Archives for posts with tag: preteens

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This past weekend, my husband took our 12-year-old twin daughters camping and hiking in what has become an annual fall ritual we’ve come to call “Daddy Camping.” He takes our younger daughter for a similar outing each spring.

Martin started camping and hiking alone with the girls when they were three years old. When they go Daddy Camping, they climb mountains, eat a lot of marshmallows and don’t worry so much about things like vegetables or brushing their teeth. There is no homework brought along, no iPads, DS games or cellphones to play on.

After the first Daddy camping experience 9 years ago, one of his good friends decided to join the trip with his daughter. A year or two later, another dad and daughter combo joined in. This core group of four girls just started high school and their heads are full of sports teams, play auditions and friend dramas, but they were more excited than ever to head off together for this year’s Daddy Camping adventure.

Martin takes his hiking very seriously, and these girls (and their younger sisters in springtime) have hiked some serious peaks in Vermont, New Hampshire and upstate New York: Algonquin, Giant Mountain and in recent years Mount Washington and Franconia Ridge. Because they go in late September or October, they have encountered below freezing temperatures and snow. They bring down sleeping bags and winter coats, waterproof hiking boots and full body rain gear.

He calls this the Anti-Princess Training Program.

This year’s trip was particularly ambitious. They hiked slept in a lean-to in the Adirondack State Park, then awoke early to tackle Mount Colden on Saturday, a mostly rainy 13-mile, 11-hour roundtrip. One of the girls in the group has battled a fear of heights over the years, which has sometimes resulted in her not reaching the summit, but this year she made it all the way to the top. Her friends were so proud of her, and she was very proud of herself.

The next day, they did a second hike on their way home: a much flatter 10-mile hike at Indian Head, to a spectacular view of Ausable Lake. The girls were very tired and sore from the day before, feeling the effects of two nights’ sleeping outdoors. About 15 minutes from the top, some of them refused to go on. The dads understood. They were tired themselves, effects somewhat more magnified in their 40+ year-old bodies. The girls had already achieved so much and had every right to be pleased with their efforts.

But my husband was not satisfied. He has an amazing tolerance for physical discomfort and doesn’t always realize that others don’t share this. He urged our two girls to make the final push for the top, which they did (one of them somewhat reluctantly). But when they got there, they were stunned by the view. They sat down and share a break with their dad.

I like to imagine this time, just the three of them alone on a mountain peak without me there to narrate and annotate our experience in my usual chatty way. Martin is a man of few words. I’m pretty sure he didn’t waste any of them describing the view. They had a snack. Took some pictures. But this kind of togetherness doesn’t need to be verbalized to be real and important and memorable.

I know he was so proud of them for making that final push. I know they were proud of themselves for doing it. Pleased to have lived up to — perhaps even surpassed — his expectations. I know he didn’t say that aloud, just as I know he communicated it to them in some other way. A grunt, maybe. A nod.

When they climb mountains with their daughters, these dads are showing them so many rich and important things. At the most basic level, they get the experience of nature, appreciate the value of conservation and ecological awareness. They’ve learned about planning ahead, plotting their routes, registering with the warden’s office, bringing along enough water, food and snacks to keep them going. They have band aids, moleskin, first aid kits, extra socks, emergency survival blankets and flashlights with extra batteries (they’ve come back down from some hikes in the dark).

These girls are also learning that their dads value time with them. Research has demonstrated that fatherly affirmation (warmth, interest, support) has a measurable impact on teenage girls’ self-esteem, and on their ability to develop strong intimate relationships. There is also a connection between the relationships girls have with their fathers and how high they set their career goals, how well they deal with people in authority, maintaining good mental health, being self-reliant and willing to take on new challenges.

Our girls have learned important things about the strength and capabilities of their growing bodies. They are strong enough to carry themselves farther than they ever dreamed, to push themselves beyond new limits. Because even when you are tired and sore, and your knee is scraped and your ankle turned and your clothes wet, sometimes there’s still two more hours to cover to get back to the car. And you don’t feel like you can do it, but you can. And somehow you do.

The only way out is to push on through.

This is an endurance that is not just physical, but mental and emotional. Spiritual.

These are core values in building resilience: developing confidence, competence, control, connection.

