Letting Kids Be Kids

It may be extreme to call it “Revenge of the Nerds,” but the “fast,” uber-popular, pot-smoking, risk-taking and all-around “cool” kids from middle school may be the duds at your 10-year high school reunion.

Or so claim the authors of a new study, “Whatever Happened to the ‘Cool’ Kids? Long-Term Sequelae of Early Adolescent Pseudomature Behavior,” which was published June 11 in the online journal Child Development.

Starting with seventh and eighth graders in middle school cafeterias, the researchers looked at attractiveness, popularity, romantic behavior, “social competence,” substance use and deviant (stealing dollar bills from parents, sneaking into movies) or criminal behavior among nearly 200 study participants over a period of 10 years.

DSCN1510The researchers, defining “pseudomature behavior” as “a desire to achieve social maturity without a concomitant level of emotional and behavioral maturity,” hypothesized that “…minor delinquent activity, precocious romantic involvement and a focus on physical appearance in friendships…linked to early adolescents’ strong desire for peer approval…will predict popularity in the short term…but fade over time.”

Those of us who have attended high school reunions know this to be true.

Even worse, the study’s researchers surmised that precocious behavior – and “overemphasis upon impressing peers” — could lead to lifelong problems in romantic relationships, serious deviant (or criminal) behavior and/or abuse of alcohol and marijuana.

The problem, the study found, is that “adolescents are most likely to engage in [this] behavior when they lack confidence in their capacity to meet the developmental challenge of managing peer relations.” As a result, they don’t hone the tools required for “competence in social relationships in the longer term.”

What’s more, “early reliance on upon minor acts of delinquency to impress peers may…lead to a greater likelihood of associating with deviance prone peers, who in turn would only be impressed by more and more serious acts of deviance over time.”

For more information about these findings, New York Times writer Jan Hoffman interviewed the study’s lead author, Joseph P. Allen, a University of Virginia professor of psychology, for the June 23 article: “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23.”

“These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism,” Hoffman writes.

Ten years later, in comparison to their “slower-moving” middle-school peers, the study participants had a “45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

At age 23, Dr. Allen notes, those who were socially advanced at age 13 “are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, ‘These kids are not socially competent.…They’re still living in their middle-school world.’

“Those early attempts to act older than they were seemed to have left them socially stunted,” Hoffman states.

Asked to summarize the research findings, Dr. Allen told Hoffman that while they were busy focusing on social status through risky or “pseudomature behaviors,” the teenagers missed a “critical development period.”

“At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream,” Hoffman writes, adding that Dr. Allen urges parents to “support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular.”

“To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you’re able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible,” Dr. Allen told Hoffman.

So, for parents, caregivers and teachers, the important lesson is to let kids be kids. We need to help young teens resist the urge to act older, dress sassier, hang out with influential, older kids and experiment with pot and alcohol.

I think this was easier when we were young. Throughout middle school, I read avidly and spent my weekend nights babysitting. I certainly wasn’t the most popular girl in the seventh grade, and I didn’t care. I knew that once I entered high school, I would gain both social status and a social life through the religious-based youth group my siblings had joined.

I’m sure that the skills those pursuits taught me – reading for pleasure, taking care of kids, earning and managing money – have served me better than premature “seven minutes in Heaven” would have.

Today, short of spending a dozen years in the African bush, as did the main character’s family in Mean Girls, how can parents insulate kids from the social pressures required for popularity?

Today’s youth can watch nearly any movie or TV show via Netflix, Hulu or iTunes. They listen to internet radio on their phones and laptops, and can read blogs, Facebook posts and foreign newspapers at any time online. Through the TV show TMZ, they can track the moves and mishaps of celebrities, and via Twitter they learn what those stars eat for lunch, wear to the gym and drink in clubs.

With screens at their fingertips seemingly nonstop, teens experience a spectrum of influence that far exceeds anything those of us born before 1980 could imagine.

So how do we slow it all down? How do we give our kids permission to remain kids longer? What are your ideas or successful strategies? We’d love to read your comments below.

Linda Williams Rorem, Permission Slips, 30 June 2014
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Despicable Mom

I was going to write about my daughter’s upcoming 14th birthday, an auspicious event that — I hear from many sources — will grant me entry into the “Despicable Mom” club.

Apparently, it happens all over the world. One day these darling little girls want to share information with their moms, try on their fancy dresses and high heels and act like little mommies when playing with dolls.

And then, poof, they wake up one day and hate all things related to motherhood. Especially the women who brought them into the world.

These formerly sweet young things roll their eyes. They sigh with exasperation. They question Mom’s fashion sense: “You aren’t going out wearing THAT, are you?” They embark on secret lives that take place via texts, Instagram posts and Snap Chats. Sneaky lives that depict Mom in a very unflattering light. They slam doors, leave tried-but-failed outfits in heaps on their bedroom floors and lock themselves in bathrooms for hours. At the school lunch table, outside lockers and in bus lines, they gather to discuss how stupid, mean and unreasonable their mothers have suddenly become.

If you don’t know a 14-year-old girl that fits that description, you haven’t looked very hard.

“Girls have to go through it,” my own mother said when I mentioned my dread. “Otherwise they would never move out. And you don’t want that, do you?”

Absolutely not. I love Pea enormously, but I do want her to go to college, launch a career, accomplish her goals and live happily ever after. Somewhere else.

