Monday, April 22, 2013

On Compensatory Skills [or] "Sorry about your penis!"

One of the follow-up assignments to Twelve's DC trip is a scrapbook, and Twelve has done approximately eleven times more work than is absolutely necessary on hers. Normally, I am not in favor of doing more work than one has to do to get an A on assignments, but in this case I am all for it: It is the first time that Twelve has really gone all out on a school assignment. 

She actually failed a Science Inquiry project last year, I think, or at least scored so low she might as well have failed. She has gotten better about doing her homework this year, and has brought her GPA up to cum laude range, but she still doesn't really dig in and do her best.

For her scrapbook, though, she started weeks ago, poring through files of photos to select the ones she wanted and hassling me to get them printed. She sorted her pamphlets and ticket stubs by day and then did the same with the photos. She labeled things with sticky notes. She typed out her captions, journal entries, and page headings. We discussed ad nauseum which color of card stock she would use for the pages and argued about whether or not we needed to buy more page protectors (we didn't) and what size binder she'd need (I was right). We perused the craft store aisles for relevant stickers, which luckily were on sale.

She had a vision of the finished product and she knew how to go about realizing it. 

Seventh graders for whom scrapbooking comes naturally don't arise in a vacuum, however. Twelve comes by it legitimately because her grandmother invented it. Okay, so that's probably not accurate, but women in our family have been assembling scrapbooks long before you could just go to the store and buy coordinated scrapbooking crap and then just assemble it according to the directions. Back in the day, my mom used regular paper, regular scissors, and plain ol' markers to commemorate our lives. Somewhere, my siblings and I each have multiple scrapbooks - the first few are even housed in the kind of books with pages that when you peel back the clear plastic, the pages are somehow sticky but not actually sticky.

(Quick, someone turn magnetic photo pages into a meme that pithily illustrates how we're all getting older! Yes, it *has* been that many years since that movie was made, because that is the way time works.)

I have personally refused to get into the whole scrapbooking thing on the grounds that I don't have another room in my house or hours in the week to devote to it, but it's still part of Twelve's worldview because my mom maintains a Memory Book for her (I suspect that my mother realized that if it was going to be done, she'd have to be the one to do it, but it is a lovely grandmother/granddaughter thing nonetheless). It's now on its second volume. And my sewing room's rotary cutter, mat, and rulers work just as well for papercrafting as they do for fabric, so our house isn't completely devoid of scrapbooking potential. What all this boils down to is that Twelve is good at it.

When I was a kid, our household was heavily influenced by a child psychologist dude named Dr. James Dobson and his organization, Focus on the Family. He is, of course, a staunch conservative Christian anti-equality, anti-choice activist and his organization follows suit, but I didn't know any better until years later so I read all his books when Twelve was little. I'm sure I'd disagree with most of it now, but one of his points still sticks with me and I think is probably sound: Being good at something is good for a children's self esteem. That way, if they find themselves being picked on for being fat, bad at sports, wearing glasses, or whatever, they have something concrete to hang on to. It's the childhood equivalent of a minimally endowed, insecure-as-hell guy driving a huge pickup that makes him feel better about himself.

(A former roommate told me that she was once waiting for a tow truck on a highway and hollered "Sorry about your penis!" out the window at such a truck as it passed by. I have mentally yelled that at large trucks for about a decade now.)

Now, of course as an academic feminist I'd argue that the responsibility for solving this problem lies with the society that constructs fat, nonathletic, corrective lens wearers as second class citizens, but as a parent I need solutions that are a bit less esoteric. Unless we organized and mobilized ourselves to an unprecedented degree, parents can't stop other people's children from picking on ours, but we can talk to our children about how people treat each other and help them learn a compensatory skill.

I was thinking about this today because a fellow doctoral candidate friend emailed me that her thirteen year old daughter is having body image issues. I don't have a ton to offer on this subject, since body image is not a huge deal for Twelve, as far as I can tell. She makes the occasional comment about not liking her legs because they are fat, to which I am never quite comfortable responding. Twelve's legs are, objectively, just fine. They are not too fat, but they are also not super skinny.  I figure that I can't tell her they're thin enough without reinforcing the beauty ideal, and I can't agree with her because that reinforces the beauty ideal and also makes me a huge jerk. So I just tell her they're fine and change the subject - mentioning the phrase 'the social construction of beauty ideals' almost always does the trick.

