It started about six months ago.
“Are you gonna post that?” Elle asked, hands on her hips and a look of both dread and disapproval on her face, after I snapped a pic of her outside. She proceeded to beg me – nay, order me – not to post it on social media. And then she just laughed it off and I posted it, because it was so darn cute!
Now, she never really held her ground on this issue at the beginning, so I didn’t think it was that important to her. She’s a good kid and is generally compliant, but she eventually became insistent that I not post any pics of her without her approval. INSISTENT. I’m still not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, I'm the mom! I'm in charge here! (Did you hear my foot stomping?) But on the other hand, I want to respect her growing sense of self, especially as the teen years are approaching.
I want my daughter to trust me and to know that I sincerely respect her as the beautiful, amazing, unique, and growing person that she is, not as my subject. I need her to see that she can trust me on the little things, like not posting a picture of her on her bike if she doesn’t want me to, so that she will later trust me with the big things. Don’t get me wrong. Mom and dad are in charge here. But I was really moved by a phrase I saw a few months ago.
Social media is the new permanent record.
So as I watch the lives of so many children being broadcast play-by-play on the internet for all to see, I have started to really question the practice. Social media is such an amazing way to stay connected with family and get to know old friends again and to share in the joy of those that truly are or were once very dear to you. And so much of our joy is derived from our children! But I’ve also started to truly reflect on how much we share about our children and how we would feel if all of this had been shared about us so publicly. Or how our children will feel twenty years from now. I have started to realize that my daughter’s permanent record should not be mine to build. Her life story is not mine to tell.
So I have agreed, reluctantly at first, but now wholeheartedly, to get Elle's permission before I post a picture of her. Like it or don’t, everything we post paints a portrait and leaves a trail. Every post has the power to contribute a story about who we were and who we’ve become. And Elle is not on social media yet herself – we haven’t given her the key to that kingdom yet. So I still have some time to talk and talk and talk and talk to her about the power of social media, the picture you paint of yourself, and the story it can tell. And then, while I pray and rub Buddha’s belly and cross my fingers and toes that she will write a good one, I will let her tell her own story.
Opponents of the other candidate screamed of his gross inexperience, dangerous racist and sexist diatribes, lack of morality in his discourse, and plans to enact policies that would set us back 50 years. Never in my lifetime has there been a time in which it was more challenging to act with grace against the machine.
The political stronghold in this nation has long been called “a machine”. It seems to many an impenetrable world, and one in which our national values and expectations are to be reflected and enforced. For as long as I can remember, this machine has been devoid of the values we want our children to develop, embodying greed and corruption and promotion of personal agenda instead, sometimes with dark and unspeakable consequences. “He's such a politician” – a phrase that many parents use, tongue-in-cheek, when their child is less than honest, connives to get what he or she wants, or plays two ends against the middle.
So with this general disenchantment with our political class having woven itself into the fabric of our society, many are pleased with the election and believe we needed to change by any means necessary, even if extreme. Still others are enraged, defeated, afraid – unaware of what to tell their children when the soon-to-be leader of their country projects the opposite of the tolerance and grace that they wish to instill in their children. To whom can we look for moral leadership if not to our President?
To you. To me. To every mommy and daddy across this nation. In this world. It starts at home. So how will you act against the machine? Will you act with grace or rage? Your children are watching you much more than anyone else. And many, many, many more times than not, they will do as you do.
As I sat in church with my husband and daughter today, I couldn’t help but observe the two little girls sitting in front of us, sisters, I assumed, about 9 and 12 years old. And unlike most parents, mom chose to let them sit together, and she sat to the left of the younger sister. Interesting choice.
Throughout much of the mass, the younger sister clung to her mother with almost palpable sweetness, while the older sister tried to either get her attention or get her in trouble – not sure which. The older sister poked at her, drew on the wooden pew in front of her with a little golf pencil, and just generally acted as a nuisance. Regular sister stuff. This went on for about 30 minutes of the 60 minute service and I was supremely impressed with little sister’s sense of do-right-ness and ability to shrug off her older sister’s efforts to get her to goof off in church. But then, big sister pulled out the ultimate weapon. Cheetos.
For some reason, mom had left her purse between the two girls, and in it was a small Ziploc baggie full of Cheetos. Little sister’s sense of church manners went out the door and for the next twenty minutes or so, I watched as both little and big sister snuck skinny, orange cheese puff after skinny, orange cheese puff out of mom’s purse in stealthy slow motion. I must admit it was slightly amusing to watch each girl slither one little Cheeto out of the bag at a time, throwing a sideways glance at her mother, then her sister, every time before placing it in her mouth, and then chewing ever-so-slowly in order to muffle the crunch. It seemed so choreographed and something told me they had done this before. When my daughter caught sight of this little spectacle, she looked up at me with her fairly well-worn can-you-believe-they’re-doing-that look of disapproval.
