09/08/2010 02:00 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

6 Going on 16

Our teenage neighbor came over recently to visit our new puppy. We've known her for several years, and she's blossomed into a beautiful young lady -- a big girl, to my daughter. My daughter silently walked over to her, arms outstretched, and hugged her around the waist.

Our neighbor was clearly befuddled, as my daughter is not typically a hugger. In fact I can count on one hand the number of hugs she has given me in her lifetime, and one was out of fear of falling into the toilet when she was two, so it probably doesn't count. However, I'd been seeing the same behavior toward bigger girls all summer long, usually accompanied by a suspicious sideways glance in my direction.

"I'm beginning to think my mother's kind of a doofus," said the hug, "and I want to be like you."

She is the oft-hailed six-years-old-going-on-sixteen. Certainly I'd heard of the phenomenon, but apparently assumed my parenting skills were such that I'd be exempt. All I had to do was shelter my daughter from the outside world for a decade or so; encourage her that My Little Ponies and "Dora the Explorer" and pretend Bratz and "Hannah Montana" aren't available here. How hard could it be, right?

Of course not right.

We went to a graduation party this summer that included many teenagers. When it came time to leave, I found my daughter in the game room, surrounded by a half circle of older girls. She was gazing adoringly at them, and they were smiling down on her and chatting. If I didn't know better, I'd have sworn she was taking a class on teenage-girl-ness.

I shouldn't have been surprised. My daughter has always been in a hurry to grow up. When she was two and she had her first crush (on my husband's trainer), I knew we were in trouble. At four she asked if I could get her some breasts at the store. At six she was wearing sports bras and bikinis. And always, always, she watched the older girls, wherever she could find them. Watched, and then hugged.

My girl starts first grade this month, marking her first year in all-day school. Unfortunately, because of where her birthday falls, she had three years of half-day preschool, and because of where we live, she had half-day kindergarten. Also unfortunately, she's been ready for all-day school since she left the womb. It's finally happening, and she couldn't be more excited. And I couldn't be more afraid.

There will be older girls everywhere -- in the halls, in the lunchroom, on the playground -- girls from whom she will learn, she thinks, all of the life lessons that mommy is so intent on denying her. She will study how they dress, how they talk, how they act around boys, how they act with each other. She will memorize the kinds of school supplies and lunch boxes they use, the shoes they wear, the backpacks they carry.

She will try to wear her hair like theirs, and imitate their nail polish and lip gloss. She will adopt their language, their style, their attitudes. She's going to watch them on the bus, observe their interactions, listen to their conversations and try to take in their very aura. And I'm beginning to see that there's not much I can do about it.

It's not that I'm obsolete, I know. I'll still be in charge of where she is at all times, what clothes she owns, who she hangs with after school, what she watches on television and the video games she plays, but I have to admit that right now, those things don't seem as important as what the older girls are in charge of.

For all intents and purposes, older girls are in charge of my baby's soul for the next few years, until she starts believing that her own judgments are good enough and her own style is good enough and her own looks are good enough and her own life is good enough.

And they can help her with all of that, if they will try. I'm praying that the girls my daughter meets are happy, healthy, emotionally and physically strong, independent, kind, empathic and generous. I'm praying that she will meet girls like this, girls like herself who will convince her through their own being that herself is a great person to be.

So this one's for the girls. Please be good to mine as I send her off to first grade; be kind to her, and protect her and remember that you were once down there looking up. Be aware that she's listening to every word you say, and watching everything you do and that you have the power to influence her self-esteem in ways that I simply can't.

And if she comes up and wraps her arms around you, please hug her back and maybe remind her that doofus though she may be, her mommy loves her ... no matter how big she gets.