And when it’s over, they have the memories. These last forever. They are special things they’ve shared with their dad that exclude me, and I love hearing them tell the stories of their hikes and campgrounds. The year they jumped into the lake with their clothes on. The lean-to that somehow had no bugs in it. The hike that ended so late they actually went to a restaurant for dinner instead of cooking on their campfire.

I’ve also heard these girls recount the stories of their epic climbs with their dads to other friends. They emphasize the grizzlier details (“And at the top, there’s a list of all the people who’ve died climbing Mount Washington”), finish each other’s sentences with details about sharp rocks, sudden snow. They compare different fire towers. Which climb had the worst weather. They take a peculiar pleasure in shared misery.

I like to think of these trips as a kind of glue. When the hormones rage in the coming years, the eyes roll, the battles ensue over skirt lengths and curfews and car keys, they’ll all be stronger for having collected these mountaintops together.

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Should your preschooler be taught about the dangers of smoking? Is kindergarten too young to start talking about alcohol? Does your 8-year-old need to learn about illegal drugs?

Parents often ask me whether it’s possible to give too much information about risky activities, or whether there are clear-cut rules on what kids of different ages should be taught. This is particularly a concern for parents with their younger children, who worry that having older siblings might expose them to this information before they are ready.

Hear are a few guidelines on how to handle this:

Talk: early, often, frankly. Instead of having the dreaded “Talk” about sex, smoking, drugs or alcohol when you feel your kid is ready to handle it, you should make talking frankly about these things fit into regular, on-going (age-appropriate) discussions from the time they are old enough to follow a conversation. See a “No Smoking” sign in a restaurant? Point it out. Someone uses the word “drunk” and she wants to know what it means, explain it using simple words (such as “When someone drinks too much wine or beer they act silly and can get into big trouble”).

Preschoolers should know that smoking is bad for your health. They should understand that we only take medicines that the doctor, a parent or trusted caregiver offers them to get better (small children may mistake colourful pills for candy, so this is an important one). They should start to learn your family’s values about drinking. Maybe you avoid all alcohol. Maybe you have a beer now and again. Maybe you drink wine to mark certain religious holidays or ceremonies.

Kids 5 and under should be taught the correct terms for their body parts, so they can speak up clearly if someone touches them inappropriately. It’s been suggested that pedophiles tend to avoid children who know the right words for body parts, because they are used to speaking frankly with their parents and thus more likely to report on the abuse.

School-aged children can be given more information about these things, and you should introduce knowledge about illegal drug use. They should also be given information about the physical and emotional changes of puberty, and have regular discussion about peer pressure. As they get older, you’ll need to provide more detailed information. We know kids as young as 9 or 10 can be gambling (poker or online) – discuss the risks when they are young enough to listen.

Keep their maturity level in mind when deciding how much detail to give: A child in second grade doesn’t necessarily need to know what pot or ecstasy are; a child in fifth grade really does. And if you find yourself talking too much and your kids’ eyes have started to glaze over in boredom, stop. Reassess. Pick it up later in a simpler way.

Listen: without judgment, for what they are really asking or trying to tell you, for insight into their concerns. Don’t go in with your own agenda. Don’t dominate the discussion. Make sure you are actually sure what they want to know before you bombard them with more information than they need.

Start with addressing their questions in simple terms. A four-year-old who wants to know if smoking can make you die doesn’t need to know about nicotine addiction or hear words like cancer or emphysema. They may simply be worried about a beloved uncle, and want reassurance that if he stops, he can get healthier. Or that there are doctors who can help him. Or that it’s really, really hard to stop smoking once you start, so we need to be patient.

Give information is small, easy-to-manage increments. Use age-appropriate words. If they ask questions and want to know more, it’s OK to follow their lead.

Inform yourself: Make sure you know what you’re talking about. There are many excellent books, pamphlets and websites for parents seeking to know more about teens and high-risk behaviors.

Parents sometimes worry about their children’s innocence, making them grow up prematurely with this information. But if you don’t tell them, they will learn from friends, television, music and the world around this. You can’t guarantee that they will get the correct information. More importantly, you missing the opportunity to provide your own values and moral framework.

