The Importance of Dads to Tween Girls

As I do every Father’s Day, I spent time thinking of what my daughter could do for her dad. When she was little, she would draw pictures and make cards and crafts. She would help me make breakfast for him that he would eat – no matter what was in it or how it tasted. Now that she’s older, I’ve spent more time thinking about what he’s done for her. Dads can sometimes feel a little unskilled as their daughters get older, but their impact is far-reaching and important, so it’s quite valuable to look at what daughters want and need from dear old dad.

I’m pretty sure if it weren’t for her dad, my daughter would have never been allowed to go down the slide at the park by herself or swing from the monkey bars. She also would have been the undisputed Candy Land champion of the world since I always let her win. He was the one who convinced me that she would gain confidence (and have fun!) by going down the slide by herself, that if she fell off the monkey bars she would (gasp) be okay and try again, and that he didn’t want to see the result of a kid who never had to learn to lose a game. We had a pretty good balance in those years: I was the one who insisted on vitamins, coats in the winter, dentist appointments, and healthy foods, while he was the one who let her try more things, let her fail more often, and threw her higher in the air than I would ever dare. Of course it’s not that black and white – I was fun and played with her as well, and he fixed her healthy snacks and zipped up her coat. But the point is, we each brought something to the table.

As she got older, it became harder for my poor husband. He did not want to hear about the need for bras or anything else of that nature. He was confounded by the girl drama that surrounds the tween years. And he certainly did not want to know anything about boy-craziness other than the promise that she wouldn’t date until she’s 35. This is totally normal, but I told him, and I’m now telling you, that he still plays a vital role in her life. Here’s how:

Her future romantic relationships. In some psychology circles, the saying goes that moms teach their daughters who they will become, and dads teach them who they will later choose. Daughters watch how their fathers treat their mothers and other women, they learn quickly and early on what to expect in a partner. Daughters who have a positive role model in their fathers generally go on to have more fulfilling, emotionally stable, and happier marriages themselves.

Her future career path. Did you know that in the world of politics and other high-achieving fields women with no brothers are more prevalent than those with brothers? Many of these women report being encouraged by their fathers to be tenacious, ambitious, motivated and successful. Researchers attribute this to the fact that these women received promotion of their academic success in fields traditionally filled by men. Some of these traditional notions still exist today, but thankfully the tide has turned and many men encourage their daughters without gender roles in mind. The impact of a father who is involved in his daughter’s academics and shows her that he believes she can do anything is immeasurable.

Her future in general. As if what I’ve just described isn’t a tall enough order, I have to point out that daughters who have a caring, supportive, and communicative relationship with their fathers have reduced rates of everything from early drug use, eating disorders, teen pregnancy, and abusive relationships. In short, if a girl doesn’t have a solid guy to go to in her father, she will look to someone or something else – and usually make the wrong choice.

When my daughter was little, there was the typical “mommy do” phase. Even with dad standing right there, it was only mommy who could fill a sippy cup, make a boo-boo better, and play with dolls. Dad was, however, often requested to read stories because his voices of characters were way better than mommy’s. A new phase replaced this in the tween years. When boys talked about having a crush on her, they always expressed concern over doing something wrong because they were afraid of what her dad would do. What? I volunteered at the school for years, I ran forgotten lunches up to her, I did carpool… I was a lot more visible to her peers, why was no one afraid of me? The point was that even if her dad was at work and not seen as often, it was widely known that his presence looms large. The protection that our daughter feels from her dad is well known to her, and by extension, everyone else.

It’s okay if dads feel out of their depth when dealing with all that comes with the tween years (and beyond). He doesn’t need to suddenly be entrenched in the reasons that Susie will no longer sit with Ashley at lunch, or take over conversations about puberty. If he hasn’t plugged into her life, it’s time, and he’s now got all the motivation he needs. But he has hopefully already found a niche in her life, participating in her sports, helping with homework, or having a favorite show that they watch together. Find or continue ways to connect with her that are comfortable and enjoyable for both, and know that the role he plays in her life will ultimately shape her future. No pressure.

 

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Mean Girls

A lot of effort has gone into shining a light on the troublesome topic of mean girls. But just when I begin to feel hopeful that the tween years might begin to look less treacherous, I hear a story from friends or see a story on the news, and then I’m discouraged all over again. How many times have we talked about how awful girls can be to one another, how to make sure you don’t raise a mean girl, and how to handle those your daughter deals with. As with other social issues, it can feel overwhelming to take on the entire problem. Focusing on one child and one parent at a time, I still hold out hope that we can make the world a better place for our daughters. The topic of mean girls can be complex, but I believe there’s really four big things we need to concentrate on.

