may recognize about half of them. I’ll let you guess which half.

Monday:  My daughter has softball practice this afternoon so I made homemade protein bars for her to have after school and during practice. The other moms were so impressed and couldn’t believe I made the effort to make them from scratch. I know, right? I felt pretty great. I also felt pretty great that no one noticed that her practice uniform was dirty. But seriously, how did I have time to do laundry and look up protein bars on Pinterest and pick out the correct protein powder?

Tuesday:  I had an epic parenting moment when my daughter was sitting on the couch on her phone. I sat next to her and said “I’d love to look through your texts and Twitter messages with you, I’m so curious what everyone is up to!” She rolled her eyes, but agreed and we scrolled through several different apps and a bunch of her text messages. Huge points for monitoring her social media – yay me!! Points deducted when I realized we’d have to order pizza for dinner. Hey, it’s not my fault that I got wrapped up in the fact that Ashley was supposed to tell Jackson that Rachel liked him, but Jackson’s friend Chase told Rachel that Ashley actually told Jackson that he shouldn’t like Rachel, he should like Megan. It was very time-consuming, I can’t possibly have been expected to cook!

Wednesday: So today I had to redeem my laundry and cooking fails. I managed to get 5 loads of laundry done, cook a fairly healthy dinner, and do all of the dishes and wipe down the counters. Awesome! And it’s only 7pm so I have a few hours left of the day to watch my favorite shows or read for my fast-approaching book club meeting. By 8pm, however, I realize that the chores I thought I completed are piling up again for tomorrow because the members of my family insist on wearing clothes (many outfit changes in the case of the teen) and eating. Every. Single. Day. So alas, I still went to bed with a few more dishes in the sink from evening snacks and emerging new piles of laundry. Was any of that laundry in actual hampers? I think you know the answer to that.

Thursday: Today I managed to get a healthy meal in the crock pot before my day started. One task down! Turns out this was a good move, because late in the afternoon, my daughter asked the one question that sends chills down my spine – “mom, can you help me with my math homework?” Ok, game face… don’t looked panicked or she might think that if you can’t do it, she can’t either… must look confident… why does she need help on the one night of the week that her dad (aka math whiz) is out of town? Fast forward to the end of the night, where we managed to get through the homework (with the help of several online videos) and ate our healthy dinner.

Friday: A whirlwind day of meetings and errands. But I’m proud as I’m driving home to know that I had such a productive day – I might even count this as a good-female-role-model day! Feeling a little less proud as I slowly realize that I didn’t take anything out to thaw for dinner. Crap, why didn’t I do the crock pot thing today? No worries, I’ll stop at the store for a ready-made meal. That works out because I’m pretty sure I promised my daughter that I would buy poster board for a school project and I think I ran out of laundry detergent on Wednesday. See? It all worked out – turning forgetfulness into efficiency. I can still hang onto that pride now, right?

I’m hoping you read this and realized that you, too, have had many perfect weeks! Celebrate these victories of parenting! After so many nights of feeling defeated that I did something awesome in one area only to realize that it meant not doing something in another, I have realized that I do fantastic things for my family all the time, I just don’t do them all in the same day. We need to give ourselves a break from thinking every aspect of our day must be flawless, and we need to realize that when someone else looks like they’ve done something perfectly, their ‘perfection’ probably rises to the same level as ours, and that’s great!

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Meet Her Where She Is

As the new school year gets underway, kids often come home with new or amplified social issues. This is especially true for girls during transitional years, such as going from elementary school into middle school or just going from kid to tween. There are new rules about what is cool or uncool, she cares a lot more about what others think of her, and she may feel as if she is constantly being judged. It can be overwhelming for her to navigate these waters, feeling like a full time job to figure out how she should be looking and acting while (oh right!) paying attention in class. Hopefully she comes home and tells you about the trials of her day, but it’s important that your response be a help, not a hindrance. It can be the difference between her realizing that she feels better after talking with you and feeling that you don’t understand her world. Here’s some helpful conversational do’s and don’ts to help ease her tween angst.