Parents are sometimes shocked to learn how young kids are when they first experiment with smoking, drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling (typically grades 5, 6 and 7). Since we know that the younger kids are when they start, the higher the risk of developing problems, we need to try and put off that initial experimentation as long as possible (if not avoid it altogether).

According to the 2008 Quebec Survey on Smoking, Alcohol, Drugs and Gambling in High School Students conducted by L’insitut de la
statistique du Quebec, young people who experiment with smoking, alcohol, drugs or gambling had:

  • Their first cigarette at the age of 12.7 years (40% of kids will try smoking before high school)
  • Their first alcoholic beverage at the age of 12.6 years
  • Their first experience with marijuana at 13.4 years
  • Their first experience with gambling as early as 11.6 years.

Other research suggests that 7th grade is the typical starting point for experimentation with oral sex (which 40% of teens believe doesn’t qualify as “sex”).

And what about those younger siblings who seem to know way too much, way too soon? Truth is, there isn’t that much you can do about it if they have older siblings around. But instead of mourning their precociousness and premature loss of innocence, remember that knowledge is power. If your kids are well-informed, they are less likely to believe the rumours, dangerous half-truths and misinformation circulated in the schoolyard.

They will be better prepared to resist trying things that could get them into big trouble. And that, ultimately, is the goal we all need to keep in mind.

 

Had a fabulous time at the Montreal Families Magazine Parenting Workshop this past Sunday. We were thrilled to see a capacity crowd of concerned moms (and some dads) come out to hear me and study skills expert Carolyn Melmed speak on a gorgeous, sunny September afternoon.

A number of great questions came out of the audience after my presentation, some of which I’ve heard from parents before. I figure if one parent is wondering or worrying about something, chances are there are plenty of others out there with the same question, so I’m going to focus on them one at a time in upcoming blog posts. Today’s subject is a really common question – what is the right age to let our kids get Facebook accounts?

The answer to this depends on a few things — your child’s interest, maturity levels, responsibility, readiness as well as your personal values and comfort with technology. Just as it would be impossible to answer a question about what is the right age for learning how to read or developing an interest in romantic relationships, knowing when to let your kids onto Facebook depends on a number of factors.

First of all, Facebook itself has determined that kids under 13 should not become members, and they state this on their registration page. Getting around that is as simple as fudging the birth year information (which is always a good idea for privacy and identity theft reasons anyway), but parents have to feel comfortable with breaking this simple rule. Some parents are not.

Next you have ask what they intend to do on the site. If it’s mostly for the gaming, well, there are plenty of other games on the Internet (and on gaming systems), but the truth is that Facebook games are a relatively harmless way to spend time on the site. Raising virtual potatoes on Farmville is no one’s definition of risky behaviour.

If they want it because “everyone else has it,” I’m sympathetic but skeptical. First of all, not everyone has it, but an awful lot of kids do. And it’s hard (but not impossible or even inadvisable) to resist the tremendous adolescent social pressure to be like everyone else. I’ve only recently forgiven my parents for banning television on school days when I was a kid. Missing the previous evening’s broadcast of Charlie’s Angels certainly had repercussions in the schoolyard the next day, but my grades steadily improved without the distraction. And I turned out mostly OK.

How do you think your kids will manage its addictive powers? If you will have to constantly negotiate their time on Facebook, if it will cut into homework, face-to-face socialization, school, family time or reading, then think this through carefully. You may need to set up strict rules for when and how long they can be on. You will need to establish consistent consequences for breaking these rules. You will need to stick to them.

Talk to them about cyberbullying. Talk about respecting others, handling themselves with dignity. Discuss the fact that stuff on the Internet is impossible to erase. That things can be copied and forwarded an infinite number of times. They should never, ever post anything they wouldn’t want their teacher to see. Or their grandmother. Or their future boss. Or their future children.

Talk about how nuance and irony don’t play out so well in typed comments. It’s easy to misunderstand something that was meant to be a joke. They need to understand how they can easily hurt someone else through ignorance.