Empathy. I like to come at this from a brain perspective, I think it helps us to understand why girls’ can act the way that they do. It’s not enough to say “be kind,” it’s much more complicated than that. There are two types of empathy – affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy is the ability to recognize and respond to the feelings of others, and even young girls tend to have this in decent supply. This explains why if someone is crying or visibly upset, girls are likely to quickly become aware and respond. This part of empathy isn’t really the problem. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the perspective of others, and this is not a skill in abundant supply at this age. So cognitive empathy is where we need to focus.

Imagine this scenario: Your tween daughter goes to the neighborhood pool with friends, and other girls from her class are there. As they all prepare to get in the water, Sarah looks at Ashley and says loudly “oh my gosh, that swimsuit looks like something my little sister would pick out, it’s SO babyish!” Ashley fidgets and forces a laugh, and mumbles something about how she hates it, too and is totally going to the mall the next week to get a new one. The girls around them either snicker and giggle or become uncomfortable but say nothing. Later, you ask your daughter if she thinks Ashley is okay after that incident. She says “yeah, I don’t think it bothered her, she was laughing!”

Had this happened, you would probably wonder how your daughter could possibly think Ashley was ok. Doesn’t she see that if it were her in the same situation she would be embarrassed and upset? I’m sure you can think of times where you’ve seen a disconnect between how your child would have felt in a situation and how she perceived the situation when it happened to someone else. It can be frustrating to know that your child is intelligent but can’t seem to grasp something that appears so obvious to us. This is cognitive empathy. While being patient with your daughter and her developing brain, use situations like these as tools to strengthen this skill. Ask questions like:

“You loved the swimsuit you wore today, what if Sarah had told you that her grandma wears the same one and everyone laughed? I know you would pretend to be okay, but inside you’d be upset. Do you think that Ashley felt the same way?”

“Do you think Ashley will keep that suit or will she ask to get a new one? Either way, do you think she’ll be nervous to go swimming again – worrying what people might say?”

“What options did Ashley have to respond to this situation? If she didn’t feel comfortable telling Sarah that she wasn’t being nice, or confident enough to just say she liked her suit and move on, what else could she do? She wouldn’t want to cry in front of everyone, right? So she sort of had to pretend it was no big deal.”

“Let’s assume that Ashley was upset, but didn’t want to show it. What could you have said to ease her embarrassment? Wouldn’t it be nice to say something even if you aren’t sure she is upset – just in case?”

Cognitive empathy is a skill that comes with time, what seems so obvious to us isn’t always apparent to tweens. Find opportunities to ask questions about situations that get her to see different perspectives. I love the questions that make you wonder what happened later – “what happened when that girl went home,” “what might she be nervous about the next day,” “if you could re-write that scene, how would you change it?” Don’t just ask “how would you feel in that situation,” dig deeper.

The bystander. I hope by now, everyone is aware that the biggest deterrent for bullying and mean girls are the bystanders. I taught my daughter early on that if you see a situation where someone is being mean to someone else it’s never ‘if’ you will do something, but ‘what’ you will do. Doing nothing is NEVER an option. We role play scenarios and she comes up with ways that she could intervene. But here’s the key: you need to work with your daughter’s personality. Is she shy? Then asking her to boldly and loudly speak up is not realistic. But she could walk up to a girl being picked on at lunch and say “Mrs. Brown asked me to get you for her, she needs to see you.” And then as they are walking away, quietly tell the girl “she doesn’t really want to see you, you just didn’t look like you wanted to be there anymore.” If she is really uncomfortable, or it’s a big crowd, she could always get a teacher or other adult.

The point is that we need to emphasize that being a bystander is never okay – there is always something she can do. And this habit kids have of witnessing something and pulling out their phones to videotape it? Don’t even get me started, it’s disgusting. Let her know that while it’s tempting to be the one who captures the drama, it is unacceptable. This would be an offense of the highest order in our house.

