I was never a “tween.” Honestly, not only did the term not exist, but there were no parenting guides for handling that particular budding hormonal disaster, and no marketing aimed at those between the ages of 9 and 12. I was a little girl when I was 9 and 10, and I was a middle school student at 11 and 12, having secret crushes and incipient angst about dealing with my mother. Some of my female peers sprung fully woman-ized and lovely into middle school with social maturity, perfect hair and just a hint of lip gloss and Love’s Baby Soft, while others of us bumbled between the pull of childhood and the perils of growing up. Although there were a couple of boys who seemed very suave and adult in 6th and 7th grade, most of them (you will be shocked to know) were little boys until maybe some point in high school, or maybe some point in their 40s. We were all over the place, with varying levels of hormones, social savvy, parental supervision and rebelliousness. I’m not usually all that old-fashioned, but I think I preferred it that way.
My son is a tween, I guess. Based on intense observation at close range, I am certain that he is mostly still a little boy, with only occasional demonstrations of teen attitude to serve as a warning of what’s to come. I have not actually read any of the literature on parenting tweens; I have not actually read any literature on parenting since I finished with T. Berry Brazelton. (Everything I need to know, I learn from “Supernanny” and “Wife Swap”). I base my opinion that one and a half feet are still in childhood on the facts that Sam still calls me “Mumma” and wants me to sit with him when he’s sick or sad, that he would rather play than do his homework, and that he is not interested in girls (although they are interested in him, a situation which he treats with benign generosity and detachment). Signs of the impending apocalypse include the monstrous task of getting him up in the morning, his eagerness to take showers, and the rare but impressive fit of totally irrational fury and defiance. It’s sort of like watching Dr. Jekyll turn very slowly into Mr. Hyde; mostly we get the intelligent doctor with a top hat and a plummy accent, but sometimes we get the wild-eyed criminal with a Cockney growl.
In the great world outside, however, I am unhappy to note that “tweenagers” are actually living what used to be the life of high school students, ready or not. This undoubtedly puts tremendous pressure on kids who are just not “there” yet, particularly those of the female persuasion. Sam has friends who “date,” and this is not the anxiety-ridden phone call and wadded up “do you like me?” note of my youth. This is constant texting, calling, facebook proclamations, and…actual dates. If, by the time you are 10 or 11, you have a cell phone and access to the internet, it takes really, really hard work on the part of parents to stay on top of what’s going on. I read Sam’s text messages on an intermittent basis, and have the password for his (legal) e-mail and (illegal) facebook accounts; because of his gender and maturity level there has not yet been anything to discuss other than the fact that a certain friend should stop sending texts with dirty words in them because I might otherwise have to make an embarrassing phone call. I am aware of situations in which much more precocious classmates are conducting entire romances on cell phones and IM messages, both of which can be kept under parental radar in ways that our early phone calls (from our parents’ bedroom or the kitchen) could not be.
The other day, I picked Sam up from school along with a friend who was coming to our house for a sleepover; it emerged in conversation that there had been a violent altercation at the middle school that afternoon involving two girls. One, I was told, left in handcuffs, while the other was taken to the local hospital after being slammed into a locker with some force. The friend explained that he was the cause of the fight; the victim was his “girlfriend,” and the aggressor was “jealous” and had been “talking trash about them.” It would not have been terrifically “chill” for me to have mortified my child by saying what I was thinking, which was that the scenario was horrifying, and sounded more to me like “Tila Tequila’s Shot at Love” than middle school.
The average 11 or 12-year-old cannot possibly be psychologically equipped to deal with adult relationships and all that they entail. Do the participants really fall in love in any recognizable way, or are they acting based on what they think they should be doing, following cues from the outside world? What happens to the kids who really aren’t ready for even the pretense of romance, who are confronted on a daily basis by drama, angst and possibly a sense that they are failing because they are not part of it all? It’s entirely possible that all of the moving parts of these scenarios were exactly the same 35 years ago, but that it was repressed and suppressed by a combination of parental, school and social mores. The uber-coolest members of my 7th grade class might have identified a “girlfriend,” or thought it was okay to say that they “liked” someone out loud; no one would have found it acceptable to fight over them in public. We were developing, nurturing the selves that would eventually be sexual and romantic beings, but those budding selves were protected until we were at least in high school.