Are you concerned about your kids’ privacy online? You should be. Consider getting them to creatively misspell their name or use a pseudonym their friends will know. Set up a Google alert with this name too. Inform yourself about Facebook’s many privacy controls and stay abreast of new developments. Configure them to the highest degree of privacy, which still allows friends to view their posts and picture: for “only friends” (not “friends of friends”). I’m working on a post about how to do this, in case you don’t feel comfortable figuring it out on your own, so stay tuned.

Link their account to your email and keep a record of their password. Many kids resist this, but it’s a basic requirement in my eyes. You will get all notifications of friend requests, posts and tagged pictures. You will not need to read the vast majority of them (which would be a chore), but you will be able to monitor their activity quite easily.

Insist they friend you. And never, ever comment on their walls or posts. Having a parent is just too embarrassing for words when you are 12 or 14, so respect that.

Occasionally review their home feeds (also called news feeds) with them. Not as a punishment or lecture, but as a conversation. What are their friends talking about? What kind of language is used? Does anything make them or you uncomfortable? Talk about that.

As time goes on, and they demonstrate consistent responsibility, they can earn more and freedom. You will need to do these things less often. They can earn their privacy, their passwords, the right to link their account to their own email. Don’t abuse the freedom you are given, but keep a close eye until you feel confident they are capable of handling themselves appropriately.

All of this begs the question: “What is risky behaviour?” In a nutshell, it’s activities that could potentially lead to harm, both for your child or those around them. It can interfere with other normal activities in their lives. It can cause them to make poor choices. It can be immoral, illegal or unhealthy.

So where would Facebook fit into that definition?

One research study found that spending time on Facebook tends to lower kids’ grades, promote narcissistic tendencies and lead to anxiety and depression. But the same study also found that the social media site can help kids hone their empathetic tendencies by offering each other support online. They also found it could help introverted teens learn how to interact with others in a way that made them feel more comfortable.

There are a lot of reasons why parents might not want their kids on Facebook until they feel they are old enough. Some parents just try to delay it as long as possible. There is so simple pat answer to this question.

What did I do? Well, as I wrote in this Montreal Families Magazine article, I allowed my twins to sign on to Facebook when they were 11 years old. My husband and I felt we could use it as an opportunity to regularly monitor what they were up to (11-year-olds are far more compliant than 13-year-olds, as a general rule), and it would open many possibilities for discussion and dialogue. Which it has. We’ve been very happy with this decision. But our 8-year-old is a different kid, requiring a different set of parenting strategies, and we aren’t so sure the same approach will work for her down the line.

You need to find your own comfort zone. You need to explain your rational to your child. And you need to maintain a careful eye on how they are handling this tremendous responsibility.

I’m really excited to be a featured speaker this Sunday at Montreal Families Magazine’s first ever Parenting Workshop, along with study skills and homework expert Carolyn Melmed. Space is filling up fast, so if you’ll be in Montreal this weekend, click on the link above and reserve your seat now.

I thought it might be useful to offer readers a quick overview of what I’ll be covering. Called “The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviours,” I’ll be talking about why it’s never too early to prepare your child to deal with the many confusing and conflicting messages they get concerning high-risk activities. What does smoking have to do with your preschooler? Why would you worry about Facebook or drinking alcohol if your kid is in grade 2? And if you already have a high schooler, I’ll talk about why it’s not too late to put prevention strategies into play.

To better understand the answers to these questions, I’ll be offering an overview of what high-risk activities are, and providing surprising information on when kids first start experimenting with them. I’ll be talking about the current research on children’s and adolescent’s brain development, and how understanding how their minds work can help us better tailor our prevention strategies. I’ll provide specific, concrete and practical age-based strategies for how to prepare your kids, so that they are better able to resist peer and media influence and develop important coping strategies. Worried your teen is already in trouble? I will tell you what your options are for seeking help. I will also point parents towards online resources for more specific information on different risk activities.

Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested in learning more about thinking ahead.

Can’t make it this Sunday? Not in Montreal? Interested in bringing me in to speak to parents or teachers at your child’s school or community centre? Email me at alissasklar@hotmail.com to discuss the range of workshops I can offer for parents, educators and students on high risk behaviours, Internet safety and more.

8:45 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a day I knew I’d never forget.