Annoying versus mean. This seems so trivial but I’m here to tell you that it is a concept that some tweens don’t quite get. Annoying is not the same thing as mean. When my daughter started middle school, I began to notice a stream of complaints coming from her group of friends about Kerri – she’s always bragging about how much money her family has, she has like 4 pairs of Uggs and they’re not even the fake ones, she’s always trying to hug me, she’s always tweeting about Justin Bieber, and on and on. When I had my daughter alone, I asked her about this. She said “I see why no one likes Kerri, she’s so annoying!”

If girls use annoyance as a justification for being mean to someone, no wonder mean girl activities are so prevalent. And for me, realizing that kids can have difficulty realizing that annoying people aren’t always mean people was quite the a-ha moment. It’s one of those ‘of course!’ realizations that I can’t believe I didn’t recognize earlier. So as simple as it may sound, make sure your daughter understands that being annoying isn’t the same as someone who is causing her harm. I made sure to let my daughter know that yep, the things Kerri does certainly would annoy me too. But has she put you down? Said anything mean about you or to you? Tried to get other people to not like you? We’ve had lots of talks now about Kerri and many other girls. It’s totally understandable to be annoyed by people, but it’s never okay to be mean to them. Explain how to tolerate feelings of annoyance, but to still be kind. Use real life examples of when someone has an annoying tendency versus when someone is doing something mean that requires a response. Practice scenarios for each.

Role model. Finally, take a quick inventory of how you interact with the world around you, and how much of that your daughter takes in. You probably already know if you tend to be hard on those around you, if you have a judgmental tone, or if you say things about people that might be unkind. I think most of us are self-aware enough to know if there are areas of our personalities that might not present the best example for our daughters. If you are aware of such an area, take this opportunity to work on it. And tell your daughter that have been thinking that you don’t feel great about how you have treated so-and-so, and you are going to work on improving that. There’s a saying that kids can’t be what they don’t see. Make sure she is seeing in you what you want her to be.

During the process of writing this piece, I saw two different posts on Facebook from friends who were looking for advice about how to handle what boiled down to mean girl situations with their daughters. One girl is in 7th grade, one is in 2nd. Sometimes I feel as if I can’t type fast enough or find the right words to do my part to help. And I know I’m not alone. We all wish we could find that one perfect thing to say that would make girls understand just how hurtful they can be, and how long-lasting the pain can be for those they hurt. While the problem is starting to feel bigger, I maintain that the answer is smaller. Start in your own home, with your own daughter. Help her see the world from the perspective of others and empathize with them, teach her to never be silent when others are being picked on, help her realize that annoying people may be just that and nothing more, and make sure she sees in you the person you want her to become. We may not be able to completely eliminate this problem for the world, but we may be able to improve it for even just a few. I think that’s a good start.

 

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What Do I Tell My Daughter about Strong Women who are Reduced to Sexual Images

As I write this, I feel as if it’s the literary version of walking on eggshells. I am not trying to stir up controversy, and I am not trying to engage in age-old feminist debates. I am trying to boil an issue down to one element for the purpose of a discussion with our daughters. I think this is of interest to all parents with daughters, but perhaps even more so to daughters who are athletes. Here’s what bothers me: I keep seeing amazing women who reach perhaps the pinnacle of their career, and then not long after are half naked on a commercial or magazine.

Imagine working so hard to achieve the feat of being the most successful woman in professional auto racing, and then your next move is to appear in exploitative ads. Or what if you become known as a force in the world of mixed martial arts fighting, and then you are suddenly appearing on the swimsuit edition of a magazine – not even technically wearing a swimsuit, by the way. At this point in my story, I’m sure there are at least two major camps forming. The first is “It’s their prerogative to capitalize on their success in whatever way they choose, that’s empowering.” And the second is “That’s so true! Once again, no matter what a woman does, she is reduced to her sexuality and looks.” Both camps have validity, and I’ll once again wave my neutrality flag to keep my promise of not trying to create conflict.

I like to consider issues like this as they are one part of the story of women in the world today. But currently, I care because I write about tween girls, many of whom are just entering the competitive levels of their sports, and considering how they may be able to play at the next level as well. I also care about this because I have a daughter who is an athlete and soon plans to play sports in college. What do I tell her about the women who have clearly worked so hard to reach the highest level of their profession, and then choose to commemorate their achievement by simply becoming eye candy? Is this what I want for her? Absolutely not. She puts in countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears to be the best at her sport. To think that she could reach the highest point as an athlete, and years later be mostly remembered for something that only had to do with her looks and her body would break my heart.