See, my girl is a rule follower. She’s not a perfect angel. But she is, generally, a rule follower. And ever since pre-school she has been casting these can-you-believe-they’re-doing-that looks at her peers. She has tattled on one occasion or another, but mostly, she gives the look.
So as we sat there in church, I forced myself to be aware that I was alternately projecting looks of amusement and disappointment as I watched these two girls. And after church, when Elle verbalized the question her face had already so clearly posed – “Mom, can you believe those two girls were doing that in church?!” – I forced myself to be very aware of my response. Because I knew my daughter was very aware of my responses to everything. And our children will respond as we do.
So in those fractions of a moment before I answered her, I thought back to being 9 or 12 years old. I reminded myself that given the opportunity, I might have snuck a cheese puff or two out of my mom’s purse as well. I reminded myself of the 30 minutes that the younger sister had taken the high road, rather than the oh-so-low (not really) road of her elder and more jaded, cheeto-bearing sister. And rather than condemn the girls for their behavior, I asked Elle what she thought of what they were doing. She instantly softened when she found I wasn’t going to be a co-attacker of their manners. She did assert that they shouldn’t have done that, and I agreed. But I asked her if she had ever done anything – anything at all – that she shouldn’t have done. So she said of course she had because nobody is perfect. Then I asked her if she should steal Cheetos from my purse and eat them in church. And she said no, and we both laughed. And I asked her if, in the grand scheme of things, eating Cheetos in church would make a huge difference in the lives of these girls. And she said no, and we both laughed.
But I also reminded her that every time we see others doing something wrong, we have a decision to make. We can try to stop it. We can talk about them and attack them behind their backs. We can simply ignore it and refrain from engaging in the behavior. And of course, the decision to join in is always there as well. So the Cheeto-stealing church sisters provided us with a springboard to discuss how every moment offers us a choice to get closer to or further from the person we want to be, and that we should never sacrifice what we want most for what we want in a moment. And I reminded her that despite their Cheeto thievery, they were probably otherwise very nice girls, as I believe most people are. So leave it to me to turn something minor into a drawn-out teaching moment. But I know that these regular little, but really very big, conversations will shape her as she grows and help her to make the right choices, especially as the wrongdoings she witnesses will undoubtedly morph beyond Cheetos in church.
And if I may offer some advice, sit between your children in public places whenever possible.
Is she disappointed? Yes. Am I disappointed? Yes. But she's ten. And more than anything at this stage of her life, I really believe she needs to sleep this one out on the couch. And I'm human, and I totally own that little voice inside my head that is saying, "but she REEEEEEALLY needs to lower her seed time. She needs to swim faster. She needs to do this... She needs to do that..." But she's ten. I hear from this little voice quite a bit when it comes to my daughter's swimming, because it's amazing to watch this little human that you've created and shaped and loved with all of your soul truly excel at something, and it's easy to get caught up in it and to let this little voice take over in the name of doing what's best for your child. But I've learned not give this voice too much credence. Because she's ten.
I've heard kids at swim meets chattering about how much money they've been promised per race if they place first, second, or third. I've heard parents offer their child obscene amounts of money if they beat a particular child in a race. I've heard parents appeal to their 8 and unders with the threat of no My Little Ponies if they don't do their best in a race. Has it always been like this? I certainly don't remember it being so.
I'm not soft. I'll be the first to tell my daughter to suck it up and realize there are much bigger things than whatever non-crisis crisis she may be getting worked up over. But she's ten. So she's got eight years in this sport in front of her if she decides she's going to use her talent to take her somewhere. Eight. Years. In those eight years, if she continues to work hard and own her gift, who knows where it could take her. It's fun to speculate. But she's ten. And eight years is a long time - almost another whole lifetime for her so far. Who knows what other opportunities will present themselves or what changes might precipitate a huge and unexpected shift in the course of her life.
