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by Graham Charles
Four kids, all under 8 years old, shrieked along to a Justin Bieber song out the open rear windows of my minivan last Saturday. What’s worse, we had an audience. Stopped at an intersection in San Francisco’s Mission District, we were surrounded by trendy sidewalk cafés.
Dozens of hipster heads swung around to watch as my two daughters and their friends united their tiny voices to belt out “Baby! Baby! Baby! OHHH!” Bleary, post-Friday-night Bohemians sipping espressos both chuckled and looked appalled. In the front seat and 10 years past my own weekend coffeehouse days, I shrank into the vinyl upholstery.
I blame my embarrassment on my older daughter, Fern, who at age 6 (“…and a half!”) worships all things tween. She intercepts clothing catalogs before they hit the recycle bin so she can study the junior fashion pages. She copies the speech patterns of middle schoolers and interrogates her babysitters for details of high school life.
Most of all, Fern loves teen music. On the schoolyard, at friends’ houses or over kid-oriented Internet radio, she locates Katy Perry and Pink and all the rest. She learns the songs and then performs them endlessly at home. Children have a superhuman tolerance for repetition.
Slouched down in the minivan – now rocking from side to side to the rhythms of Selena Gomez – I, too, had the impulse to intervene. We forbid bikinis – so why should I allow tween culture? But prohibitions usually backfire, and besides, choices are peculiar to each family. Do I suddenly disapprove of parents who let their toddlers wear two-piece bathing suits? Of course not! Different choices make sense for different families.
So, I tried an experiment in permission.
I gave Fern the go-ahead to pick some tween shows when she got television time, and I sat down to watch them with her. The images were predictable. There’s a lot of talking back to clueless adults, but to my surprise, the kids’ self-confidence is pretty appealing. The characters are quirky and creative. Best of all for Fern (who struggles with becoming more independent), the teens don’t rely on adults for almost anything.
“Is it healthy to let your kids watch that?” other parents ask. I love that question because it implies that we have a choice. I do reject a few overly grown-up shows and songs, but mostly I’m inclined to tolerate them. Then, I initiate a discussion about what’s appropriate. In our media-saturated society, kids will get exposed to this material anyway. For us, it feels right that it happens while Fern is still willing to talk about what she’s hearing and watching.
Maybe I’m dismissed as a permissive dad who minds the kids without really “parenting” them. I hope not. When Fern seeks out tween images, she mimics some worthwhile traits. She has more self-confidence and more often trusts her creative choices. Lately, she has re-attempted many activities previously abandoned as “too hard” – from riding her bike to going to day camp. If letting Fern imitate older kids is the price for greater self-assurance, we’re willing to pay it.
Back in the Mission, I sat up straight in the drivers’ seat and smiled back at the 20-somethings staring bemusedly at our carful of would-be pop stars. And before we drove off to the playground, I rolled down my window and sang along, too.
Graham Charles blogs at Doodaddy.net.
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