When this topic has come up, I haven’t approached it as a shame-on-them moment. I did, however, use the opportunity to have the following conversations with her:

Put it in perspective. You know how hard you work to be an athlete, and you’re only halfway through high school. Imagine how hard they have worked for years for their activity. Do you think doing something like that so men can stare at them is a step up or a step down? What else could they do that would still let them gain notoriety, but would also provide a higher level of distinction?

See if from the other side. What have you seen men do once they reach a high level of status in their sport/craft? (This was a clarifying moment for me.) My daughter thought about this and said, “Well, it seems like when football players retire, they end up becoming announcers or commentators. Or I guess they might end up on Dancing with the Stars.”

I do respect the work that goes into the hard-fought careers of any female athlete, no one should ever take that from them. And of course, there are many examples of women who reached great heights in their sport careers and went in a different direction. There are women who did become announcers, motivational speakers, consultants in their field, or even successful in endeavors that have nothing to do with their prior interest. And those are the examples I hold high for my daughter. We’ve been lucky enough to see some of her idols speaking or at different camps, and they are every bit the picture of women who worked very hard to become successful, and then found ways to keep themselves elevated in a way they found appropriate. I have seen that a professional women’s soccer team is fighting for higher pay – equal to that of their male counterparts. I will watch in interest to see how these strong young women conduct themselves, which will help me decide if I can use their stories as a good example or an upsetting warning.

Because I don’t have the pressure of celebrity, I admittedly don’t know what happens at that decision point when a woman reaches the top. Because I write about parenting, I’d like to think (and do believe) that at some point the influence of a parent played a part – for better or worse. I imagine the pressure to stay relevant and be able to promote oneself is immense, so I understand why a woman would choose to do something less than glamorous when there seems to be no opportunity for something of higher regard. But until I see the quarterback who won a big game holding his helmet… well, um, strategically… the issue of female athletes posing in any way that doesn’t scream role model will continue to bother me.

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Poker Challenge to One Direction: I See Your Offensive Lyrics, and Raise You One Awesome Parent

Despite not even being in the same stratosphere as their target demographic, I like this band, I even have a few of their songs on my workout playlist. So when their new song called Perfect came on the radio, I figured I might like it, too. There I was in the car with my daughter, tapping the steering wheel to the beat, and then the lyrics started to sink in and catch my attention, and I stopped tapping. Less tapping, more jaw dropping and “what did they just say?” and “did you know they said that?” Because my daughter knows me so well, she sighed and said “we’re going to have to talk about this, aren’t we?” Yes my dear, yes we are…

Artists from the music world have yet to consult me when writing lyrics (which is weird, because I’ve totally got the time). Once my daughter took an interest in popular music, and somehow knew every lyric to every song (I’ve told her that if she could major in song lyrics, she’d graduate top of her class), I took notice of what she was hearing. And I instantly felt a kinship with the parents of the 50s and 60s who didn’t approve of Elvis Presley’s hip thrusts or the Beatles’ shaggy appearance. And in fairness to One Direction, there are groups and songs that make them sound like gospel singers. Seriously, some of the songs out there are absolutely atrocious. But they are a lot more conspicuous, so I’m not surprised by them and we don’t listen to those groups or the stations that play them and they are banned on our music streaming apps. Because there are songs that don’t catch me off guard, it annoys me when there are songs that do.

My point is that I realize I can’t change popular culture. I can (and do) complain like it’s my job, but the music industry, raunchy lyrics and all, is going to march on with or without me. Instead of screaming into the wind, I need to focus on what I can do instead of what I can’t. And what I can do is be a parent who is aware of what is influencing my daughter, and make sure my influence is stronger.

I will be the parent who talks about what our family’s values and beliefs are. Often.

I will be the parent who calls the bluff of song lyrics (“they talk about how cool it would be to just hook up, and how they wouldn’t keep any promises – is that the kind of guy you want? How do you think girls who do that end up feeling?”).

I will be the parent who points out that a song is really catchy, but it is just a song. I understand why she likes it, but it makes it sound like it’s normal to approach relationships in this way, and that’s just not true – and I will explain why I would never want that for her.

I will be the parent who remembers to keep conversations light-hearted and ongoing, not long-winded and overly serious.