My two-year-old twins were heading off for their very first day of preschool. They had their lunches packed, the backpacks full of extra clothes, wipes and smocks for painting. I was more emotionally wound up than they were, and I was almost disappointed when they just kissed me goodbye, and walked hand in hand into their very first day of school.

The only tears were my own, and I desperately, sheepishly blinked them back. There were no pudgy arms clutching at my legs, no high little girl voices begging me to take them home. I was proud of their determination, but not quite used to the idea that my baby girls might be growing up.

I got in my car, a tangle of conflicted emotions, and turned on the radio.

It was 9 a.m. September 11, 2001.

When the first reports of trouble in New York trickled in, I didn’t think much of it, preoccupied as I was by my own microdrama. Then the  announcer mentioned the World Trade Center, and I thought about my brother, whose law firm was in the process of moving their offices into one of the towers. I called my mom, who hadn’t heard anything. She couldn’t reach his cellphone, but we weren’t yet alarmed.

I stopped for coffee with a friend, asking the teenage barista to turn the radio over to CBC, and we stared at each other in horror as news of a second plane hitting the towers was reported. I ran home to keep trying to reach my brother. No answer. Cellphone service was in chaos.

Like everyone I knew, I watched the world implode upon a TV screen. I couldn’t breathe. The sheer scale of hatred, of callousness, of remorseless cruelty was astonishing. It was impossible that this destruction, this pain was being played out live on camera. It was unthinkable that we had to just sit there and watch. But we did. We couldn’t turn away even when the images burned into our eyes, seared themselves into our minds.

We were witnesses to the murders; our very witnessing the catalyst for it happening. A spectacle laid out in living colour for the hungry eyes of our cameras.

It took a couple of hours to track down my brother. His firm’s move had been postponed because of construction delays. Only a few people had been moved over to the World Trade Center that morning; one woman from their office died.

My daughters have an uncle today because of construction delays. They have three cousins. Construction delays.

I remember thinking, with typical shortsightedness, how lucky I was to have children too young to understand what was happening. Two-year-olds don’t watch the news or scan the front page of the newspaper in a daily race for the weather and comics. I was almost giddy with relief. How on earth could a parent ever explain this to a child?

I forgot that they wouldn’t be two forever. That I would have to explain over and over again as they grew how such a thing could happen. Their innocence waning as their capacity to comprehend expanded. Every time we saw a picture of the towers. Heard about the memorials. Each time we visited New York City.

Every September.

I didn’t realize that I would have to give answers to unanswerable questions. To the two-year-olds who are now 12. To their little sister, whose very existence I hadn’t even foreseen that morning ten years ago. To my future grandchildren.

We will be searching for those answers for many, many years. Forever. Like the Holocaust, and Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and Tiananmen Square, but newer and closer and fresher. With really good production values.

Teaching our kids about the grim side of human nature is never an easy thing to do. In the olden days we had dark inflections to our nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We had cradles that fell and witches in the woods who ate errant children, desperate girls who cut off their toes to fit the prince’s glass slipper.

We don’t do that anymore. We’ve scrubbed our stories, sanitizing the imaginary preschool world the same way we Purell their little hands. Have you ever watched the original Disney versions of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty? Tiana and Arielle wouldn’t last a day in their world.

When natural disasters occur and people die, we can point to the arbitrary and unpredictable whims of nature. It’s upsetting, but somehow we feel we can contain our children’s fears through education and action. But terrorism, war, mass murder, school massacres? That’s a whole other story.

I wish I could say I have the answers here, but I don’t. The truth is, I still don’t know what to say to my girls about September 11th. I tried to dole out the nuggets of information sparingly when they were younger, offered some context as they got older and learned more on their own. But I knew some time ago that I couldn’t protect them from knowing any more. And I shouldn’t. The plump, smiling toddlers smiling innocently into the camera at the exact moment the first plane fell out of the sky have morphed into tall, lithe preteens. They cringe and reluctantly agree when I ask to take their picture on the first day of high school.

I can only hold them close as long as they let me and hope they get more from remembering that day than the fear and hatred that made it possible in the first place.

There’s a lot of sex to be found on the Internet.

Pretty much everything you’ve ever thought of, and lots of things you’ve never dreamed of, have their own dark, sweaty corner in a website somewhere. And teens are pretty good at finding these places. So are adults, for that matter, but at least they are comfortably over the age of consent and have (hopefully) developed the good judgment to process what they see.