She says: “I was supposed to meet Kayla and Ashley at the lockers, and they totally walked right by me with Emily. I know they saw me, I think Emily told them to ignore me.”

Don’t say: “Why would you even let that bother you? If Kayla and Ashley were really your friends, they would have told Emily they were supposed to meet you. Forget about them!”

Do say: “I’m so sorry honey- that stinks! I’ll bet you were really hurt. What did you say or do? What will you do if it happens again?”

She says: “My teacher hates me! She always glares at me and I know she thinks I’m stupid. I’m never going to raise my hand!”

Don’t say: “Don’t be so dramatic- you need to respect your teachers. How can she possibly hate you- it’s the first week! Did you ever think that maybe she’s just having a bad day or maybe she needs glasses and can’t really see you?”

Do say: “That must be stressful to feel like a teacher doesn’t like you. Sometimes it’s hard to figure people out when we are first getting to know them. I know you’ll keep doing your best in class, so let’s see how you feel about her in a few weeks ok?”

She says: “Katie is so annoying. She still dresses like a little kid and she is always following us around. We’re either going to ignore her until she leaves us alone or we’ll send her a text to tell her to find her own friends.”

Don’t say: “Yeah I don’t know why she still wears kid clothes. I’m sure she’ll find some friends of her own as the year goes on. Just don’t be mean, ok?”

Do say: “Listen, I know how important your friends are to you, and I know there are people you may not want around you. I also know that if someone is being mean to you, I want to talk about standing up for yourself. But annoying isn’t the same as mean. You are free to choose your own friends, but you may never – ever – be mean to someone. Let’s talk about what is acceptable and unacceptable in dealing with Katie. And the first thing I want you to know is that if I see any kind of mean text coming from your phone, I’ll need to take it away for awhile until you’ve shown you understand the power that it has.”

This is what I mean by ‘meet her where she is.’ Of course it may be dramatic that she is convinced her teacher hates her, and absolutely she should respect her. One of the hallmarks of the tween years is an all or nothing mentality where everything is a major deal and she feels as if all eyes are on her at all times. I can’t tell you how many times I would be out with my daughter and any time girls her age walked by her she would say “wow, they were totally judging me.” Every. Time. It may seem to be overstated or inaccurate to us, but to her these things are very real and very important. If she comes to you with any variation of the above scenarios and you reply with the ‘don’t say’ versions of answers, it will become apparent to your daughter that you don’t understand her or the events of her day. The result of this will likely be that she comes to you less. She will seek out people who do validate her feelings – usually peers whose advice may be, well, flawed to say the least.

On the other hand, if you do the ‘do say’ versions of answers, two things are likely to happen. Her stress level will lessen just by being heard and validated, and she will bookmark that you were the one who helped with this. It’s important to remember that you don’t need to solve every problem for her, sometimes just having someone agree that “yep, that stinks!” can bring the crisis meter down a notch. The other thing that can happen is that she will begin to see that she can handle many things herself. Asking what she did in a situation (or what she would do if she had it to do over again) shows her that she has the skills to manage certain situations. And if the skills are still developing, she at least has something to build on.

Of course there are always exceptions. Circumstances involving drugs, bullying, or incidents above what they may be able to deal with require a more direct approach from you, as in the case with Katie. She needs to know in no uncertain terms that there are behaviors that aren’t okay. And you probably have your own idea of what ranks highest on your unacceptable list. For me, I absolutely lose my mind when I see videos posted of a bullying incident or fight, and the kids around just stand there videotaping it on their phones.