My daughter’s middle school did an awesome thing. They conducted an anonymous survey on the topic of substance use. They asked the kids if they were personally drinking or using illegal substances, and then asked them if they believed that their peers were using them. The result was that yes, there was a small percentage of kids who were using. But the big eye-opener was that most of the kids believed that their peers were using. So while the majority of kids were not using, they felt like they were in the minority – like it was normal to be using at that age and they must be one of the only ones not using. The school made posters to illustrate this point and hung them in the lunchroom. This is what we need to do with the sad hook-up culture mentality that exists. Songs (talking to you 1D), television, and movies all suggest that there’s nothing wrong with teenagers hooking up and taking sex and relationships very lightly. It makes me sad to know that, especially with younger girls, they may be making decisions that will deeply affect them based on what they think everyone else is doing.

So One Direction, you are certainly not the only problem, or even near the worst. But you snuck up on me this time, and I’m kind of mad of you for that. And it’s frustrating that you consume the thoughts of so many young girls – one of my daughter’s friends even claims to know all of your blood types (I wish I were kidding here). The bottom line is that you might have the attention of an entire age group of young girls, and you record songs that send out the message you know will sell. But you are no match for their awesome parents, and as long as we keep speaking louder than you, we’ll be the ones dropping the mic.

 

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Why Sexting Happens Long Before the Picture is Sent

When I first had my daughter, I would read about any number of concerns about babies, from peanut allergies to RSV, and have a moment of mentally covering my ears with my hands and yelling “la la la la la.” I didn’t want to hear anything worrisome. But since the seed was planted, my mind would tend to make things up that were way worse than the actual information. I learned that after a brief moment of anxiety, I actually felt better learning more about the topic. My point is that when a tough subject comes up, there are people who bury their heads in the sand and avoid the topic altogether. And then there are those who dive in head first to learn everything they can about it. If you are in the latter category, you have come to the right place. If you are in the former, I still hope you take a deep breath and keep reading anyway.

The thought of our daughters taking or sharing any inappropriate pictures of themselves can make parents with the steadiest of nerves come unhinged. So, dear parents, we must either simply say “my daughter would never do that” and move on or dig a little deeper into how sexting even finds its root. Because your daughter really might never do that, but do you know if she is even targeted or how the discussion even gets to that point of decision? A major eye-opener is that it’s unlikely that she gets a request for a picture out of the blue. What we need to look at is the series of events and conversations that lead up to the request. This is where the battle is won.

The fact that snapping a photo on a phone and hitting send takes less than 10 seconds combined with the infamous tween/teen impulsivity is tough. It’s hard to overcome the fact that kids lack the executive function to be stellar at reasoning, problem solving, and considering consequences. And I’m not making excuses for them or permitting it, it is just something that we need to acknowledge and work with – not ignore.

I have a few guidelines to round out the topic of sexting, but if I accomplish anything in the post, it will be that you recognize that the idea for sexting doesn’t appear out of thin air – there’s a back story. And it’s that back story that I want you to focus on.

To be clear, I am not trying to vilify boys, or make it sound like they are creepy little perverts who hatch master plans to convince girls to send pictures. And of course there are girls asking for pictures from boys as well. And then to our collective horror there are stories of teams or clubs that have contests and initiations to collect pictures. While all of these are awful, I am speaking about the girls who send a picture of themselves either naked or partially naked to a boy.

It’s not likely that the boy your daughter sits next to in math class just turned to her one day and said “hey, can you send me a picture of….” So how does it get to that point? It begins with standards and boundaries. Kids in their tweens are interested in sounding more grown up, they are trying out conversations about drinking, smoking, even drugs and sex. They don’t want to feel like little kids anymore, and so they naturally look to what they believe those just a little older than them are doing, and even what they believe their peers are doing (whether or not it’s true). Sometimes this means that during lunch or other social times, kids start talking about inappropriate things. Clumsy and awkward though this may be, the reactions and results can widely vary, and this is the key.

Kids who are looking to others to determine what is normal and expected will probably assume this is the norm and at least tolerate it, if not participate in it. Kids who are looking to others for validation and acceptance might contribute to the conversations out of a sense of obligation. Other kids – I hope to encourage all kids to be these kids – will recognize that conversations, particularly those in mixed company, about nudity and sexiness are not okay and stop the conversation.

