Ten years ago, when I was the somewhat bewildered, sleep-deprived mother of infant twins, my bedside table was piled high with books on new motherhood: on nursing, sleep, and those all-important first three years. Confronted with a new situation, I immersed myself in the literature, sticky notes handy, and read until I felt like I had all the facts, or at least enough facts to reinforce my intuition.
Now as my twin girls take their first steps into adolescence, I find I am sometimes as unprepared and overwhelmed as a new mom, except that instead of colic and problems latching on — seemingly straightforward issues with available solutions and demonstrable results — I worry that my response to the occasional eye-roll will land them in therapy, or that their schoolyard squabbles will lead them to worse. Already, we’ve had tears over mean-girl stuff and at least one conversation in which I heard my own mother’s voice say, “Really, you’re wearing that?” Again I feel as I did when I first brought them home: “How do I not screw this up?” I want to raise happy, confident girls, but how?
Search “parenting teen girls” on the web and there are more than 300 books from which to choose. Books with unnerving titles like Get Out of My Life, But First Will You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?; I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You; Yes, Your Teen is Crazy!: Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind. The words “survival” and “anger” often appear on the covers. Others are packaged like playbooks, offering strategy and inside information: what you need to know, what she wishes she could tell you, how to talk to your girls. In the same way that imagining where the trajectory of heavy sighs and eye-rolls could lead, even the titles of some of these books are frightening to contemplate. Yet again, my bedside table is stacked high. I’m searching for answers, but after ten years as a mom, I know better than to think the answers will be simple.
It’s not like there’s a manual. Or is there? The closest thing I’ve found is You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25. At more than 400 pages, Laurence Steinberg’s reference book, first published in 1990 and updated/re-released in paperback earlier this year (its 9th edition), offers reassuring heft and no-nonsense advice in the way that Your Baby and Child did for me back in the diaper days. Steinberg, one of the world’s leading authorities on adolescent development, is a Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University. The book is organized in such a way that it’s easy to reference: The Basics, followed by three sections, Pre-Adolescence and Early Adolescence, Middle Adolescence, and Late Adolescence to Adulthood. It’s grounded in a body of social science research that spans 75 years and offers an excellent introduction to the basic principles of parenting a teen.
The good news, says Steinberg, is that these principles are the same regardless of the profile of your modern family (single parent, two parents, step-parents, same-sex parents, no parents) or the sex or age of the child. He’s not condescending, nor is he overly prescriptive. There are no case studies here, and very little opinion that isn’t backed up by research. There are dos and don’ts along with the acknowledgement that “nobody is a perfect parent.” I found it to be comforting yet authoritative, a here’s-what you-need-to-know book.
In The Basics, the headings would make a great Sarkesque poster on How to Really Love a Teenager.
Start with love and trust.
Spend time together.
Spend time alone together.
Share your own feelings and concerns.
Trust your child.
Treat your child with respect.
Use humor, but use it wisely.
I’m hooked. Armed with this book, I feel smart, capable, understood. After its intro, the book takes a number of way-beneath-the-surface dives. Sex. Ego. Friends. Cliques. Drugs. Understanding the teenage brain. In just a few pages, it seems to offer as much or more concrete advice and information as entire books on any one of these subjects.
It’s full of pearls, too, the kind you want to write on a slip of paper and post somewhere so that you remember. A section about arguing in the pre-teen chapter, reminds us in boldface type to “keep in mind that you want to raise a curious, inquisitive, independent individual.”
And that’s the point, isn’t it?
But for all its usefulness and well-honed wisdom, this is a reference book, and it’s not one I want to curl up with and read for hours. It’s not that cozy. I can’t bear to think about puberty, playground squabbles, and fear of math in one afternoon, although that’s what parenting pre-teens sometimes requires. So I’ll keep it handy, with especially useful sections flagged with post-its.
What Steinberg’s book shows me most clearly is that there are certain issues that only seem to exist between mothers and daughters. Issues that a book like Deborah Tannen’s You’re Wearing That? addresses so artfully. One recent morning, as the girls came down the stairs dressed and ready for school, I heard those exact words coming out of my mouth. In my mother’s voice. I think I gripped the railing for a second. I did not think, “Remember that you want to raise confident, inquisitive human beings.” I thought, “No way can she leave the house like that.” Clio was wearing pink-and-green camo, head to toe — including a fuzzy pink camo jacket a friend of ours bought for her that, even on its own, is for me a bit over the top. And the pants were too tight. That’s not just my opinion. The pants were too tight.
I’m not winning any awards for my fashion sense any time soon, and Clio, who wants to be a fashion designer, is well aware of this. In fact, that particular morning I was wearing my pajamas, having overslept a bit. The coffee had not quite kicked in as I attempted to find a more diplomatic way to suggest a different outfit. I also felt keenly aware at the time that an additional obstacle to the desired outcome — sending a happy (and appropriately clothed) child to school — was that any advice or suggestion coming from me, however well intentioned, might be met with resistance for the simple fact that it was coming from me. My girls are, after all, heading into pre-teens. The eye-rolls have begun.