Aside from issues of romance and dating, I have observed that it is very difficult to dress or entertain “tween” girls in a way that is not entirely adult. Miley Cyrus, who is not much older than they are, twirls around a stripper pole, dates underwear models, and poses suggestively in magazine shoots (with her father, another whole area of ick). Hip Hop music presents a world of bling, hoes and the frequent use of the word “shawty” to level all female partners into one fungible, glossy-lipped lump of object-hood. More innocent offerings like “High School Musical” and the sexless Jonas Brothers are, increasingly, the purview of very young girls, although even Vanessa Hudgens of “HSM” has had a nude-photo scandal in the recent past. There are bright lights in this mess, like Taylor Swift, and Beyonce, both of whom encourage young women to be independent, thoughtful and discriminating. It is difficult, however, to tell a 12-year-old girl anything, particularly if you are one of her parents, and you, the lamest of the lame are trying to tell her what music she should prefer. Why not just go for broke and download “The Sound of Music?”
This dance on the edge of inappropriate maturity is totally reinforced by the clothing available to tween girls. Although many girls of my acquaintance, including my niece, not only wore but preferred a modest wardrobe of jeans, hoodies and Chuck Taylors, the other stuff is easier to find. How do you argue with your 12-year-old daughter that it is inappropriate to buy midriff-baring tops, butt-cupping short shorts and dangerously short minis when that is what they see advertised and offered in many of the places where they shop? How do you explain to someone who really doesn’t “get” the full implication of sexuality, that wearing very provocative clothes sends messages that one might wish not to send? How do parents avoid dressing their daughters as Lolita when a) other girls and b) everyone in the window of Abercrombie is wearing a 3-inch skirt and a skin-tight tank top? My understanding is that it’s fairly difficult to find clothing for girls that is not sexually provocative, or at least a little tart-y; what this may mean is that parents are totally whipped by the combined forces of peer pressure, scarcity, and exhaustion. What happens to the girls who dress like they’re 20 when they’re 12, and ill-prepared for the kind of attention they receive? If this is part of the New Tween-hood, again, I vote “nay.” I don’t think girls should be dressed as if they live in Iraq or belong to a rogue branch of the Church of the Latter Day Saints; my preference would be that they wear cute, age-appropriate clothes that are comfortable, expressive and do not reveal anything advertised by strippers.
I cannot turn this tide, I can only stand on the shore and yell at it. If I really believed that the increasingly adult lifestyle of the American 9-12 year old was due to something organic and immutable, like higher hormone levels or some objectionable but scientifically verified evolutionary process, I would still hate it, but I would accept it. Instead, I see kids who are really very much the same as they were 35 years ago, being pressured by fierce marketing and free-flowing media to be something they are not. (Well, maybe some of them are really very mature and ready to start relationships, but the vast majority are not). I feel an equal urge to protect the boys and girls who can successfully mimic adults, and those who are left behind in hopelessly age-appropriate nerdiness and confusion. The Advanced Beginners are confronting issues for which they are totally unprepared, and there really is no “going back” to innocence. Those who are not blessed with the obliviousness level of my own child may be keenly aware that the gold standard is to look and act like someone 10 years older, but be unable to participate because of appearance, shyness or the refusal of their parents to permit cell phones, facebook and dating.
Regardless of where our own children fall on the spectrum of tween-hood, we must talk, and listen, and watch, even when we are exhausted and ready to throw in the (licensed “High School Musical”) towel. If we allow leeway in wireless media, dress, music and movies, it is our obligation to take a regular pulse and see if we are all headed in the right direction. If we choose to impose greater control than the average bear, we have to be ready for endless argument, and the complete and scathing rejection of everything that we, as adults, know to be true about life. They will roll their terrible eyes, and gnash their terrible teeth, but no matter what the rest of the world tells them, they are not grown ups.That leaves us.