What you don’t always find online — or in most places in Western culture — is frank, honest discussion of human sexuality, with all its permutations, challenges and pleasures. French theorist Michel Foucault noted that despite all the constant buzz about sex, we actually are quite repressed since we never really talk about sex.

Which is why I really love this site for teens: www.scarleteen.com

Scarleteen is an independent, grassroots sexuality education and support organization and website, facilitated and staffed by a wide diversity of adult and teen writers and educators. They offer an amazing set of resources in their static content, hundreds of up-to-date articles on all sorts of issues.  They have an opt-in/ opt-out policy on information, so it’s all there, from abortion to contraception to LGBTQ; that means users are independently able to seek out what they want to know more about, and steer clear of material they might find offensive.

They provide ongoing mentoring and guidance for their volunteers, many of whom help moderate the interactive portion of the site, offer offline teen outreach and support, primarily through sexual/reproductive health clinics, community and school groups and teen homeless/transitional shelters in and around Seattle, Washington.

They’ve published a book, called S.E.X.: The Scarleteen Book by Heather Corinna (also available through Amazon), the description of which reads:

Covering everything from STIs to sexual orientation, body image to birth control, masturbation to misogyny, the anatomy of the clitoris to considering cohabitation, and written for you whether you’re male, female or genderqueer; straight, gay or somewhere in between, this is the everything-you-need, comprehensive, progressive sexuality guide to get you through high school, college and maybe even the rest of your sex life.

There are so many cool, interesting, informative and helpful sections to this website that every teen and parent should have it bookmarked. The fact that the information is put out there without moral judgment or hidden agenda is pretty awesome, since teens are really good at tuning out when the lecturing and moralizing begins. And since the whole point is keeping them (and ourselves) informed so we can make healthy choices at difficult times, Scarleteen.org is an example of how the Internet can work for the forces of good.

Check it out.

Creative Commons license CarbonNYCTwo nights ago my twin daughters, along with 46 classmates, graduated from their elementary school. The occasion involved a morning service, with breakfast for families, along with an evening program of graduate speeches (in which each kid had their own 45-second speech presented in three languages), handing out of diplomas, dinner and dancing.

A full day of celebration, an emotional, full-pack-of-Kleenex affair for a sentimental person like me. Our babies had  grown so much and so far, and damned if we weren’t going to mark it properly.

Now I’ve had six graduations of my own over the years, and I can tell you that none were as involved and exhaustively detailed as this ceremony sending 11 and 12-year-olds off to high school.

That being said, there is something particularly momentous about the move from primary to secondary school, especially here in Canada where we don’t have middle schools. In some ways, it is probably a bigger deal than going from high school to college. They are leaving the institution they entered as baby-faced four-year-olds, moving on in awkward new bodies to schools where they will now be the youngest. They may have 12-year-old minds and accumulated good judgment, but some will already look 16. Or even 18.

The range of issues they will contend with will be bigger, with more serious consequences for poor judgment. They will be expected to assume responsibility for their own actions, solve their own problems, make their own important decisions. They will be tempted by new influences, by cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and sexual activities. They will reach the age of medical consent (14 in most cases in Quebec, 16 in most other provinces), and the age of sexual consent (16 across Canada, between 16 and 18 across the U.S.). They will be allowed to drive cars, vote and join the military.

It’s one of the trite sayings of parenthood that little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems. When you have a six-year-old who isn’t yet reading, or a seven-year-old who has no friends, this seems to ignore the gut-wrenching worry parents may experience. But it makes sense, because it takes into account the consequences of these problems: the six-year-old (most of the time) will be seen to by parents, teachers and resource personnel who can make his problem go away, and the seven-year-old will most likely (sometimes with supervision) find her counterpart somewhere in the schoolyard. But the fifteen-year-old who decides to try ecstasy or heroin “just once” may end up in a downward spiral of legal, medical, social and academic problems that can haunt him for a lifetime.