Read that last sentence again. It’s such a small sentence, but it is my main point. Sexting doesn’t begin with the use of the camera on her phone and hitting send. It begins when someone realizes that a young lady is willing to participate in conversations that suggest that part of her value lies in her looks and her belief that taking and sending inappropriate pictures will allow her to make or keep friends. The longer these conversations go on, the more likely they are to escalate to sending pictures.

There are entire books on self-esteem and values, but I have only one paragraph in which to stress the importance of these traits. Talk to your girls about their worth; and that while it’s great to be cute and pretty, that is only a small part of what they are, not who they are. No friend or boyfriend should ever tell them what they should do with their body. And mostly, teach them the value of modesty and dignity. Being judged for your body is never flattering. A saying I love is “showing inappropriate pictures of yourself is like rolling around in manure – yes, you’ll get attention, but mostly by pigs.”

Explain to her that she may get pressure to take pictures by friends or a boyfriend/crush, or it may be peer pressure to keep up with others. Or she may even come up with the idea herself if she has heard about other girls sending pictures as a way to flirt or earn popularity. And make clear that whenever she hears anyone start talking inappropriately about pictures, girls, bodies, or sex and sexiness that it should be a red flag. This is not okay talk and she should either change the subject, or otherwise make it clear that she will not participate in this conversation.

Sometimes it helps to have some external reinforcement, so it is also important to point out that having pictures of a minor who is undressed is illegal, and may have other serious ramifications at school or in other programs in which they participate. But the awareness of parental values regarding any situation is one the biggest factors in influencing kids’ behavior. It doesn’t always feel like this, because they don’t always seem to take these things in while they are rolling their eyes and huffing. But I promise you, they hear you. And best of all – once they’ve heard it from you, they can never un-hear it.

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A Year of Connecting with Your Tween Daughter

Perhaps you are looking to spend more quality time with your kids as part of a New Year’s resolution, or you may have been thinking about this for a while. So as the new year begins, the idea of connecting or re-connecting with your tween daughter is a great one. As with any goal, just stating your intention doesn’t bring it to fruition (if it did I would have already have a cleaner house and be down five pounds). You need to have small steps to guide you and keep you accountable. And sometimes it sneaks up on us – that realization that your little girl has changing interests, and the things that you used to do with her no longer hold her attention. And most of all, her increasing interest in friends can make you feel distant.

As you envision your hopes and dreams of the coming year, take a few moments to be inspired to maintain or strengthen your relationship with your tween daughter. The benefits you will reap for small gestures are priceless. I promise.

Ask her! She’s probably expressing a desire for more independence and respect, so solicit her input on this. If you ask her what she’d like to do, she may already have some ideas. If not, tell her that you guys will make a list of things to do together over the next few months or more. As she starts to see your ideas on paper, she will no doubt be inspired to add a thing or two.

Movie night. Make it something of an event, rent or stream a movie that you agree on, get into pajamas and watch with plenty of snacks and hot chocolate. If there are teachable moments in the movie, don’t hammer her with them, but maybe make a light reference to a theme (“wow, the girl who did the right thing even though it was hard won out in the end!”). Make mental notes of any other talking points to bring up later (“your friend Ashley is acting like that girl from the movie, I hope she works things out and has a different ending”).

Braid her hair, or try funky nail art. I cannot seem to learn how to French braid hair, it just isn’t coming to me. But I was determined, so I asked my daughter to sit in front of me and let me work on her hair while watching a Youtube video tutorial. Trying to work her hair through clumsy fingers while the video moved too quickly, pausing and restarting the video with my elbow, and repeatedly exclaiming “That doesn’t even make sense!! What am I doing wrong?” proved hilarious to her. We both laughed through the entire process, which did not end in anything that even resembled a braid, by the way. It took all of 15 minutes, but she still talks about it a few years later. You never know where fun, bonding moments will come from. If she doesn’t like braids (or you possess this skill, darn you), find new hair tricks or nail art tutorials to copy and try out, making sure to let her be a part of finding something to try.

Look over her social media. This one may sound crazy to you. But here’s the thing: We tend not to worry too much about what younger tweens are texting to one another, or what they are posting on Instagram, Twitter, etc., if they even have accounts. We’ve set up whatever parental controls we thought were appropriate and set up rules with them. This is great, but it sometimes gives us a false sense of security, so we may not supervise their technology use in a direct way (as in looking at their phone and its contents). Now imagine a few years go by and you decide that you should know what your 16 year old is seeing on social media or who she is texting. Imagine telling her that you’d like to see her phone to look it over. I can almost hear the huffing and see the eye-rolling. My point is that it is so much easier to start early with the concept that part of having a phone is sharing what goes on with it – and not thinking that it’s a bad thing.