Competitive sports offer a wealth of personal growth opportunities for children. There are things kids can learn from being a part of an athletic team that they cannot learn elsewhere, and I would love to see every child participate in at least one sport. But uber-competitive parents who give in to that little voice, or who may be seeking their own recognition through their children, have turned athletics into another vehicle through which modern society is threatening the sanctity of childhood. It is one thing to support a child in pursuit of a goal if the drive and desire is genuinely the child's. And it's one thing to recognize a sincere gift in your child and encourage him or her to embrace and explore it. But we have to stop pushing our kids to the breaking point at a younger and younger age. Bribing and threatening and scaring them into performing when they still go to a school that has recess. And we have to stop paying our kids for performance. Whether it's a certain cut time in a sport, or a home run, or first place, or an A on their report card. This pay for performance movement is happening at younger and younger ages as well, and it robs children of the opportunity to simply feel pride in a job well done. It robs them of experiencing the beauty in the sense of accomplishment that is the natural reward for hard work. And it teaches them instead to immediately put a hand out and ask, "what do I get?"
Elle just woke up. She was panicked that we might be late to the meet. When I told her we weren't going, she immediately said she wanted to go. She had to go. And... she didn't want her team, her coach, or us - her parents - to be upset with her. Gut check moment. So I rubbed her head, gave her a kiss and asked her if she thought she should swim. Still a little panicked, she said, "No, but..."
I'm a goal-oriented person. I'm a pusher. And I sincerely hope that my daughter grows to pursue her goals with immeasurable tenacity. But she's ten. So for now, I hope to always have the wisdom to ignore that little voice when it's best for her that I do. And I hope that I will always recognize when she truly needs to be cuddled rather than pushed. And I'm hoping that you will strive to do the same.
Unimaginable events occurred in our “City Beautiful” this past weekend. Fifty innocent lives were violently taken by two broken individuals in two separate Orlando tragedies. And in the aftermath, the responses have reflected both rage and grace. Some have given blood, water, food, clothing, blankets, time, and prayers. Others have pointed fingers and cast aspersions, blaming the Republicans, the Democrats, gun control activists, gun rights activists, left wing, right wing, Christian, Muslim, the police, the FBI, the President. There is no lack of hatred flying off the fingertips of some Facebookers, while others post calls for prayers and positive thoughts and have changed their Facebook profile pictures in support of the victims and the city. It’s on every t.v. channel, every radio station. I opened Facebook this morning and was sobbing within seconds after seeing a text from one of the victims just moments before his last breath. It took me several minutes to get control of myself.
So what do we tell our children? What do we tell our daughters as we try to raise them to respond with grace and not rage in all circumstances. How do we parents fight against the machine of destruction our society can sometimes be? How do we do this with grace and not rage, because our daughters will do as we do? How do we get on the right side of this thing?
It was the only word my daughter spoke when I told her what had happened. She’s only ten, so I was cautious with my words and told her only what I thought she needed to know – that a very bad man killed some people in a nightclub. I didn’t want her to be caught off guard if some of the older kids brought it up at swim practice or when she inevitably overheard something about the situation. But it raised the ever pressing question of how much should we shelter our daughters? At what point does it become dangerous to protect their innocence? Is a ten year old supposed to know that hatred rages so violently within the souls of some men strictly because they don’t agree with who strangers choose to love? At what point as parents do we have to strike a balance with our children between fear and awareness?
“I don’t know.”
It was the only response I knew to give her. And the only way I know how to teach her to respond to such evil and to such tragedy is to choose grace over rage myself. I am angry. I am in pain. I ache for the victims and their families and their friends and our children who will inherit a beautiful world that we have done much to destroy. A world we have turned into a machine of destruction against selflessness and brotherly love. But I will choose to fight this machine with grace and not rage. I will choose to give blood, food, clothing, blankets, time, and prayers. And as long as our daughters see us respond with grace and not fan the flames of rage, we have to rest in knowing we are doing the best we can to help them right this ship.
***POST POST COMMENTARY: Two days after I posted this, my daughter was invited to a friend's house to play with DUN, DUN, DUUNNNN... two other girls. And it went swimmingly. Absolutely, wonderfully without drama. The other two girls are lovely little women, they all got along, and apparently ate a lot of burgers! I suppose sometimes the universe sends you a message designed to temper your limiting beliefs. So I still stand behind my assertion that three girls is often a tricky, sticky situation. But perhaps we should simply proceed with caution and never, ever, say never.
Never, ever, host a get together of three girls. Never. Ever. I don't know what it is about the number three and girls, but it is most certainly a recipe for at least one of them to morph into a mean girl. I remember as a child being excited to go to a friend's house from nursery school (Yes, I remember back that far). I was probably five years old and "play date" was not yet a term, but that's what my mother set up for me. She dropped me off at the house of a girl in my class and I remember the anxious tension that always accompanied being at a new friend's house for the first time - walking through the front door and taking in the pattern of the wallpaper in the foyer, the unique knick-knacks that always seemed way cooler than the ones at my house, and just the fact that she had stairs was fascinating to me. And I remember my disappointment when lo and behold - the neighbor friend was there as well - cute braids and all. Since she had gotten there before me, I was naturally the odd man out and though I don't remember all the details, I do remember feeling like they were ganging up on me and just wanting to go home. My mother recalls me crying and that my friend's mother was not too happy with her daughter. It's all very vague - but whatever happened made an impression. Girls can be so mean.
