Where have our little girls gone?

October 13, 1998|By Susan Reimer

DOES ANY of this sound familiar?

"Yeah. Right. Fine. Whatever."

"Saw-R-E-E-E!"

"Don't worry about it, oh-KA-A-A-AY?"

"Oh, never MIND."

"Fine!" (Stomp, stomp, stomp up the stairs. Door slams.)

Congratulations! You are the mother of a middle-school girl!

For the next several years, you will be on an emotional roller coaster that will make the wildest amusement park ride feel like the Christmas train in the mall.

Your perfect little girl has become a perfect little -- well, it rhymes with witch.

"Sometime during seventh grade, it all goes south," a friend warned me. "You won't believe it."

Suddenly, mommy is a clueless life-wrecker who just doesn't understand, and daddy is invisible unless he has his credit card out. She is trapped in a family of idiots and she has nothing to wear!

Her only salvation is her flighty set of so-called friends. She is slavishly devoted to this bunch of carbon copies, who will use her and then dump her.

Not to mention the boys.

Middle-school boys set a new standard for immature. That your bright, beautiful daughter is smitten with any of them appalls you.

You are so worried that she will eventually marry badly that you actually take comfort from the fact that she tosses them aside like tissues. She is "going out" with a new one each week, but they never "go" anywhere and the only phone calls she gets are from his proxy.

And if she sighs and rolls her eyes at you one more time, you swear you are going to send her to a convent school or Bela Karolyi's gymnastics camp.

"The average parenting magazines will tell you that it is hormones, hormones, hormones," says Karen Bokram, founding editor of Baltimore-based Girls' Life magazine. "They have studied the chemical imbalance puberty puts you through, and it's enough to qualify for a murder defense.

"My personal opinion is that for the first 10 years of her life, your daughter cared about pleasing one person -- you, her mother."

Then she gets to middle school and meets the triple-A cup version of Miss Teen-age America -- pretty, popular, rich, athletic. Suddenly, your daughter is clawing at the lockers to keep from drowning in Hallway Hell and you, her mother, are useless.

" 'Brittany' [or whomever] has the entire sixth grade wrapped around her little finger and your little angel is taking notes," says Bokram. "She doesn't have the guts to act like Brittany at school, but there is one place she is secure enough to practice her new persona. At home. On you."

There is logic and safety in your daughter's version of protective coloring. If she dresses like Brittany, if she talks like Brittany, if she rips who Brittany rips and loves who Brittany loves, she will be so like Brittany that Brittany will have to like her.

The flaw is that the fashion tides change with the moon and Brittany will strand your daughter on the beach, and you will be left to pick up the pieces of her broken heart.

It might be the most important thing you do all day.

"Adolescent girls are the key to good health and happiness for the world," says Susan Bankowski, associate director of Maryland's Campaign for Our Children, the teen pregnancy prevention initiative.

"If we take care of them now, they can grow up to take care of themselves and be the kind of women who take care of everyone they love, which is the rest of us."

Bankowski believes it is our job to protect the "voice" of the middle-school girl, no matter how screechy, squeally, breathy, whiny, weepy, over-the-top it is. This ability to speak is her protection against being abused by the world, or ignored by it.

"If you talk to a seventh-grade girl, she is very vocal about her opinions," says Bankowski. "But if you ask her what gets her into trouble, she is going to say, 'My big mouth.' "

They say what they feel, but when they do, their teachers, their mothers and their girlfriends get mad at them. It doesn't take a middle-school girl long to figure out that she is better off if she just acts bored, acts like she doesn't care. Any opinion only puts her at risk to be judged.

"Whatever ..." It is the mantra of meaninglessness behind which she will try to hide the bigger-than-life feelings that are roiling inside of her. Can you imagine the strain of such practiced boredom at such a tumultuous time?

What's a mother to do?

"It is easier to ride a horse in the direction it is going," says Debbie Roffman, who teaches human sexuality in several Baltimore private schools. "Get on this horse, ride with her and point out the things you'd like her to see."

Roffman says girls this age are still enough like children that you can "get them on your team.

"At this age, they are still really approachable. As soon as they get a little older, their defenses go up and the world is black and white to them."

Bokram adds, quite sensibly, that your daughter doesn't need a sermon from you. She needs a strategy. As women, we are cursed with a vivid memory of our own adolescent traumas. But if we combine those painful memories with the experience of our years, we might actually say something helpful.

"Just try to see things from her point of view," Bokram says. "If she says it is important, it is."

If Bankowski is correct, if we expect adolescent girls to grow up to be the women who love our sons, nurture our grandchildren and minister to us in our old age, what is important to them had better be important to us.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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