The Wonder Years

by Sarah Firisen

Shapeimage_1 Summer; a time of fun in the sun, but it's also often a time of transition, particularly for children. They learn how to swim; they go away to summer camp for the first time; they often have growth spurts in the 3 months they're off and you find in the week before school starts that none of their clothes fit them anymore. I definitely think that summer vacations are far too long in the US and would love to see, if not year round schooling, at least a schedule that is more in line with Europe: something like mid July until the end of August. But, given that caveat, I do find it interesting to watch my children take these leaps in physical, emotional and social maturity over these long months of trying out different activities and visiting far flung locations away from their everyday lives and normal companions.

This summer, the metamorphosis has been particularly dramatic for my oldest daughter Anya, who, at 11, was a confirmed tomboy (or so we all thought.) I started having some inkling that something was going on when she asked me to buy her some makeup. I had previously told her that, if she was ever interested in wearing makeup, I would take her to buy something natural-looking to dissuade her from going the heavy black or blue eyeliner route. I didn't actually expect her to take me up on the offer anytime soon. But she did. We went to Sephora and she emerged the proud owner of a shimmery brown eye shadow, clear mascara, clear lip gloss and perfume. There was method to my madness: I have been trying to encourage her to clean her face twice a day (she is starting to develop pimples) and to use deodorant on a daily basis. I told her that she could only wear the makeup if she cleaned her face and the perfume if she used the deodorant and showered more regularly. My expectation was that she would wear the makeup a couple of times and then the novelty would wear off. Well, it's now been over 6 weeks and she carefully applies it almost most mornings. You could hardly tell that she has it on, but she knows.

And that was where it all stopped for a while. For the last few weeks, we've been on vacation in Italy and one of those weeks was with friends who have teenage daughters. Suddenly, Anya came and told me that she wants to wear her long, thick hair in a side parting. For at least a year, our family's hairdresser, Meryl, has been trying to encourage Anya to wear a side parting, to no avail. And then, out of the blue, this; I'm not sure exactly what happened, but the next thing I knew, a bunch of the girls had styled Anya's hair and had donated bobby pins to the cause. The new style suited her and definitely made her look older.

But as if this wasn't all enough, one morning she came to me and said “I'd like you to buy me a dress.” Naively, I had always thought that there would be a great economy in having two girls: we could pass all the clothes down. This worked really well for the first few years until Anya decided she wasn't wearing dresses anymore and dresses were all her younger sister wanted to wear. I haven't bought Anya a dress in years and in fact had just bought her a whole new stack of jeans for the fall. Hearing that she wanted me to buy her a dress made me almost fall off my chair. And being impatient (like her mother), she wanted me to buy her one that day. We happened to be in a small Italian hill town that day and all the shops were both too expensive and too adult. But, I did get a rather surprising sense of the kind of dress she was interested in wearing.

The next day, while Anya was out with another family and we were in the larger city of Siena, I dragged my husband into every clothing store looking for just the right dress. He accused me of being just a little too excited about this whole outing, and he was right. A dress was bought, and worn with borrowed gladiator sandals. Then a few days later in Parma, Anya chose another two dresses. I will say that she has decided, correctly of course, that dresses aren't as comfortable as shorts and t-shirts. She now realizes that she can't do cartwheels in them and that she doesn't like having to remember to keep her legs closed when she sits. So the initial appeal may be giving way to reality somewhat. But even so!

All this budding teenager-ness has pushed us to consider questions of boundaries, independence and letting go. When I was 11/12, I lived in the suburbs of Greater London. I lived in a quiet, peaceful little town, abutting a rather larger, but still quite sleepy part of London. I spent my summers and weekends roaming the streets and parks of my town with my friends, only coming back in the evening as it started to get dark. We live in a more rural setting and there aren't as many opportunities for playing with neighborhood kids. However, for quite a while, we've been letting Anya, and Sasha when accompanied by Anya, walk alone to our neighbor's farm about a mile up the road. Various members of our family were appalled that we allow this. But at some point, you really have to let go. Knowing all the possible dangers (most of which actually did exist when we were kids, whether we realized them or not), as parents, you take a deep breath and send them out of the nest.

When we were in Venice two years ago, we were staying in a very quiet, residential neighborhood. After a couple of days of accompanying their father to the pastry shop every morning to buy breakfast, my girls wanted to go alone. We told them that they could, but then, like incompetent CIA agents, we tailed them. This year, I gave them 50 Euros and told them I wanted a lot of change back.
When we were in Parma last week, the adults needed a little siesta; the kids didn't. They took a phone, some money and went to wander the lovely little pedestrian town center, returning an hour later having navigated local commerce to purchase a ring each.

I read so much these days about helicopter parenting – hovering over children, being involved in every last detail of a child's daily experience, trying to ensure that children face no disappointments, no bumps in the road. But there is anecdotal evidence that such parents don't do their children any favors in the long run; these children don't learn the coping skills necessary for the big wide world. They're so used to having every little problem smoothed away for them that the normal hustle and bustle of college or that first job can be overwhelming. Risk aversion, on behalf of our children, is a natural parenting instinct, but risk management is a crucial life skill.

When my children went out to buy pastries, they had to deal with a foreign city, a different language, different currency, actually just deal with currency. They had to manage. And they did. It turned out that the usual pastry store was closed and so they found another one. They had a hard time communicating with one man behind the counter, but the owner stepped in and helped them. They came home with 5 pastries, some juice and a lot of change. But more than that, they came back with a new found confidence and independence. Was I nervous? Of course I was. Is that a good reason to not let them go?

I've written before about the importance of failure to innovation: fail fast, fail cheap, fail often, so the mantra goes. This is an important skill for children to learn: how to bounce back and learn from failure. But how do they learn this if they're never allowed to potentially fail. It's bad enough that schools are so failure-adverse, but we don't need to compound this as parents. I can over-parent with the best of them, a constant phrase I find coming out of my mouth is, “don't do that, you might get hurt.” It's hard to not step in and try to prevent the things in life that you are pretty sure will lead to scraped knees, hurt feelings or worse. But just as I've had to perform a balancing act with Anya's new awareness that she's a young woman, I also have to accommodate, actually embrace her awareness that she's an independent person, separate from her parents. I wouldn't push her to go out into the streets of a foreign city alone, but if she wants to try, shouldn't I give her that opportunity?