Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nine Weird Steps to a Fantastic Thirteen-Year-Old Daughter

Awhile back, I posted something precious about Twelve on Facebook, and one of the comments was a semi-serious "How did you do it?"-type question. I've been sitting on the idea until now because I couldn't quite put my finger on how to explain what I've done that's made Twelve so totally awesome. I was thinking about it again yesterday, because my high schooler friend, A, came over for tea and a catch-up and I realized that she and Twelve are heading for similar experiences in early adulthood, when they realize that their peers are dunderheads. They are both ahead of the game right now - A particularly in academics, Twelve particularly in social awareness, and both in common sense and critical thinking more generally - and I suspect that they both expect on some level that eventually they will be in the company of equals.

I'm very sorry, ladies, but that's not going to happen.

For Twelve, the problem is that she's going to show up at the dorm with carefully chosen accessories and high hopes for meeting fun new people, only to realize that almost everyone else is socially awkward, insecure, and incapable of doing their own laundry. She'll be excited about the first party she's invited to, until she gets there and realizes that she had more fun with her mom's friends when she was thirteen. (True story: We were just sitting around comparing Sidecar recipes when she came out of her room and asked me if we could play Catchphrase. I said Sure, but only if you make it happen. Ninety seconds later, that red disk was making its way around the room, and it was an excellent party.) I've been very careful to expose her to just enough adult behavior to completely demystify it for her. I haven't let her taste alcohol yet, but I hope that her first drinking experiences are at home and I hope that she learns to appreciate the difference between good tequila and the well crap that you get for two bucks at college town bars.

For A, the problem is that she's going to show up in her first college classes with carefully selected required textbooks and high hopes for being challenged academically, only to realize that her written work is still getting perfect marks because she's a competent writer and the only student who actually grasped the point of the assignment. Go to the most academically rigorous school you can find, I told her, because even at the doctoral level at my state university I am praised for writing that I barely want to claim. She's also struggling to maintain her values, amongst peers who seem more concerned with the number of likes they accumulate on Instagram than things like human trafficking and global poverty.

Anyway, I was trying to identify some similarities in A's mother's parenting approach and mine, to maybe come up with a list of instructions, when I figured out the real answer, which is as follows:

How to Raise a Fantastic Thirteen-Year-Old Daughter

Step One: Be Successfully Nurtured. It's really hard to pass along what we haven't received. Possible, I suppose, but difficult. As I was just saying (wearing my Captain Obvious hat) to my sister in regards to my niece who just doesn't like strange people, it's good for her to be securely attached to her known caregivers. It's a pain in the ass, yes, because it's going to be a lot more work to help her learn to transition between situations, but it's infinitely better than the alternative.

Step Two: Be (or Become) Highly Educated. The mother's level of education is the single most significant predictor of individual success, period. As a bonus, attending college while your daughter is growing up means that she literally cannot conceive of life without higher education.

Step Three: Have Sufficient Financial Resources. Awhile back, some cutesy thing went around Facebook to the effect that the problem with kids today is that they need to learn to cook, clean their rooms, do their homework, go outside and play, etc, etc. To which I replied indignantly along the lines of (but with much gentler phrasing) Okay, now we just need to ensure that every child has a fully stocked kitchen, an appropriately furnished bedroom, schools that bother to assign homework and spaces at home in which to do it, and neighborhoods in which it is FUCKING SAFE TO BE OUTDOORS.

Step Four: Live in a Place with Excellent Infrastructure. You want well-funded fire and police departments, ample, safe, and convenient playgrounds, sidewalks, organic grocery stores, libraries, parks, and schools. A major state college town with lots of excellent public schools and at least three private schools is good, especially if your third grader can walk or ride her scooter to elementary school and then later, in a completely different neighborhood, bike to the fantastic small public middle school that's eighteen blocks away.

Step Five: Pick Private School. The first time you visit, Waldorf kindergarten classrooms seem completely and totally weird. Stick with it, though, because by about the third visit you cannot imagine how kindergarten could ever be any other way. The muted colors and natural materials somehow imbue the space with a kind of magic. For two years, I couldn't go in that room without tearing up a little bit, and every 'regular' kindergarten classroom I've seen since seems chaotic and harshly overstimulating. Never mind that it costs as much as college tuition; you may be eligible for a tuition adjustment that, in the words of Tim Farrington, brings "the cost of the grand gesture down from inconceivable to merely prodigal."

Step Six: Be and Breed White. White children find it much easier to fit in and feel normal; they are broadly represented everywhere, and don't have to bother to learn how to switch between multiple cultures to navigate home and public spaces.

Step Seven: Have Thin Genes. With thin genes, your child will never have to seriously worry about her size. She might show you a pinched flap of midriff and you might despair that she actually believes that the pictures in magazines actually look like that, but she'll fit into regular desks and regular airplane seats and find clothes that fit in regular stores. Exercise will be about becoming more athletic, and you can joke about turning into all those cupcakes you've eaten rather than worry about diabetes.

Step Eight: Be and Breed Beautiful. This is inextricably linked to steps Six and Seven; your daughter will have a snowball's chance of reaching Step Eight herself if you don't have thin genes and if you're not white or pretty close to looking like it. Symmetrical features and straight teeth are absolute musts; the latter can be faked with enough orthodontia, so you might get lucky there.

Step Nine: Provide Appropriate Costuming. Help your daughter dress the way she wants to be seen. If necessary, buy secondhand clothing to help her pass herself off as a child of a wealthier family, even if the peers she's emulating are backed by ten times your household income.

Okay, I'm sick of this exercise, so - like the people who collect a bunch of funny photos or clever household hints and then just count them and call it a headline - I'm stopping now, with no pretense to the list's comprehensiveness. I don't mean to suggest that I haven't contributed anything to Twelve's general awesomeness, because I'm sure I have. However, I'm equally sure that whatever actual advice I could come up with would be absolutely grounded in these fundamental realities. It's always been easy for me to encourage Twelve to be independent and capable, because our neighborhoods are safe and our infrastructure quite good.

Case in point: She made cupcakes from scratch yesterday, from ingredients and with equipment that are customarily present in our kitchen. She preheated the oven and used a portion scoop to distribute the batter into the hot pink zebra patterned cupcake papers she found in her Christmas stocking. I showed her the miraculous transformation of butter, vanilla, milk, and powdered sugar into frosting via KitchenAid (she really should have been more impressed). After the finished cakes cooled on the special baking cooling racks, she frosted them and added the several different kinds of decorative sprinkles.

Okay, so our kitchen isn't perfect; the baking soda jar was empty and she had to look up how much baking powder to use instead. She did that all on her own, now that I think about it, providing another handy example of how our kitchen's fundamental infrastructure allowed her to practice the kind of resourcefulness that will help her do things like checking the syllabus if she has a question about an assignment instead of emailing the professor in an incoherent panic at the last minute.

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