So, all I could say to this friend was to suggest that she explain to her daughter that
... the only reason that she doesn't like her body is because movies, tv, and magazines have taught her that her body is not okay, and then explain that the media's definition of an acceptable body is unrealistic and just plain faked. And then work with her to find something that she really likes and can become really good at, which will help her feel good about herself for real and not just because of how she looks.
I don't know if Twelve's scrapbook skills are going to translate into a career path or make her feel better about her legs, but I am absolutely positive that it's been a great experience and I'm thrilled that she's had it. She now knows what it's like to envision a complex project with many steps and make it happen over a period of time. Honestly? I don't know if I can do that particularly well and they're going to give me a Ph.D. pretty soon.

Note: For those of you hetero cismen who thought this was going to be about how to please your sexual partner even though your penis is tiny, I apologize. Please do keep looking, though - there's a lot of good stuff on the internet and you surely aren't the first dude who needed a bit of help finding the clitoris. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

In Response to the Boston Marathon Bombings

On the rare occasions when we hear a helicopter in our town, I remind Twelve that she is incredibly privileged to live in a place where the sound of something flying overhead is a novelty - even something that one might even try to get a better look at. It's not a cause for alarm; we don't worry that bombs will be dropped or seek shelter. Being the targets of bombings in our home towns is just not a reality for us, unlike the realities of too many thirteen-year-olds and too many of their mothers in too many other home towns.

Of course, she doesn't get it.

This week's Boston Marathon bombing highlights the privilege of a nation for which this sort of thing is appallingly novel - we're collectively outraged that anyone would dare bomb us! - and warrants an immediate, indignant, and definitive response.

This afternoon I will remind LJ that in too many countries, being the target of terrorist attacks is pretty much business as usual. In too many cities, a couple of relatively smallish bombs is not a good enough reason to shut everything down while you find the bad guys.

Of course, she won't get it. But I will have said it and she will have heard it, and that's enough.

Actually ... she might get it a little bit, come to think about it. In the car on our way to an out-of-town volleyball game this week, Twelve announced that she wants to be a congressional intern. In Washington, DC, her class met with a young man who had gone to their school a decade or so ago and is now an intern for one of our state's senators. Apparently his snazzy green shirt and matching tie were appealing enough that Twelve was curious about how one might become such an intern, so we talked about how she should get good grades in high school and so on. (I'll take any excuse to talk up 'getting good grades in high school.')

Okay, I said, and then what do you want to do? Do you want to become a senator yourself?

Oh, yeah, I guess so, Twelve replied, with the air of someone who hadn't really thought about it before but supposes she thinks it's a fine idea. She then proceeded to outline how she thought that might work, and we talked about the difference between state and national government and the intermediate steps between seventh grade and senatorhood. Find leadership opportunities wherever you are, I said, be like your Auntie and be the president of everything in high school, be involved with student government in college, that sort of thing. I tried to tie in her ideas with what she learned on the DC trip and help her make connections with what actually happens already. I tried to do this part gently, because it's such a letdown to realize that someone else already came up with your big idea.

(For my part, a couple of years ago I had this brilliant idea for a gift registry website that isn't tied to any specific store. You could ask for anything you wanted from anywhere! I even came up with a couple of excellent names for such a service. As it turns out, the idea was so brilliant and those names so excellent that it was already being done.)

I don't remember everything Twelve said - I was listening reallysuperhard but I am terrible at remembering the specifics of the awesome conversations that we have - but one of her main ideas was that, if she was a senator, she would ask regular people what they thought about things, and then do that. I explained that, well, that's sort of what's supposed to happen already - but it is an excellent approach, you should do that!

I think we arrived at the Boys and Girls Club gym before we had a chance to figure out all the details about Twelve's path to the Capitol, but that was okay by me. It was a great conversation. She's talking to me, first of all, but she's talking to me about things that she's learning in school, learning to care about things that matter to the future of the nation, envisioning ways to be involved, and practicing her critical thinking skills. It doesn't get much better than that in a twenty minute car ride with a thirteen-year-old.

It almost made up for the hour of misery at the volleyball game - between the uncomfortable metal bleachers, stinky strangers with small personal space bubbles, and the really lousy volleyball, going to Twelve's games is not my favorite way to spend an evening.

On the other hand, we now have a reason to be grateful that a sore backside and smelly people are the worst things that happen to us at an athletic event.