Tannen, also the author of You Just Don’t Understand: Men in Women in Conversation and You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout their Lives, is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, not a child psychologist, but someone who deconstructs conversations and their meanings. You’re Wearing That? is based on her research, combined with case studies and conversations between moms and daughters that Tannen observed over a period of time.
In the case of the clothing conversation, what I understood later when reading Tannen’s book is that my reaction most likely stemmed less from wanting Clio to be dressed appropriately for her own sake than from my own desire to be viewed as a good mother. Tannen writes,
Each sees the other as representing her to the world, and women are overwhelmingly judged by appearance. This is especially urgent for mothers, because once a woman becomes a mother, her value — in the eyes of the world and often in her own eyes as well — resides largely in how she fulfills that role. And her children’s appearance is only one of many criteria by which she is judged. This is true regardless of how successful she is in any other realm.
According to Tannen, clothing choices, along with weight and hair, are the “big three” between mothers and daughters. Later in life, depending on the relationship, the daughter’s partner choices and parenting skills are added to the list.
I was about halfway through Tannen’s book when I realized I had begun reading more from a daughter’s perspective than a mother’s. As an awkward pre-teen and teenager, I thought my mother was extremely critical of, well, just about everything about me. Tannen’s book reminded me to at least try to appreciate the motivation behind my mother not letting me wear jeans to the seventh and eighth grade dances I attended, or curling my (already curly) hair every morning with a curling iron, or, when I was in my early twenties, insisting I put on some eyeliner. At one such dance, she pulled me aside, along with a friend whose mother had mortified her by making her wear a dress, and said, proudly, “See how classy you girls look? You’re the most well dressed girls here.” We did not have a lot of money — we almost always shopped for our clothing at a place called House of Bargains — but she was right in that I was always well put together. It wasn’t until I read Tannen’s words, and considered what I, as a working single mother, might be projecting on Clio, that I saw my mom’s criticism in a different, more compassionate light.
Actually, according to Lauren Kessler, none of what I’m experiencing is new. “The descent from mother-goddess to mother-demon is a predictable, well-documented narrative, as predictable as the descent from sweet little girl to moody, mercurial teenager,” remarks Kessler in the opening pages to her book, My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence, her own incisive and cogent book about parenting teenagers, which begins with a scene of her seventh grade daughter, Lizzie, coming home surly from school while Kessler struggles to communicate with her. (In the interest of full disclosure, Lauren Kessler was my graduate adviser, and her daughter, Lizzie, whose middle school years are the subject of the book, used to babysit for my werewolves-in-training.) In Kessler’s words, here’s why she wrote the book:
And so I set myself a challenge: I would figure out who this girl I lived with really was and how to forge a lasting, loving bond between us — even in the midst of the Sturm und Drang of her teen years. To do this, I would immerse myself in her world. I would read everything I could, from gimmicky advice books to feminist treatises to neurological studies on the teen brain. I would interview teachers, doctors, therapists, coaches, camp counselors, teens and, of course, mothers, scores and scores of mothers. I would be part journalist, part cultural anthropologist. I would be Margaret Mead in middle school.
I would walk through fire for my daughters, but I’m not sure I have it in me to go back to middle school. Thankfully Kessler does, and she takes us there. The primary difference between the first two books and My Teenage Werewolf is that it is told through story, Kessler’s story, not decades of research or case studies or composites of conversations. She goes to middle school. She goes on vacation with Lizzie. She goes to camp. She experiences Lizzie’s infatuation with IM and Myspace, her first dates, and her daughter’s choices of clothing with the eye of a mother and a researcher.
Like Steinberg, Kessler draws on the existing research on the teen brain, the ego, sex, and everything else as she visits these strange lands and explores her relationship with her daughter. She shares what she’s learned, weaving the research into her story. It’s one thing to impart useful or interesting information. It’s another thing to do so in a way that resonates, introducing the reader to characters so very human, making us laugh or cry, keeping us turning pages well past bedtime to find out what happens next. This book did that for me.
Elsewhere, in an essay on writing, Kessler theorizes that “writers must be willing to be (and stay) confused, to not rush in to make sense of things prematurely so that we can feel in control. We must keep our questions and our expert information and our egos in check as we open ourselves to the experience of the lives we are trying to chronicle.” We take the same journey as mothers — and in both cases, it’s not easy.
So, in the spirit of opening myself to the experience of parenting my two pre-teens, I’m going to toss out Get Out of My Life and Yes, Your Teen is Crazy. While I’m not naïve enough to think those feelings won’t come up, my relationship with my girls doesn’t have to be cast in that light. For now, I know that when the going gets tough and I need to know I’m not alone, I’ll read Steinberg, Tannen and Kessler’s books again, an essential trio of support for parenting teenage girls.