So the well-thought out, positive parenting I describe above goes right out the window for me. Since the moment I handed my daughter her first phone, I explained that I understand that kids experience their lives in moments that would look great on Instagram or Youtube (see, a little validating here!). But I told her that if she is witness to a serious bullying incident, her job is to assess what she should do, not if she should do something. And that if I ever discovered that she watched a bullying incident or God help her, videotaped it, she would never see another phone until she is old enough to vote and pay for it herself. There is no gray area here. But I believe that this area of a completely fanatical stance by me is tempered by the many other areas where I do show some understanding of what she’s going through.

Best of all, if you show her now that you will listen to hear worries, fears, and feelings, she will learn that you are a safe person to come to. She will learn that she has many of the skills needed to navigate this time, and that you are there to help her build up the rest. Then, as she enters the teen years, she is more likely to continue to come to you with issues that can be even more serious.

 

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Why Do We Keep Lowering the Bar

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. ~Michelangelo

Like many mornings, I had the television tuned into a local morning show as I got ready for my day. The two co-hosts were talking about a picture that had been trending of a politician’s 18 year old daughter at a concert, appearing to be smoking marijuana. I don’t usually give my full attention to morning shows, I just like the background noise. But this day, one host asked the other “when your daughter is 18, do you think you would care if you found out she was smoking pot?” To which the other host replied “hmmm, I’d have to think about that, but I don’t think it would be a big deal… there are a lot worse things that she could be doing.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The host who had asked the question just nodded along, adding “I think the stats are pretty consistent that most kids do try pot by this age.” It really bothered me all morning.

Because I was already troubled by this exchange, I was more tuned in to other examples like this as the week went on. In a Facebook group dedicated to the community where I live, a woman posted looking for advice about middle-schoolers that were standing throwing large rocks at a stop sign (with elementary kids crossing the street and cars parked nearby). When she asked the kids to stop throwing the rocks, they laughed, flipped her off and continued with even more gusto. I was surprised that about 90% of the responses were that they were “just being kids” and “we all used to do things like that.”

To round the topic out, I was with a group of parents who were discussing the antics of young Hollywood – from Justin Bieber speeding through his residential neighborhood to the star of Disney’s Jessie getting a DUI to countless pro sports figures being arrested for everything from DUI to domestic violence to drugs. Again, I was surprised at how many people in this group said things like “we all made mistakes when we were young, too” and “these are just first world problems.”

Kids will make mistakes, and it’s important to keep them in perspective when they do. But it seems that some have slid into a lazy parenting stance that because we assume they will make mistakes, we should make excuses or not set a very high standard to begin with. Bad judgment is bringing a phone into class when it’s not allowed. Property damage, DUIs, criminal behavior, and cruel behavior toward others should never be followed by sayings so trite as “there are worse things they could be doing,” “this is what kids do,” or “we did stupid things when we were young, too.” This will not become my parenting anthem. I can accept a mistake, and I will support my daughter in learning from her mistakes. But I don’t appreciate those whose lenient commentary on what so many young people are doing make it seem inevitable and acceptable for her to make seriously poor choices. The “I was a moron, so you should count on being one too” attitude just doesn’t work for me. Here’s what does:

Aim higher. When you set expectations for your kids, set them high. Kids tend to live up to the expectations set for them. Make sure they know that you expect them to behave in a way that will make them, and you, proud. They need to know that you understand that they may be curious about drugs and alcohol, but you expect them not to try alcohol until they are of legal age (and how about never for drugs). If your child is heading back to school, tell her that you expect that she will be kind to peers and respectful to teachers and staff.

Call People Out. Had my daughter seen the host of the morning show say that she wouldn’t think discovering her daughter was smoking pot was a big deal, I would have said “Wow, maybe she doesn’t realize the effects of marijuana! What if her daughter was driving herself home after that? Or what if someone else who had been smoking pot was driving her daughter home – would it be a big deal then? And maybe she forgot the bottom line that it’s illegal!”