I also remember a time in junior high school when I was responsible for creating a three-girl fire. Perhaps because we simply had nothing better to do, I called a friend who had said unkind things about another friend while this other friend was at my house. I baited my friend on the phone and tried to get her to repeat those same mean things so my other friend could hear for herself. WHY would I DO such a thing? I can't even fathom why I would act so disgracefully, and I shake my head looking back.
Who knows why girls act so mean sometimes and of course this doesn't only happen in threes, though it does seem to make things worse. But I've been a mean girl, and I've also been a victim of mean girls - even after the pre-school incident - and I think most girls, at some point in their life, have been on both sides. There are always outliers and some girls who just truly cultivate kindness and friendships with everyone they encounter. And there are those girls that seem bound and determined to do nothing but cause heartache. But if you notice tendencies in your daughter that concern you and make you wonder if you are raising a mean girl, stop and take a deep breath. Remember who you were at her age and go from there. I've had to do it a few times.
I've seen my daughter cling to one friend and ignore others in some situations, and then ignore the friend she clung to in favor of those she ignored in other situations. I've seen her unintentionally make her friends feel excluded or small. I've been informed by mothers of other girls of situations my daughter was involved in - perhaps the MOST important reason to cultivate friendships with the parents of her friends. They will trust you enough to tell you when your kid was a jerk - and you need to know this, so you can help her fix it.
On the flip side, I've seen my daughter purposefully reach out to someone that was being excluded. I've been told of times she defended someone when others were attacking. So in each of these situations, I talk to her. I ask her why she did what she did - right or wrong, good or bad. And we talk about whether she would like to have someone take those actions with her, and what needs to continue - or change - moving forward. The best thing we can do as parents is to keep an open line of communication.
Talk. To. Your. Daughter. About EVERYTHING!
There are so many messages flying in the face of our girls, telling them how to act and how not to act, but ultimately they want to know how mom and dad think they should have handled a situation - even if they act like they don't. Watch out for the mean girl moments - because they can cause pain that lasts a lifetime. But don't panic or assume they're headed for Regina George status right away. We've all had our moments. And if you sincerely believe you've got a bit of a monster on your hands, intervene - NOW - and not alone. Enlist the help of a counselor or trusted teacher at her school or start a girls group with moms that you trust. But always keep the conversation going and remember how unsure of everything you felt at their age when you were trying to figure out who you were and where you fit in. Be honest - even if it hurts a little - and always forgiving. And never, ever host a get together of three girls.
Years ago, a very tall friend of mine had a two-year-old son that could have easily passed for five. People would often shake their heads in disapproval as they passed her and what they thought to be her five-year-old with a pacifier. Except he wasn't five, he was two.
Yesterday, my sister posted a great picture on Instagram. It was of her and my other sister...wait...her and a friend? Wait...who IS that in the picture with her? Oh dear God, that's my DAUGHTER!!!
These were my thoughts as I looked at this photo. Don't get me wrong - it wasn't inappropriate in any way, shape, or form. My girl wasn't in heels or wearing makeup. She was actually wearing her First Communion dress, flip-flops, and my sister's Ray-Ban aviators. She was leaning back and making a goofy face and acting like a ten year old. She wasn't trying to look any older, she just did. But any young guy scrolling through IG could easily have thought she was someone he would like to get to know...and this is where it can get scary if we are not relentless as parents.
As a competitive swimmer, my daughter has a very strong build and at 10 years old is already 5'1". Thank goodness she is the athletic t-shirt and mesh shorts type of girl, because while walking amongst the high school students at my husband's school, it's really only her clothing that sets her apart. She looks and acts (at least in front of others) much older than her ten years. And there's a danger in this. People will treat your child based on the age of their appearance, not out of malice, but out of natural assumption. People ask my daughter if she has a boyfriend. They ask her if she plays sports for her school. They sometimes crack jokes they might not if they knew she was in 4th grade. And I will never forget the first time I saw a passing teenage boy look at her for WAY too long.