The last unit my daughters’ amazing English teacher, Stacey, taught this group of grade 6’ers before the end of the year was on drug awareness. They read the controversial, classic novel Go Ask Alice, did multimedia presentations on common drugs, had powerful visits from some rehabilitated teenage drug addicts doing community service and, separately, from two wonderful police officers. In her graduation speech to the class and their families last night,  she reminded them, as they headed off on the next exciting chapter of their young lives, to ask with each new opportunity, each difficult decision, “Does this fit in with who I am?”

I thought this was brilliant. This simple sentence crystallizes exactly what we want our children to learn. It asks them to listen to that emerging inner voice, the collective wisdom of one’s experiences, advice from parents and teachers. The voice we all have, and sometimes — often to our own detriment — ignore (that second slice of pizza, that third martini, that guy at the party…). It encourages our kids to think about who they want to be, what core values they want to espouse. It evokes the family and communities that help flesh out our identities. It means respecting yourself.

I know plenty of adults who might want to keep this important question handy as they go about their daily lives.

So for all the graduates out there  (and parents of graduates), whether moving from  middle school to high school, university to grad school or even considering making a leap from an unsatisfying job, consider keeping that question filed away, but close enough at hand for quick reference:”Does this fit in with who I am?”

Abercrombie & Fitch, the American clothing retailer infamous for its highly sexualized and occasionally racist advertising, recently revised the description on its Abercrombie Kids‘ line of triangle bathing suit tops  from “push-up” to “lightly padded.” (Watch CNN coverage of this subtle marketing shift here.) Asking why girls and pre-teens need to push up what they don’t actually have seems kind of pointless when you look at the image they’ve chosen to illustrate the swimwear line: a headless, extremely thin young woman with boobs. Nothing girlish about that body.

And that’s exactly the point.

These “lightly padded” string bikini tops are all about giving the illusion of boobs. Apparently this is desirable in third grade, because that’s who is being targeted. Abercrombie is a repeat offender here; in 2002, they bowed to public pressure and pulled a line of girls’ bikini and thong underwear printed with slogans like “eye candy” and “wink wink.”

It’s easy to point a finger at Abercrombie, but it’s clearly not just them. A recently released study of children’s clothes for sale in 15 popular U.S. stores found a full 30% qualified as sexualized (meaning it emphasized a sexual body part, had characteristics associated with sexiness or had sexually suggestive writing).

Why is this a problem? Well, it teaches kids that their own bodies should be judged by the narrow standards of others – according to very rigidly defined ideas of beauty and desirability. This kind of self-identification is consistently linked with depression, low self-image, low self confidence and body dissatisfaction. Kids learn that their bodies are for the pleasure of others — but only if they fit into these very strict, highly idealized parameters.

It also encourages kids to display their bodies in sexual ways years before they have the maturity, judgment and experience to handle to responses they will generate from others.

The American Psychological Association published a report in 2007 on the “broad and increasing problem of the sexualization of girls,” in which they listed the potential areas of negative fallout: cognitive and emotional consequences, mental and physical health, sexual well-being, attitudes and beliefs, impact on others and on society.

Among their recommendations, they suggest parents and educators use instances of sexualized ads and articles of clothing to talk to their kids about what they see. They also suggest positive alternatives to sexualization, including a focus on physical fitness, intelligence, cultural diversity and social sensitivity. Finally, it makes sense for parents to speak up when they see something objectionable in a store.

References: Goodin S et al (2011). “Putting on” sexiness: a content analysis of the presence of sexualizing characteristics in girls’ clothing. Sex Roles; DOI 10.1007/s11199-011-9966-8

Your messages are waiting.

My newly minted 8-year-old chose today as her mental health day. I give each of my girls one “free” day a year, when they get to take off school and hang out with me, doing whatever they like. It can get a bit complicated with my work schedule, but basically they get most of the day to sleep in, get more than their usual 30 minutes allotment of daily screentime, go for lunch, a walk with the dog, a trip to the library, etc.

It can be a bit of a challenge to fit in one-on-one time with three kids, so this is a little bonus for all of us. One day a year may not seem like much, but it does feel very special when it finally comes round.

So my little one and I hung around the house all morning, and I have to admit that I squeezed in some work on the computer while she parked her brain in front of the Family channel. I did feel a teeny bit guilty about this, but she was very happy to have uninterrupted access to the TV for a bit.