I started right away with my daughter. I don’t like the ‘gotcha’ method of phone supervision. I know parents who feel like they need to arm themselves in a way that will catch their children doing something wrong on their phones, I think this comes from the fear that the kids always seem to be one step ahead of parents when it comes to technology. I set out the expectation that my daughter will be trustworthy, and that I am interested in what is happening in her world, as well as hoping that I can support her if/when something comes up that is beyond her ability to handle. I got in the habit of sitting down next to her on the couch and saying “hey, will you show me who you’ve been texting and what’s going on with them?” Or “what’s the latest on Instagram? Show me the latest and greatest!” I think because we started so early with this, she doesn’t know anything different, and she routinely shows me texts or posts without being asked. It has become something of a bonding activity, she can’t wait to show me this or that on her phone. I admit that adding these requests out of the blue would likely produce a snarky response, so I empathize if this will be the case for you. Ease into it, it really is important. I can promise you at some point you will be amazed at what her peers are posting. And it will become abundantly clear to you who has parents who don’t monitor their child online.

Take a walk. I think more than any other activity, walking has produced the most interesting conversations. There’s no pressure to talk, so we start out quietly heading down the street, maybe commenting on the weather or a neighbor’s landscaping. It’s in these moments that your tween is clearing her head, and most likely to share random facts about her life because you are right there to catch what she’s processing. Make sure to listen more than you talk, which will encourage even more sharing on her part.

Cook, bake, sew, craft! Either find time to do something you already know that you like, or endeavor to develop skills in a new area. Again, this allows the focus to be on something besides her friends, grades, chores, etc., and the likely result will be that this low-pressure time sparks comments or stories you may have otherwise missed.

With any of these activities, I really do encourage you to focus on listening rather than talking. I must admit that I have a hard time with this. I always have a running to-do list for my daughter – study for this test, I don’t like how this friend speaks to you, be nicer to your dad, etc. So when I carve out time with my daughter, I have to make a conscious effort to not launch into this list. If your daughter is a particularly tough nut to crack conversation-wise, you can get things started by asking open-ended questions such as “who is your funniest friend and why?” or “what is the meanest thing you saw happen today,” etc. If you need more ideas for conversation starters, a Google search will no doubt produce a wealth of ideas, and of course there is a section of these questions in Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends.

I’m expecting that as you read through this list, you are thinking that there is nothing revolutionary or extraordinary about this. And you’re right! The bad news about this is that these activities have been within our grasp all along, but our busy lives often prevent us from taking the time to participate in them. The good news is that it won’t be hard to start. You don’t need lengthy instruction manuals or to overhaul your life to get the bonding started. Just start!

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You May Not Want to be a Helicopter Parent, but Don’t Power Down Just Yet

Parenting is the hardest job there is. And who are our biggest critics? Yep, other parents. It is so difficult to plot a parenting course and navigate that course without feeling judged or insecure about it at some point. Who doesn’t remember having a well-planned outing with a toddler and cringing as that plan falls apart and you wonder how your trip to the park devolved into the epic meltdown you are witnessing – along with the critique of every other parent present (whose children seem to be behaving perfectly!).

Very few enter parenthood saying “well, we’ll just see how this goes, okay?” We have some sort of foundation for the type of parent that we’d like to be and the type of child that we’d like to raise. It seems it used to be strict versus laid back, but now nearly every parenting style has a clever label, and a judgment that goes with it. It’s easy for parents to see a story about free-range parents and not want to be associated with the negativity that seems to follow that method. More often, I hear people react to a seemingly over-protective parent by calling them a helicopter parent – obviously not a compliment.

I will admit that I lean toward what some might call helicoptering, though I prefer the phrase ‘highly managed child.’ When my daughter was a preschooler, we lived in a cul-de-sac, and she had one of those motorized mini Barbie Jeeps. I followed her around while she drove, and had funny, funny neighbors ask me “why did you even bother to buy a house in a cul-de-sac?” Yes, I expected and accepted that kind of ribbing. The truth was that there were many teenaged drivers there, and the Jeep stood, what, two feet tall? Who could see that backing out of a driveway? Okay, I feel like I’m losing you to your rolling eyes, so we’ll move on.

