Navigating the rocky shoals of tween-hood and teen-hood

iStock_000003254938XSmallEver notice how some friends you have for life, while others you have just for a period of your life? I’ve often wondered why. Also, why is that boys and girls go from playing with each other and hardly noticing their gender differences, to being repelled by one another to desiring each other? All of these outcomes and dynamics have their roots, and much of it starts shortly after Kindergarten. Kids are just doing what we as adults do.

Ever notice how some friends you have for life, while others you have just for a period of your life? I’ve often wondered why. Also, why is that boys and girls go from playing with each other and hardly noticing their gender differences, to being repelled by one another to desiring each other? All of these outcomes and dynamics have their roots, and much of it starts shortly after Kindergarten.

Early in elementary school kids discover that there are rules for how your gender and your opposite gender are supposed to behave (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 160). Apparently, my boys think that they are supposed to belch and make fart jokes at the dinner table, why their older sister just wonders why mom and dad had to have more than one kid to begin with. In another dynamic, my kids favorite game is “get dad,” which usually results in me just taking a beating. Boys need the feeling of challenging a powerful male (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 140), or in lieu of that, their old man. My daughter still enjoys the game (she started it), but in her case, while boys roughouse, girls try to connect. I guess kneeing dad in the groin a few times and jumping up and down on his back meets everyones needs (except mine – I don’t need that, want that or desire that, but I do want to connect and roughhouse with the kids so I’ll take the beating and fondly recall it later as I’m having my back readjusted in my chiro’s office).

Mom’s you’re not out of the woods either. When the girls hit their tween and teen years, their challenge to mom come in the form of rolled eyes and put downs, “mom, you have no idea what girls wear anymore.”

Some other facts:

  • In competition boys play in an every-man-for-himself manner, while girls set up alliances and teams  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 162)
  • The authors tell a story about when some girls and boys were lined up opposite in a hallway, creating an obstacle course for passing students – that is, until a pair of physically mature, muscular basketball players enter the hallway. The students immediately pulled their knees up – the alpha males are passing, and the queen bees stop to take notice  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 162). Yes, the alpha male / queen bee dynamic is still very much alive.
  • The popular kids aren’t always the good leaders – we may love Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but no one is electing them to be President  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 165). The leaders are the good students, the good athletes and those involved in extracurricular activities and aren’t just focused on status, appearance and cliques  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 165) Apparently they learn those skills later when the become politicians.
  • Boys assert their authority physically; girls assert their authority in the world of interpersonal relations (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 173)

Throughout elementary school there is a slow shift from kids not really like members of the opposite sex, to just pretending to not like them  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 182). However, as they enter the tween and early teen years, remember that the boys social development isn’t quite as far along as the girls. Whereas a 14-year-old girl knows she can carry on a conversation and establish a relationship, boys are quite so sure. I remember a “girlfriend” I had in the 6th grade, Daffney. I knew I liked her, but when we were together I just stood there not knowing what to say. I’m pretty sure we started “dating” on a Monday and it ended by probably lunchtime or something. That’s when I learned that if want girls to like you, you need to at least say something.

The other challenge that is happening as kids get closer to 11 and 12 years old, is the whole sex thing. The hierarchy does begin to change at this point with kids who are more sexually active, taking higher rungs on the social ladder. Unfortunately our TV shows and movies have soaked the world in sexual imagery so that casual sex is not only acceptable but sometimes perceived to be mandatory if you want any social clout  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 190). The average age of a young persons first sex is about 16 (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 191) and they tend to try oral sex before intercourse – you don’t want to know the average age a girl has her first oral sex experience because it may lead you right to the medicine cabinet to drain your remaining valium prescription (but if you must know subtract 3 years off the age of first intercourse).

Remember that our teens are practicing at being adults and intimacy emerges as central to romantic relationships  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 193). Now, add in some raging hormones and innocent hand-holding, patting, stroking, smoothing, advances to heavy petting, panting and clothing items landing in the front seat (or wherever they landed – I was always a bit pre-occupied). What teenagers don’t know is that good sex involves a level of maturity and a depth of intimacy. The message needs to be demonstrated that the most gratifying and meaningful sex is to be found in committed, loving partnerships, characterized by equality and open communication  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 199). They won’t know this if you tell them – only if you demonstrate it in your own life.

Ultimately, we want to teach our kids this about friends and enemies (and we can only do it, again, if we demonstrate it).

  • Kids want to connect with other kids – even in Children’s Hospital, very ill children will do what they can to connect with other patients, particularly those that are like themselves  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 200). So do the healthy kids and so do adults. Help facilitate those connections.
  • We need to notice, appreciate and even celebrate differences in each other  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 202). I recall Colin Powell writing in his autobiography many years ago that he had many different groups of friends, and while it wasn’t an exclusive club there were times he’d enjoy being with just other Africa-Amercians so they could enjoy their cultural similarities. I have friends of many races, and it’s a different experience with each one. I like to think of America as not so much a melting pot but a fruit salad. We are all rich and wonderful in our own ways, but together we are even better.
  • Schools can help by providing both psychological and emotional security – early intervention on kids who are suicidal or showing signs they may be ready to commit violence  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 212-213). And those stupid zero tolerance policies need to just go away. Expelling a kid for bringing a watergun, or worse yet, carving his bread into the shape of a pistol is ridiculous and diverts attention from the kids with the real problems.

And here is the Number One things as parents, policy makers, teachers and administrators that we can all do – listen to the students. They are the boots-on-the-ground. They will tell you why they are skipping school because some other kid or group is threatening them, but they will only talk to you if they feel safe and if they feel you are listening. Parents need to be heard, along with teachers. Who probably shouldn’t be solving our problems are politicians who have totally different agendas than administrators, parents, teachers and kids, yet they are the ones that continue to drive policy and everyone else is left to deal with the fallout.

An involved teacher-administrator-parent triad can solve many problems. Often it’s just a matter of one of the alpha male students putting out the message that it’s cool to appreciate differences and each other, and uncool to be cruel  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Lawrence 220). When I guest lecture or train a group of people I always look for the alpha’s in the crowd. Once I spot them, my focus is on making them into an ally – after 10 years of speaking in front of thousands of people this strategy has never failed – I never have hecklers or crowd problems – they are deferring to the alpha in the room.

Demonstrate what you want modeled in your kids. Let them see how you react when confronted with a problem and enlist the stronger “alphas” into your cause. Engage with your school, your kids teachers and the administrators. Offer help, not just criticism. And finally, understand that your are growing a human – and just like yourself, they will have friends that come and go, they will make mistakes because they don’t know it all yet, and they will do what you do, not what you say.

Thompson, Michael, Catherine O’Neill Grace, and Lawrence J. Cohen. Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.

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