The other day I had my annual visit to the optometrist. She’s a young woman with two tween children, one girl and one boy. The girl, who is older, is in Middle School and just beginning her foray into the world of social media. Her mom and I chatted about the pitfalls of this very fraught time in a child’s life and how girls and boys handle things differently. The struggles of Middle School seem to be universal across generations, and we shared our own memories of growing up in the ‘tween world.
My doctor lamented the challenges of social media and how it complicates an already complicated time. I totally agree, although I would argue that each generation has its own unique difficulties when it comes to navigating Middle School. I was offered pot on my very first day of seventh grade. Only 11 years old, as I was walking out of school, an older kid offered me a joint. My own locker partner, my age, was using pills. Then there was the explicit sex talk in the locker room. I hadn’t even started my period, and there I sat trying to look cool, while some older girls shocked me with their stories, most of which I’m now certain were not true. As I continued on through Junior High, as we called it then, there was in-fighting, back-biting, being left out of parties and sleepovers, nasty phony phone calls and lots and lots of gossip. The backdrop of those years was the moon landing, protesting over the Vietnam War, an historic teachers’ strike, Watergate. The sexual revolution was in full swing and my (much) older “sisters,” were burning bras and igniting a movement that continues to this day.
My daughter’s middle school experienced echoed mine in many ways. The mean girls ruled while everyone else just tried to stay out of the line of fire. There were a lot of tears and frustration over body image, popularity and balancing a social life with the drive to get good grades. Her Millenial generation was on the cusp of the burgeoning social media boom with Live Journal and My Space in their infancies. Kids at that stage generally did not have cell phones. My daughter received hers when she turned 16 and started driving. Still kids will always find ways to distract themselves. TV and movies set the social tone during the late ‘90s and early 2000s. By the time my daughter was in high school, we were beginning to see that we’d opened Pandora’s Box when it came to social media. No sooner did Live Journal take off, and my daughter was a victim of online bullying.
Fast forward to yesterday and my conversation with a younger mother just beginning this journey. I confess, I breathed a sigh of relief that we’re through that period. She told me the girls use social media to show who’s in, and who’s out. Who’s not invited to hang out and who isn’t. And the kids know it immediately. This next generation does have some special challenges as they now live their lives online, 24-hours a day. Privacy is nearly gone. And, while my parents could more easily monitor and set boundaries on watching TV, these kids have content being provided nonstop and the cult of celebrity sets the tone. Predators aren’t just sickos who follow kids home in a car. They are online, masquerading as one of them. It’s hard to tell who’s okay and who isn’t. And the depth of humiliation some kids feel at being outed or ostracized online can be deadly.
“I don’t know what to say to my daughter,” said the doctor. “I’m at a loss as to how to help.” I sympathize with her. And while my parenting experience is different, there is one thing that I believe never changes. Kids need to know their parents are always there for them and that home is a safe place. I know I drove my kids crazy with my constant conversation and questions about their day, their school work, their friends and, god help me, their FEELINGS. We talked in the car, over dinner, at bedtime, on the way to lessons and Hebrew School. I left notes in their lunches. I invited their friends over. I made friends with other parents. In short, I did what most parents do, I made it my business to be where they were, to communicate with them, to make them feel loved unconditionally. We had lots of tough times, and difficult talks. Thankfully there was no serious trouble. But I do believe that constant, regular communication is key to helping kids navigate a, sometimes, scary world.
It’s also important to empower kids to advocate for themselves. When my children had issues with friends, with a teacher, or with each other, I encouraged them to speak up. It’s important to be respectful and polite, but expressing their feelings can go a long way towards helping kids feel strong and capable. Negotiating with others fosters flexibility, creativity and teaches collaboration.
Today, my kids are all adults and they all live in different cities. It’s a challenge to keep in touch, but, somehow, we manage to communicate in some way every day. Sometimes it’s just a quick text, some days it’s many texts and some days we can actually have a real conversation on the phone. We talk about how important it is for us to be in each other’s lives. I know they don’t tell me everything and frankly, I don’t want to know everything anymore. But you know what? My kids are still the most interesting people I know. They have each dealt with their own unique challenges growing up. But really I believe that it’s part of the human condition to face the pains of each stage of life, and to rejoice over the joys that come with it. The same goes for parenting. We suffer our kids’ struggles and celebrate their successes. And if we’ve done our job, we send them out into the world to hopefully repeat the cycle.