As my daughter began middle school, the theme of ‘they need to do it for themselves’ emerged or gained strength. Teachers proclaimed at the beginning of the year that they expected the students to be in charge of handling their own problems with assignments, teachers, and other issues that arise. That’s a great concept, and I realize it’s important. But I wondered, have these kids been taught how to do this? Self-advocacy doesn’t just materialize because they are in middle school, has the school spent any time explaining what this looks like? Have I?

This got me thinking – yes, kids do need to begin to advocate for themselves. And yes, when kids have problems with their friends and peers they need to work it out for themselves. But for many, they have not been adequately prepared to do so. It makes sense that in the hopes of raising a self-sufficient adult, we say “you need to handle this yourself.” But we miss the most important part of this, where we ask ourselves “how have I taught her how to handle this?” If we’re honest with ourselves, even the best of parents have often neglected to teach a child how to ask for what she needs, state her feelings and ask about those of others, negotiate, ask questions, resolve conflict, and communicate.

Think of anyone with siblings who are close in age. When they begin to fight over toys or bicker with each other, how often have you heard the parent (or been the parent) say “you guys work this out yourselves!” Now I’m treading carefully here because, again, this happens to even the best-intentioned parents. Does this parent put out this directive because they have reviewed the developmental abilities that their children possess along with the age-appropriate skills that the parent has taught these children? Or is it possible that the parent cannot deal with any more crimes against Legos; and even though they legitimately feel that the kids need to be able to solve their own problems, this is more of an unfounded wish than an aptitude-driven activity.

Because my book and my focus are on tween girls, my attention shifts to how this applies to them. As I mentioned, many middle schools require that students advocate for themselves. It’s important to sit down and discuss what this looks like for your child. Teach them how to find out how teachers like to be approached – e-mails, before or after class, office hours? Teach them how to state their situation and ask relevant questions and ask for what they need or hope to get. And most importantly, teach them how to communicate with you to support them during this transition. We’re not flipping a switch here, it’s a process.

As for tween girls being asked to work out friend issues by themselves? Again, I really don’t want the focus here to be whether or not kids are too coddled or too unsupervised. I want to assert that if a tween girl is expected to work out issues with her friends by herself, we should be confident that they have the skills to do so. (Spoiler alert: if parents haven’t said much more than “don’t take that crap from her,” she doesn’t have the skills.)

All tween girls are different, some are still very open about what’s going on in their lives. But many are beginning to roll their eyes, sport attitudes, and clam up because they want to rely more on friends than on parents. Sometimes it’s easier to tell them they need to be nice to others and to remind them to not let others take advantage or bully them than to face the rejection of our attempts to offer advice or (gasp) suggest that we might understand what they’re going through.

If you have a daughter who isn’t eager to make her own decisions and relies heavily on you to tell her what to do, perhaps consider asking her what she thinks she should do and turn it into more of a discussion than an advice column (see, I can loosen up the ‘highly managed child’ reigns). It is a good thing to begin to encourage conflict resolution skills, but that’s the thing – they are skills, they don’t just appear. Find examples, stories, talking points, and books (ahem, Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends perhaps?) to teach these skills!

If you have a daughter who apparently has it all figured out and is no longer in need of your services, find a way to check in with her. Usually, finding positive attributes and asking questions is a good way to get her talking. Even finding the smallest behavior to reinforce will increase the likelihood that she will give you a bigger peek into her world and perhaps even share some stories with you. “That was awesome that when Abby and Bella were talking badly about Sarah, you changed the subject. Was that hard to do?” If she sees that you like who she is and what she’s doing, and are interested in her social scene without harsh and instant commentary, she will continue to open up to you. (Caution: as girls get older, there is an invisible line we all apparently cross from interested parent to dim-witted intruder. This line changes daily, but you will know when you’ve crossed with two words – “GEEZ MOMMM!”)

Whether with some finesse or completely clumsily, most kids figure out how to navigate their world. But it’s not fair to think that new skills appear yearly like birthdays. We do kids a disservice when we focus more on the label we want or don’t want than on what their needs are at any given stage. So if you don’t want to be a helicopter parent, great – but what is the result you are looking for? And independent kid? Make sure that you focus on the skills that an independent kid needs and how you will make sure they are equipped with those skills rather than just shaking off the traits of the label you wish to avoid.

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