Shelving children's differences isn't that easy

July 02, 2002|By SUSAN REIMER

TWO VOLUMES IN the family library sum up the difference between teen-age siblings: A Day in the Life of a Midshipman and The Bad Girl's Guide to the Party Life.

The first was a gift to my son, who has now departed for life as a midshipman. The second lies on the nightstand beside my daughter's bed, where she plots her escape from the vacuum of parental oversight left by her brother's departure.

Together, the two books just about sum up my life as a parent.

Sandra Travis-Bildahl wrote the first book in the voice of a midshipman who has dreamed of life at the Naval Academy since he was a 10-year-old boy smitten with the uniforms while touring the academy with his family.

That boy is now a third-year student, and the author has him describe his day, and his daydreams of naval glory. My son added it to a pile of military books that have been arriving as gifts for more than a year. I suspect it was also unread. Boys would rather do stuff than read about it.

His sister's book was a gift, too, from one "bad girl" to another, and she pored over every word and read aloud portions of it to the other "bad girls" who joined her pool-side. One reason girls have always been better readers than boys is that you can get a tan doing it.

The introduction to the book goes like this: "Good girls believe in the afterlife, bad girls believe in the Party Life." Chapter headings include: how to give yourself a neck hickey; feeling guilty that you did something naughty; how to throw a bad hangover party, and how to keep a bad girl image alive.

(I didn't know whether to faint or sigh with relief when I realized that in one chapter, author Cameron Tuttle was writing not about a certain act of enormous sexual intimacy but merely a drink with a risque name.)

The juxtaposition of these two books led me to conclude that I learned absolutely nothing in raising one child that I can apply to raising the other. That having a boy and a girl presents many more challenges than just the fact that she can't wear his hand-me-downs.

Boys and girls in the teen years are so remarkably different that it is a wonder they find enough common ground to permit dating.

Girls are ferociously social. They travel in packs, and if Alexander Graham Bell hadn't invented the phone, his daughter would have. They must have something new or different to wear every day because - get this - the others in their group are keeping track.

Boys have friends, certainly, but they can take them or leave them on any given day. Their conversations on the phone last only as long as it takes them to exchange three syllables each, and they would wear the same clothes every day if their mothers didn't remove them from the bedroom floor for washing.

Boys and girls both push the discipline envelope for the same reason - to escape anything that looks like parental supervision. But the lies girls tell to evade detection are much more elaborate, though not any more credible. When found out, boys tend to simply look blank.

Both spend equal amounts of time in the bathroom. But while he takes the sports page, she takes a portable stereo and her CD collection.

Those are just the highlights. I consider myself one of the lucky parents. My children have done me the favor of demonstrating very clearly that they have nothing in common but an address. (She even has a separate phone number. He carries a cell phone, but never calls anyone.)

And no two books could confirm those differences better than one which chronicles the training of a military officer and one which includes instructions on how to throw a "Bad Girl Confessional Party" after you have been caught being a bad girl.

No wonder I feel like I am starting from scratch with the second child.

Curious friends have asked if we think our daughter will follow her brother to the Naval Academy, and we can say with much certainty that she will not.

Why would she want to go someplace where there are restrictions on makeup and jewelry, and everybody is wearing the same outfit every day?

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