When Ben Affleck was allegedly intoxicated while on a sports show, many commentators essentially said “well, maybe it’s not such a big deal… I mean it’s a sports show for guys!” I asked my daughter if she was lucky enough to be invited onto a television show, how impressed does she think her friends and family would be to watch her be drunk? Would she be proud of her appearance? Her dad coaches sports – would it be okay if he showed up to practice cussing and intoxicated if he was coaching a bunch of guys? I’m guessing he chooses to aim higher.

That explains it, it doesn’t excuse it. This is one of my favorite sayings. And sometimes I do feel the need to show some understanding and benevolence. If my daughter tells me about a girl who was mean to another girl because she was trying to gain the attention of a group she wants to be a part of, I may say “I understand how important it is to fit in, I’m sure she was feeling a lot of pressure. That may explain why she did it, but it doesn’t excuse it. She needs to try harder and do better to do the right thing.” There are also times that I just call a spade a spade. A certain swimmer lying about being robbed at the Olympics? I flat out told my daughter that I thought it was idiotic, and pointed out how he let down his teammates and lost the respect of many nations, not to mention losing millions in endorsements. Sometimes dumb is just dumb, and it’s okay to point it out.

As much as I wish I could tune out our celebrity culture, this is what kids talk about a lot and see on television and social media. What celebrities do, and how others talk about it, becomes a benchmark, and this finds its way into the lives of our kids. I generally focus on my daughter and the people who are directly in her life, but I can’t ignore the fact that some of what her peers do has a direct correlation to what they’ve seen from celebrities. In other words, I wish I didn’t know why Taylor Swift is mad at Kanye West, but sadly I do.

Our kids are listening. They listen when they hear stories of other young people – famous or not – making mistakes that could have dire consequences. And if they hear us making excuses for poor behavior and suggesting that this is a part of growing up, they will assume that this is precisely where the bar is set for them. Do something dangerous or irresponsible and we will find a suitable excuse for you. Make sure your children understand what you expect of them by sharing your principles with them and by how you evaluate the behaviors of those in the world around them.

 

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Being Relevant is Important to Tween Girls: And Why Being Relevant Does Not Mean Having a Butt that Breaks the Internet

There’s a saying that goes like this: it used to be people became famous because they were special, now people become special because they’re famous. I try to remember this when talking about how tween girls interact in our celebrity-obsessed culture, and even in how they interact with their peers. A hallmark of the tween years is the need for peer acceptance. Our girls are looking for ways to become and stay relevant, and based on what they see in the world, it seems as if the easiest and most effective ways to do this are the least dignified. It’s important to understand girls’ need for relevance, and even more important to help them aim high and establish themselves in ways that will make them, and you, proud.

Yes, there are great stories about celebrities and others doing wonderful things in the world. But these stories are much quieter than the stories of sex tapes, bad behavior, and pictures that go viral for all the wrong reasons. A mere photo of a celebrity in a risqué outfit (or lack thereof) gets mentions on entertainment shows and lots of shares around social media. And a celebrity feud? That gets top billing and people can’t seem to get enough of it.

Compare that with the lives of our tweens, and it’s not much different. A quick scroll through your daughter’s Instragram will make two things abundantly clear: girls are inundated with photos of their peers looking WAY older and advanced than they should be, and it is obvious which kids know that their parents won’t ever check what they post. During almost any activity, girls are more focused on how to get the best picture or how to caption it than the activity itself. And for many girls, the sexier they can look, the better. After all, reading through comments that say “wow,” “you’re so hot,” etc. can really make them feel that they are approved of, accepted, and important. And this feeling can almost be addictive. Besides the fact that bikini shots and sexy poses (seriously, the sexy finger-to-the-lip move with middle schoolers in braces makes me shudder) are highly inappropriate, when you start this in middle school you have to ask – what will they do in high school? The stakes only go up.