She chose a nice brunch type place for lunch and when we were handed the menus, my cellphone buzzed. She rolled her eyes and looked frustrated.

“Promise me no talking or texting during our lunch.”

Ouch. That hurt. I know I’m a bit of a Crackberry addict, but here it was out of the mouths of babes.

I promised her not to touch it, and I put it in my purse so the blinking red light wouldn’t torment me through the meal. It was really, really hard not to pick it up. But I managed it. And we had a great conversation about turning 8 and what she’s been reading and we squeezed in several rounds of hangman on our Nutella-stained paper placemats (I take my kids to the fanciest places.)

But her insightful comment made me think about the whole phenomenon of “half-attention,” where our parenting time gets diluted into the “hmmmmms?” and “reallys?” and “OKs” we dole out while our brains are actually tuned into the email or Facebook feeds on our cellphones.

Kids pick up on this from a very young age. They know when mom or dad is not really paying attention. And very soon, dear parents, often sooner than you think, they will have their own cellphones. And when you ask them what happened at school that day, they will answer “hmmmmm?” while typing madly on their own screens.

Ask yourself:

  • How often are you talking on your cellphone when your kids are in the car, instead of talking to them?
  • Do you allow your telephone to disturb you during family dinners?
  • Do you check your email and/or Facebook or Twitter feeds while watching your kid’s soccer game, hanging out at the playground or taking them out to restaurants?
  • Do your children or spouse ever have to ext you to get your attention, even when you are all under the same roof?
  • Have you recently found yourself looking at your phone instead of your child while s/he is talking to you?
  • Have you ever looked up from your phone to realize your kid had given up on your attention and wandered off to do something on their own, and you didn’t even notice?
  • Or worse, especially with little kids: Have you ever looked up from your phone to find they have gotten themselves in an unsafe situation, an altercation with another kid, or just taken off without you?

If you’ve answered yes to two or more, you might want to think about the impact your cellphone habits are having on your family relationships. After all, you are ultimately the one in control, and it is possible to turn it off, or down or put it away during key moments. Because your messages will still be waiting for you after dinner, or your daughter’s swim meet, or the playground.

So. Despite all of our efforts at managing risk, one of my older daughters managed to break her foot in two places. All of our lecturing on cigarettes, slathering of sunscreen, wearing of helmets, lifejackets, proper footwear and eating of green vegetables couldn’t have prevented this accident. She collided with another girl during a spirited game of schoolyard Champ (a ball game) and tripped over her foot. (She is my daughter after all, and has apparently inherited my grace and coordination…).

Because stuff happens. And you can’t put them in a protective bubble.

The unfortunate part of the story is my own. She actually broke her foot last Wednesday, but we only took an x-ray on Monday. She came home complaining of pain, and her foot was pretty badly bruised. But she’s a very stoic child and asked for nothing more than an Advil now and again. She walked almost normally and there wasn’t any real swelling. So we figured it wasn’t anything terrible. Bad mommy.

By Saturday, I realized she had been taking a lot of Advil. I called our clinic and they said we might as well just come on Monday, since the radiologist report would have to go to our own doctor, unless we wanted to go to the Montreal Children’s Hospital ER. Um, no thanks. She was more or less comfortable and not anxious to spend 8 hours in a room full of coughing, vomiting kids.

The good news is that this particular kind of break (on the 4th and 5th metatarsals) is very stable and needs nothing more than 2 weeks in closed, stiff-soled shoes. No cast in the 30 degree heat. No crutches to go up and down the 3 floors in their non-wheelchair accessible school. Whew. This really was a lucky break.

As we sat outside the radiology clinic, she and I talked about the stuff that happens in life. How some stuff is avoidable, mostly through planning, prevention and good judgment. And some things are just random accidents, arbitrary twists of fate or bad luck. She was so strong and calm, even in the face of a break that could potentially derail all our family plans for the summer, and keep her out of the lake in a hot, itchy cast. I felt so proud of this level-headed, sweet, smart girl, on the verge of her 12th summer.

Crazy as it sounds, I wouldn’t have traded those few stressful hours together for anything. We kept looking at each other and saying everything would be OK. And, at least this time, it looks like we were both right.