Pauline, the "bad influence" in Brown Girls Publishing tween novel "New Girl on Salt Flat Road," lives in the fast lane -- hosting make-up parties and pop-up bikini fashion shows, texting 24/7, and flirting with the older boys at the mall.
When I wrote this book with my writing partner Jackie Hirtz, I drew on my own 6th grade memories of a loving mother who didn't want her daughter to grow up too fast versus my bra-swapping girlfriends who thought having an 11-year-old boy snap the back of their bra was a measure of popularity.
In the latest novel in our Lola Zola series, our main character Lola finds herself caught between her mother, who worries her daughter is growing up too fast, and the new girl who is too fast.
What's a mother to do?
Should you buy your 10-year-old a cell phone? Let her wear pink lip gloss?
Post on FB, Instagram, Snap Chat, and Vine? Date? Wear a bra if there's nothing there?
c) For the most part no, but ...
To child psychotherapist and parent guidance specialist, Dr. Judy Bin-Nun, in private practice in Los Angeles for almost 30 years, IDK is not the correct answer, so strike D. Though she leans toward A (never), C is the correct answer to the cell phone question because "if a child is a latch-key kid, home alone for hours" they need a way to communicate with their parents, neighbors, and relatives. Otherwise, hang it up, the phone, because Dr. Bin-Nun believes kids who sleep with their cells waiting for texts, or are texting constantly when awake are growing up way too fast, not practicing how to establish deep and meaningful social relationships or nurturing friendships in the slow lane.
Her advice to moms and dads? "Let your child learn to look at nature. Take them for a hike in the mountains or a swim in the ocean, collect shells on the beach or visit tide pools. Introduce them to rock hunting and polishing, museums, and take them to Little Armenia, Chinatown or Korea Town. Ride the bus or train together to diverse areas of the community, and encourage them to volunteer where there's a great need. For example, tweens can help at local animal shelters by exercising the animals and giving them 'pawsitive' contact time."
What about the bra question? "It depends," says Dr. Bin Nun, who works with tweens struggling with ADD, Aspergers, divorce fall-out, oppositional defiant disorders, and academic challenges. Bin Nun says, "If a tween girl hasn't developed yet, a bra is inappropriate," though this therapist who incorporates art, creative writing, and play into her practice does recommend a middle ground, the "bralette" -- a flatter tube-like undergarment that covers up the nipples, which "girls often want to cover." Perhaps our protagonist Lola might have avoided a lot of problems, had she considered the bralette option instead of racing toward womanhood, selling "cootie-catcher" fortune-telling to her fellow middle school girls to raise money for a much-needed purchase in the lingerie department.
As for the Internet, Dr. Bin Nun, a former school principal, classroom teacher, and founder of two schools, takes a hard line. "Girls 13 and under should not be on Facebook or Instagram" because parents can't monitor their daughter's on line activity, not with the accessibility and dangers of technology. "Tween girls can have aliases on line. In reality, they're only 12 but on line they display photos wearing make up, looking like a hot 18 year old, which can lead tweens to fall prey to unscrupulous online child predators, cyber bullies, and cyber comments that send many tweens with limited coping skills into downward tailspins characterized by anxiety and depression.
Dr. Bin-Nun adds, "Using the Internet and media has shortened childhood. Kids are used to communicating in very brief ways, dumping or slamming 'friends' on Facebook, so experiencing quick unrealistic relationships is inevitable. They aren't exposed to the nuances of how to socialize properly, nuances learned face-to-face. Often on play-dates it's out to eat, mall crawls, online computer gaming with a friend or watching You Tube videos. What happened to board games, arts and crafts, or outdoor fun?"
A Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2010 reveals tweens are exposed to 8-12 hours of media a day, and a Pew study in 2013 showed that 78% have cell phones, with almost half owning smartphones. In a 2014 Newsweek article, Sex and the Single Tween, writer Abigail Jones references research that suggests 55% of tween parents say their child has a Facebook account even though they are not old enough to have one under Facebook's rules, and 76% helped create their child's account.
Dr. Bin-Nun may be swimming against the tide in this age of hyper-sexualization with curvaceous tween role models like Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez, and Kesha, not to mention cyber bullying -- hateful hash tags and fake accounts that impersonate others -- but she holds fast to her advice to parents to set clear rules and boundaries, which means logical consequences that fit the crime. For example, in New Girl on Salt Flat Road, Lola Zola plans to sneak off to a make-up party without mom's permission because "... Lola's mother would not approve, so Lola took her cell phone into her closet to RSVP to Pauline. 'The Popcorn Boss is coming,' whispered Lola behind a mound of blankets, 'but keep it to yourself. Some moms might not be cool with make-up."
I'm not giving away what happens if and when Lola's mother sees her daughter's raccoon eyes, but in a case like this Dr. Bin-Nun recommends the parent hold fast, firmly explain the reasoning behind the discipline approach, and ground the child or at the very least cut back on social privileges - and not waffle. "Parents shouldn't be afraid of their children not liking them," says Dr. Bin-Nun, who strongly advises against becoming "friends" with your child.
In our tween Lola Zola series, which also includes the first novel -- Lola Zola and the Lemonade Crush -- Lola Zola develops a crush on her 6th grade rival for class president, Charles Wembly III, aka Buck or Slime Bucket, who also competes with Lola in the business arena, opening a "limo-nade" stand out of the back of his daddy's stretch limo, across the street from Lola's wobbly lemonade table. When Lola learns that Buck's father is an alcoholic, her antipathy toward Buck melts and she wants to rescue him. Lola's flirtation with co-dependency may be explored in a future tween novel, but for now the question is what to do to ensure Buck isn't permanently damaged by his father.
In the real world, Dr. Bin-Nun recommends Alateen or a family therapy group for tweens or children even younger who are subjected to the roller-coaster ride of an addicted or out-of-control alcoholic parent. "Lola should encourage Buck to go to Alateen" says Dr. Bin-Nun, "so he won't feel so alone and can learn from others who share similar experiences." Beyond that, she suggests individual and family therapy because children of substance abusers are in pain, even though we can't necessarily see their pain. "Generally, in family system therapy involving parental addiction, kids assume different roles -- the hero, the mascot or the one who makes everything a joke (that would be Buck), and there's the one who grows up too fast and models his or her parent's alcoholic behavior."
Gone are the days when tweens idled away their hours with jacks, hopscotch, hula hoops, and puppet shows.
"Tween years are tough these days," writes Tween Us blogger Shannon Younger. Yes, these are trying fast tech times for girls and boys ages 8-13, and for their parents, too, who may be tempted to give in to their child's fleeting desires, thinking these wants are needs. Slow it down, advises Dr. Bin-Nun.
"What kids really want," says the wise therapist, "is someone they can trust and parents who set clear non-elastic boundaries should be that someone."
Marcy Winograd teaches English at Venice HS in Los Angeles and co-writes the Lola Zola series with Jackie Hirtz.
Jackie Hirtz is a former classroom teacher, who now coaches writers.
Dr. Judy Bin-Nun is a psychotherapist in practice in Los Angeles.