The Secret Lives of Teenagers
Why are we so shocked when we get an unedited glimpse?
A couple of friends have called or sent emails in the last few days to ask about my silence on a hot topic in town at the moment — the neon party organized by a few high school students. I haven’t responded to them yet, as I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about the entire thing.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, earlier this week an email was circulated about an upcoming party hosted by high school upperclassman as a fundraiser. The reason some parents are in an uproar is two-fold: One, the bit in the email telling girls to "dress as slutty as they want,,,, it’s to be expected." And two, a call for underclassman not to arrive so drunk they get the party shut down.
As a parent of a middle school girl reading the email, my first reaction was alarm. So I read it again. And here’s my take on it. I thought that the email was an attempt, in part, to be responsible.
Before you shoot me — I defy any parent to tell me that every party they attended in high school was alcohol or drug-free. I can’t. There will always be kids that drink. Always. I’m not condoning it or saying we should accept it as kids will be kids but I am saying it’s a fact. Just like there will always be kids who get pregnant, despite being told not to have sex. The girl who wrote this email was asking kids not to drink on the premises, and, in a crude way, not to arrive drunk. To other kids, I imagine, this might have almost come across as a public service announcement.
What I’ve told my 11-year-old daughter for years now is this: Drinking is illegal before you are 21; we expect you not to drink or use drugs for that matter. When you’re older and out with people who have been drinking, call us and we will pick you up, no questions asked. Never get into a car with a friend who has been drinking or using drugs.
I’ve told her about my friend Wendy who was in a coma for months after being in a car accident after a party where she had been drinking. She wasn't drunk, and wasn't at fault in the accident but her blood alcohol level was such that it's possible her reaction time was slightly impaired, and that's all it took for her to get t-boned- a slight delayed reaction. Visiting her in the ICU, my knees buckled at the sight of her. Eyes taped shut, on a ventilator, swollen and bruised; she was a shell of her former self. Miraculously she recovered and returned to school the following year but she had a pronounced limp and had to take medication every single day to prevent seizures from the brain injury she sustained.
My husband has told her that certain drugs such as crystal meth change your brain chemistry to the point that users — especially female ones — lose their sense of self and the ability to feel certain kinds of pleasure. It may seem a bit extreme to some to lay all this at the feet of an 11-year-old who is already freaked out by D.A.R.E., but my hope is that if I say it early and often enough it will become ingrained.
Back to the party invitation. I don’t think this is a perpetuation of any hazing as one person suggested, and I don’t think that we can vilify the party organizers for their poor choice in describing proper attire for female guests. I think it’s indicative of nationwide teen culture.
In the 2001 Frontline documentary “The Merchants of Cool” media specialists point out teenagers today have more money and more say over how they spend that money than ever before. “There is big push by parents to do what they can to make the teenager happy in today’s culture,” one of the media executives says. As such they are a marketing goldmine. But as the film points out, they don’t respond to traditional marketing campaigns, which means that marketers had to figure out how to reach these kids. And what they found was that kids respond to marketing that is true to life. The marketers themselves had to become "cool." The documentary exposes the two characters that evolved from these studies and are used to appeal to teenagers: the “mook” and the “midriff.”
Howard Stern, the cast of ‘Jackass’ and ‘South Park,’ personify the mook. Stern's the perpetual adolescent male — pissed-off, infantile, misogynistic and just plain gross. The midriff is the female counterpart to the mook. She is personified by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kei$ha and a host of others. She is a host of sexual clichés, packaged as female empowerment. “Yes I am a sexual object,” she says, “and I’m proud of it.” The midriff character tells our teen girls that their best asset is their body and that flaunting a budding sexuality is a good thing, even when they don’t quite understand the ramifications of doing so.
Marketers watch our kids and sell them images of themselves and in turn the kids watch these images and aspire to be the characters pitched to them by marketers. It’s an endless relentless cycle.
The author of that email message is simply stating what is a fact in teen culture today that dressing in a provocative manner is expected — it’s what they see on television, in films and in their music. What we can hope for as parents is our kids won’t buy into the nonsense being sold to them. Guys don’t have to be crude and misogynistic, and girls are more than just their sexuality. Yes, if my kid wrote that email I’d be concerned with how she saw herself. It would be time to take a long look at what kind of messages she’s receiving and from where and to talk to her about it. It's also another example that what you write online, is very very public.
The bottom line is this, as a parent you are the adult, and as such make the rules. If you don’t want your kid wearing ‘slutty’ clothes, don’t buy them 'slutty' clothes. Does this mean they won't change into a provocative outfit when they leave the house? No, but it will be more difficult if you didn't finance the wardrobe. If you don’t want your kid going to a party, say no. Being up in arms about a stupidly worded party invitation and expecting the school is going to intervene when this is not a school sanctioned event — because you don't want to be the bad guy — is wrong. You are the parent, put on your big boy/girl pants and act like it. Set boundaries with your kids and have real consequences when those boundaries are crossed. Most importantly talk to them about drinking, sex and drugs, and what you will and will not permit them to do. Tell them what appropirate clothing is to you. Tell them they are more than what a carefully researched marketer tells them they are. You have to be louder than the constant feedback they receive from the media everyday. It’s a helluva lot of work — but no one said parenting was easy.