Many celebrities, especially female, that appeal to the tween girl crowd post photos almost exclusively of themselves in sexy outfits and poses. Any other posts seem to be about some event or trendy thing they were doing. If you were to caption each post, it could be with some form of “me, me again, me-me-me, and keep looking at me.” Much is the same with their peers (coincidence? Hmmm). They’re not just smiling, they are posing, trying to look much older. And throw in a bathroom mirror or beach/swimming pool and the poses seem to go downhill from there. So how do we acknowledge their need to be relevant and accepted while keeping them from feeling that their value comes from how they look or what they do? Not very easily, but here are some powerful tools to use as often as possible.

Accentuate the positive. The best way to keep her focused on important values is to highlight the positive and reduce the spotlight on things that are negative or unimportant. Last year, the girls on the softball team at a local high school each asked a special needs boy from their school to Homecoming. It was an amazingly generous act, but got little attention. Once I heard about this, I talked a lot about how awesome those girls were. We talked about how Homecoming is a big deal, and usually girls are concerned about their dress and how cute or popular their date is. And while that is certainly understandable, imagine how much cooler the feeling of pride was, and how they will remember this so much more when they are older than just a cute boy.

Look beyond the celebrity. This is a tricky one. If you mock a celebrity that she thinks is cool (“she’s not even 20 and she’s getting lip injections?” “her outfit is ridiculous!” “all she cares about are her looks, she has no brain behind them!”) you create a gap that signals to her that you just don’t get it. So yes, it’s important that you understand why the attention that celebrities and reality starts garner seems so desirable. But what’s beyond that? Ask questions about the people she follows: So she is famous because she was on a reality show? What good quality(ies) does she have? Does she have any kind of skill or talent? What kinds of positive things has she done? And ask with genuine curiosity, keep the sarcasm to a minimum (good luck).

Translate that to her world. Building on the theme of evaluating the merits of what celebrities are doing, bring that same assessment into the world of her peers. If you are looking at her Twitter or Instagram feed with her (which I hope you are!), notice what the girls are posting, and talk about them. If you see a post that promotes something positive, talk it up! And if you see posts that are shallow, no need to bash her friends (remember not creating a gap, above?). But ask her “oh look, that’s Ashley – what’s the coolest thing about her?” Most likely, the answer will be something like “she’s great at soccer,” “she’s really smart,” or “she’s so funny.” After a while, it is worth pointing out to your daughter that what she likes about her friends usually has nothing to do with how they look, what they wear, or how they pose in pictures. And the same goes for her – there are plenty of qualities that her friends like about her, and little of them will have to do with looks. So while she may think that your rule about not posting photos of herself in swimsuits is cruel, you can point out that you understand that she doesn’t like that rule, but it’s not what her friends are talking about. (Tip: our rule on posting photos is that if she wouldn’t wear it to school, she can’t post a photo of herself in it.)

Focus on qualities other than looks. It’s human nature to notice appearances first. When an entertainer steps on stage, the first thing we do is notice if they look great, heavier, too much make up, etc. Girls do the same with people they know – “she looks heavier since summer break,” “she’s dressed so dorky,” “she thinks she’s so sexy.” One of the best things we can do is make an effort to look beyond appearances. Instead of pointing out surface qualities, accentuate and reinforce deeper attributes. Point out when your daughter, her friends, or others excel or try hard at a sport, art, or endeavor. And emphasize traits such as sense of humor, wittiness, intelligence, and kindness. The more your daughter hears comments about positive qualities and attributes – about herself and others, the more she will start to look beyond the surface in her world and find true value.

Telling our daughters that being pretty or admiring a celebrity with no apparent contribution to society other than risky behavior and/or appearance does little to acknowledge the reality of their lives. Of course it’s important for them to like how they look, and as much as we wish it weren’t true – they care about what their peers think of them. We can’t talk them out of any of this. What we can do is keep it from looming large in all aspects of their lives. We can acknowledge that they want to look cool and they want to see what their peers and celebrities are up to. But more importantly, we can keep this part as small as possible, and build up the parts that have great value and merit. Let the world that is sometimes shallow have its voice, but let your voice and what you represent speak louder.

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