My boys are very independent and the two that have entered college are doing very well…today. So, yes, I’m all about them moving on and out.

However, as it turns out, I may have a little more time with Pea by my side.

On Saturday, when my husband, Pea and our youngest son, Bodie, arrived at an 1830-ish bed and breakfast in Ohio, I looked at the fading woodwork, clouded windows and jagged rooftop and said, “Oooh, I hope it isn’t haunted.”

That was enough to send a certain super-mature, ready-for-makeup, high fashion and high school young lady into tears.

“I am NOT staying here,” she announced, planting herself, and her suitcase, in the middle of the root-rumpled sidewalk.

The rest of us mounted the steps and rang the bell. Pea reluctantly followed.

Our host, Tom, was anxious to tour us through the house and share a bit about its, and his late wife’s ancestors’, history. We learned about the vintage furniture, books and china, the house’s additions and the fact that the large eating area once served as an infirmary for the doctor who lived and worked there. Think Downton Abbey during World War I.

“Think about how many people must have died in this room,” Bodie said to Pea.

More tears.

Later, Tom told us he had been running the place alone for a decade, ever since his wife had died of a heart attack. In her sleep. In that home.

That was the proverbial last straw. Pea was ready to call a cab and find her own lodging. However, the $8 in her backpack wouldn’t have taken her far.

We climbed the stairs to the third floor, where we had reserved both bedrooms, each with a double bed and a single cot. The knotty pine floors creaked, the rafters had developed cracks, the upholstered chairs sagged and the wallpaper was just starting to peel.

I loved it all.

After we dined with our older son on the college campus, we decided to leave Bodie with him, to attend a party and sleep in his dorm. So, that left Pea with her choice of three beds, after my husband and I grabbed one of the doubles.

“I am NOT sleeping alone,” Pea stated. “After all those people died here, I’m sure their spirits are haunting the house.”

So, the three of us slipped on our jammies, climbed into bed and turned on the TV, which was showing “Modern Family.” Ironic, isn’t it?

It took about 45 seconds for my husband to fall asleep, and, after several minutes of jostling for space, Pea and I followed.

And then, in the middle of a deep slumber, something…or shall I say someone…woke me.

“I woke up thinking it was morning, but it’s only 11:30,” Pea said. “Now I can’t fall back asleep.”

“Well I can, and I will,” I replied.

“No!” Pea hissed. “I don’t want to be the only one up.”

So, a solid hour of tossing and turning ensued. Ain’t jet lag grand?

At some point, I whispered, “It’s too crowded and hot in this bed, and your dad is snoring. I’m moving to the other room.”

“Please, no,” Pea pleaded. “I’ll lie still.” She changed from her sweatpants and brand-new college sweatshirt into a t-shirt and shorts. Then she started poking at her father.

“Roll over. You’re snoring!”

Welcome to my world, Little Miss.

After being nudged one too many times, Dad grunted and moved to the cot. Pea spread into his former spot, and quickly fell back asleep.

I did not.

Soon after, I heard sirens in the distance, and wondered if my too-young-for-college-parties son was okay. I lay awake, waiting for a distress call from one of the boys.

Pea started snoring.

Yes, I’m ready for a little distance, and even a dose of temporary dislike, from the kids.

Linda Williams Rorem, 7 April 2014
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Surviving the Awkward Teen Years

Many of you found that this week’s post (click here if you missed it) revived memories of those awkward middle school years. A loyal Permission Slips reader tipped us off to a fabulous website (featured on Oprah!) in which adults write about how they maneuvered the awkward teen years and blossomed into their current selves. Participants in this “Awkward Years Project” post photos of their confident adult selves holding portraits from their glasses-, braces-, acne- and/or bad hair-riddled middle school years. It’s definitely worth a look; click here or follow this link: http://awkwardyearsproject.com/

By the way, here’s a lovely shot of me and my very cool older sister, when I was about 12 (note the braces, flip-up sunglasses and certainly dirty hair):

JodLindaFlorida 1971

Who Wants a Job?

Had to share this hilarious post from my friend Monica Moline, who recently interviewed young candidates for summer work:

“Parents with teens: A few tips for you after hiring a topnotch teenager this week:

1. If your teenager wants a job, do NOT hand deliver their application. Have them deliver it themselves. You can sit in the car and wait.

2. If your teen does deliver it in person, tell them not to bring their boy/girlfriend with them. Especially if such friend is hanging all over them.

3. Do not follow up with the place of business to “check on things” for them. You just put them at the bottom of the list.

4. Make sure your teenager makes eye contact and shakes with a firm grip. Shifty eyes and jello fingers will not get a call back.

5. Have then deliver the job application looking clean and showered. Those who deliver application after working out or wearing too much perfume/cologne will not get a call.

6. Make sure that their application is filled out completely and is legible.

7. If their job application states that they can only work on x, y, and z dates and between a, b, and c times, and only when the moon is full but not when it’s too nice outside, and they have to go to camp, a family reunion, and two other vacations, they’re probably not going to get hired.

Just saying.

I have never seen so many parents applying for jobs for their kids and then checking up on the process, and so many teenagers that are clueless and expect [us] to work around their schedules. I’m giving jobs to the most polite and professional applicants. BTW, I had my top-notch teen [who I hired] ask me how she should dress. I love her! I may have to give her a raise!”

– PermissionSlips, 18 May 2013

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