So if you have a daughter that looks older on the outside, be careful to remember she's still little on the inside. Don't let her wear make-up yet or dress in ways that will gain her the type of attention she's not prepared to handle. Don't give her the keys to the social media kingdom by letting her have a Facebook page, or an Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat account. The most innocent of posts may cause someone out there to stop the scroll and try to reach out to her - even with the best of intentions. And as moms of tweens, that's a road we don't need to head down just yet. Let them be little for just a little while longer.
I've always tried to be careful about what I let my daughter watch or read. I let her watch zero t.v. in the first year. After she turned one I started letting her watch Baby Einstein, followed by Sesame Street, Little Einsteins, Muzzy, etc. I even steered clear of certain Disney movies throughout pre-school and I've been very cautious about her book choices until now. She thought the "F" word was "freak" until she was nine. But we can only do that type of frantic monitoring for so long for two reasons: it's impractical and it's counterproductive.
It becomes impractical, if not impossible, at some point to monitor EVERYTHING because you simply won't have the time, especially as she gets involved in more activities and chooses books with too many pages for you to preview. And it's counterproductive because as she gets older, there will be times that you won't be there and she will need to think for herself. She will be at the homes of friends watching movies or t.v. shows you may not have chosen for her. She will be in the car with parents who do not censor their music choices or the language they use in front of their children. She will find herself a part of conversations with peers who have heard LOTS of things she hasn't heard. At some point as she nears the teen years, you just have to let go a little or you will compromise her ability to grow into the girl you have done your best to help her become. So what is a concerned-mom(or dad)-who-wishes-she-could-but-knows-she-can't-shelter-her-daughter-forever to do?
You have to watch with her. Read with her. Ask her questions. Seems obvious, but too few parents do this. Watch a kids' sitcom together and ask her if she knows any friends who gallivant around town looking perfectly manicured with plenty of time to go to school, work in a clothing store, have a full time career modeling or dancing or acting or rocking, and who live in an impeccably kept home with a 40x40 foot bedroom and never see their parents or any responsible adults. These shows portray lives that do not exist. They're not real. It's fiction. And it's important that your girl knows this, so plant those seeds. Lay the foundation as early as possible for her to understand that what she sees on t.v. is not real and she will be much better equipped to ignore rather than emulate the glorified promiscuity and glamorized drinking and drug use she will see in the media in years to come. And as you watch with her, you will see her reactions to things that clash with the values you've instilled in her.
While watching a movie together the other day, I was proud to watch my daughter's jaw drop in response to the father telling his son that physical activity was a complete waste of time. I had to laugh at her reaction - she was sincerely appalled that a father would say this to his son! I was pleased that clearly, our daughter has internalized the message from us that her health and physical fitness is important.
So do not ever forget that they're watching...the world around them, their peers, ridiculous t.v. shows. But what will shape them more than anything is what they see when they're watching you, especially when you encounter together something that does not mesh with your values. In these moments, do your best to remain graceful so that she will learn to do the same.
It's 11pm, and while the rest of my family has long since gone to sleep, I find myself on the couch writing my very first blog post. I've been up since 5am and got just four hours of sleep last night. But I have a vision - a dream that keeps my wheels turning all day, every day. I want to create a system, an environment, a consortium of parents of girls - parents specifically committed to purposefully raising girls who walk with dignity, modesty, humility, and an attitude of gratitude. To raise girls who respond with grace against the machine of destruction our society has become in its current self-serving, "you-do-you", "imma get mine", and "I do what I want" entitled state.
I know, I know. Every generation whines and complains about the utter shamelessness of the next. But we have reached new lows. We not only make mention of, but glorify criminal behavior, promiscuity, profanity, and reckless behavior through music, television, and advertising. We devour reality t.v. centered on chaos and deception. Dysfunction is the new black. Our daughters are being fed a steady diet of glamorized reckless behavior on the radio, on their iPods, iPads, cell phones, t.v., billboards, in books.
I had great parents. They took me to dance, traveled with me, helped me with homework, made me do chores, gave me an allowance, taught me to cook, and always signed my permission slips and paid for my field trips. But they never talked to me about any of the things that girls need to be talked to about at the age of 10...11...12...13. They never talked to me about boys, periods, mean girls, sex, modesty. I stumbled through it all on my own. I made some mistakes, and though I made it through, I have to wonder how much better off I would have been had they opened up some conversations. I have to wonder...how would I make it through now when every one of my mistakes could have been caught on film and broadcast worldwide?
Social media has changed the landscape of our society. And it is more critical than ever that we begin open, honest, difficult, and continuous conversations with our daughters. It is my mission to empower parents to do this. There are thousands of miles to travel on this journey...this is my first step.