My daughter is 11 and has some friends who are more innocent than others. All parents have different rules about what types of events their kids can attend, what they can watch, listen to and much more.We all have our own lines that we won't let our children cross, and some parents are stricter and draw their lines more finitely than others.
Recently one of her friends was sitting in the back seat of a car and a man made an obscene gesture at her. She thought he had to go to the bathroom, but someone else in the car told her that's not what he meant.
When I think back to myself at 11, I was hit in the head with the reality that my mother had multiple sclerosis and would slowly deteriorate before our eyes. The slow and painful death of her movements had already started, and when she died two years later she had already begun to sink.
Losing a parent at the age at which girls simultaneously roll their eyes and yell at their mothers, but still need them more than they won’t understand until much later, really smacks a child in the head and you do grow up too fast.
I started searching for what I no longer had, unconditional love, warmth, touch and someone to confide in. The answer for most girls who experience what I did is boys, and that was my answer too. Of course teenage boys proffer none of those things, even though they are quite capable of caring, they are programmed to want what they want. At least I didn’t seek out older men, which I think is much, much worse.
For a long time, I’ve heard people say that that it’s no longer possible to keep children in the protected bubble of friendships, family and a neighborhood in which you know everyone. To be sure, Facebook, YouTube and all of their competitors, don’t help. But the truth is the bubble broke a long time ago. In fact, it exploded on September 11, 2001 when the Twin Towers fell right before their eyes. Of course, the younger children weren't allowed to watch, but all of the kids talked about it, we talked to them too, and over the years they've seen those images more times than I want to count.
My 11 year-old hasn’t just heard whispers of what sex is, she can describe it in detail, and quite dispassionately. Her middle school already has girls who seek out boys and are looking for more than just friendship. Probably some who are sneaking alcohol and drugs too.
This is public school after all, and by high school some of these girls are going to have babies. That’s not a new phenomenon, it was in my childhood too, but now it seems to be all around us. If 16 year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, or Zoe 101, her sweet television persona at a ritzy boarding school who had barely been kissed had a baby at 16 that her mother is raising, what of our daughters? And then there’s Bristol Palin, running around preaching abstinence with a baby, and a Dancing with the Stars routine that was so sexually explicit it made me blush.
So how can you keep your child a child for as long as possible? Sports helps. What a great outlet for all those pre-teen hormones surging around through their bodies. Some parents have their kids playing sports all year long – soccer, basketball, swimming, ice skating, an endless stream of physical activity that hopefully will burn all of the energy they would use for sex, drugs and drinking right out of them.
Another way to keep kids on track is set rules and stick to them. I’m not the best at this, and I admit to a double standard between my son and daughter. He was allowed to run around the neighborhood alone younger, to stay out until past dark, to take the metro home, to fly in charge of his little sister across the country (direct flights only). I still will go get my daughter even if she’s down the street after 9:00 PM or so, and walk her home, or insist earlier that someone else does.
But I also think if your rules are too strict and you protect your children too much, you run into situations such as her friend did. By 11, that girl should have known what that man was doing, and reacted in fear and locked the car door and turned away.
A man called me over to a car when I was about that age, and I was riding my bike, ostensibly to ask directions. He was naked and trying to shock me with his actions. He was also right in front of my home. You have to tell your kids what’s out there even if it bursts the bubble. Because you don’t want them to misinterpret something that is truly dangerous, even for an instant.
Are the children of today growing up too fast? Yes. But so is the world around us. And I would rather have a child that is scared of something she knows is bad, then one who doesn’t recognize evil when she sees it and realize she has to get out of there. That’s every parents’ worst nightmare, bubble or not.