In less than a month, the countdown begins; Fenya will turn twelve, and it will be less than a year until she officially becomes a teenager.
I recognize that a birthday is an arbitrary calendar date, and not a very good benchmark for maturity or anything else, but some of these arbitrary dates carry some philosophical heft nonetheless; no longer considered a child for admission or restaurant kid-menu purposes; able to get a learner's permit; able to drive; able to drink; able to vote.
There is also the shadow of my own mortality that will come hand in glove as my eldest daughter passes another human milestone. Already she has started the second half (!) of her schooling; there are only five more grades until graduation (not including this one). Will I be there for her cap and gown or step into a manhole someplace? Will I see her leave college and start a career or her own family, or will I seize a piston well before that? Truth be told, I have exactly enough Zen in me to keep myself from worrying too much about things like that; I try to focus more on the things I have a little more influence and control over.
Junior high school was a real time of transition for me; I didn't stay chummy with any of my elementary school friends, and I am at a loss to tell you exactly why that was. It wasn't a falling out, but I had started hanging out with a different fellow in Grade 6 who ended up going to Catholic school in Edmonton the following year. I ended up making some new friends in Grade 7 and even better ones in High School, some of whom I am still in contact with, but those transitions weren't always easy. My kids have never had neighbourhood playmates, and in this day and age, with children who need daytimers to pencil in playdates across town, that seems unlikely to change, and a time without friends is rarely a good time.
I also know that when boys have a falling out, the fists may fly, but when it happens with girls, it is a hundred times worse, as battle lines are drawn, rumours are whispered, allegiances are sought and the weapon of choice is ostracization. Fenya is a sensitive kid, even more so than I was, so I am probably more anxious about her socialization than she is. At her age, friends are a key part of developing the attitudes and opinions and behaviours that are going to define her as an adult. Will they be creative and imaginative, or passive consumers? Do they look for a tastemaker or support each other in their explorations? How much authority will they question, and how much will they accept at face value? Beyond parental fears about drugs and pregnancy and all the rest, there are a hundred little minefields ready to catch a growing young person unawares, and they will look to their friends for strategies and assistance, as well as to the values you've hopefully instilled in them. With any luck, those friends won't be so obsessed with Jersey Shore or their facebook updates that they neglect their duties as friends.
A parent's role in this is not unlike that of a baseball manager: you train, you advise, you drill, you arrange...and then you let them step to the plate and you pray like hell, because the moment they leave the dugout, there is not a whole lot else you can do.
Still and all, there are positive signs, if I keep my eyes open and wits about me
Fenya recently attended a birthday sleepover with 5 other girls, and the following day, I asked her how it went. I didn't expect a whole lot of disclosure, and that's fine; what happens at sleepover stays at sleepover after all, but I knew that if it had turned exclusionary or otherwise ugly, she would find a way to let me know, and we could talk it out a little. Apparently I needn't have worried.
"It was good," she said. "We went swimming for two hours, and then came back and had pizza, and then watched some movies. We stayed up until 2 a.m.! And Autumn's little brother kept coming down and wanting to play Pokemon on the tv, but we said, 'oh, you don't want to stay down here because we are going to be talking about nail polish and boys and stuff like that,' and then I turned to Emily-Claire and said, 'oh my gosh, that shade is just awesome, where did you get it?' and she said, 'oh, I got it at Claire's because it reminded me of this cute sweater I just got...' and then her little brother went like, 'bleah!' and just left, and we went back to watching movies."
"Wow, till 2 a.m.?" I replied. In my mind, I pictured them all curled up in sleeping bags watching Twilight (even though Fenya is not that big a fan of the movies) or perhaps Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. The viewing preferences of tweenaged girls as a whole is rather a closed book to me, and regardless of Fenya's tastes, she is obviously going to run with the pack or defer to the host. "That's pretty cool. What all did you watch?"
"All three X-Men movies," she said. "And I don't think the last one was nearly as bad as you made it out to be, and it has Kitty Pryde in it. Oh! And the first time Professor Xavier showed up, Autumn and I looked at each other and went, 'Captain Picard!' and just started laughing, and I don't think all the other girls got it, but they all laughed anyways. And between movies and afterwards we all talked about what sort of mutant powers we would like to have."
"That's awesome," I said. "I mean, seriously, that's awesome."
She looked puzzled. "What do you mean? Why is it so awesome?"
"Aren't most girls your age watching crap like Big Brother and Another Scary Movie and stuff like that?"
Fenya was dismissive. "Pfft," she said. "I suppose. I dunno."
"It is nothing short of awesome that a group of girls your age, very conscious about their peers and so on, would choose to not only enjoy some non-current adventure films based on comic books, which a lot of other girls would dismiss as guy films based on guy media, and then follow it up not by talking about how cute Hugh Jackman is..."
"...no, it's okay, he is pretty cute, but talk about things in the movie in the context of your own lives. That is great stuff. It reminds me of the kind of friends I had in high school, and in college. Guys like Island Mike and Uncle Jon in Camrose."
She thought for a bit. "Yeah, I suppose it is kind of awesome, when you put it that way."
"You bet it is," I replied. "You hang on to those friends. Those are keepers."