"11-Year-Old Wants to Shave Her Legs"
: My 11-year-old daughter has been insistent lately about wanting to shave her legs. She tells me that she is the only one in middle school who isn't shaving her legs and that people can see the hair on her legs from miles away (all three strands.) I have been talking to her for years about ways women are coerced into spending hours on their hair and make-up because they don't think they are beautiful without altering their bodies. I have told her that women in other parts of the world feel that hair on their body is beautiful.
At this point, I have given up the battle of whether she will shave her legs or not, but I'd like her to put it off for awhile---hopefully a couple of years. Last time we had a conversation about it, she yelled at me that I was stupid and idiotic and that I had a virus for a brain. I'm also somewhat frustrated with her right now because there are several responsibilities around the house that she is not keeping up consistently. It all seems to fit together in my brain. If she isn't mature enough to keep the cat litter box clean, how can she be mature enough to make a decision about shaving her legs?
Your daughter sounds like she is struggling with her sense of identity, image and position in her social group. Middle school years offer kids many opportunities to work on these issues and most of them involve agonizing self-criticism and contradicting one's parents. Being a parent of a young person who is going through this process is a delicate, disconcerting and challenging task.
Developmentally, pre-teens and teenagers are identifying strongly with their peers. And the peer culture is heavily influenced by the larger culture and the media. Kids at this age feel compelled to try on different personas. It is as if they are experimenting with different ways of being in the world. It is important that we remember that they are learning from this experimentation, but they are not necessarily going to end up with that persona for life. Blue spiky hair takes a lot of effort to maintain and will probably give way eventually to a more natural style. In the meantime, however, parents get to figure out how to hold to the values they believe in, stay supportive of their kids, yet still allow them some space to experiment safely.
. Talk to children about your beliefs and concerns. It is useful to share your beliefs with children and to give them information. You have talked to your daughter about the pressures our culture puts on women about their appearance. You can even appeal to her sense of fairness: "Is it fair that women have to spend so much time doing their face, their hair, their nails, their legs, their clothes when men just shave, comb their hair and get dressed?" You have also told her that you believe that beauty isn't something a person puts on. It is, instead, something that comes from within that person. Even though it is hard for her to make sense of your value system right now-because she is so involved in trying on the larger cultural demands, she will tuck away the information for future use.
It is also helpful to share your beliefs with her in a respectful way. If we try to shove our beliefs down our kid's throats, they have no choice but to rebel. But if you can confidently (and without insulting people who don't agree with you) share your opinion with her, she will be able to listen, even though she might not be able to change her mind or behavior right then.
. Listen to your daughter's beliefs and concerns. One of the best ways to ensure that your daughter will listen to you is to listen well to her. It is also an important way to keep in touch with what is going on with her, including what her struggles and contradictions are. When she asks to shave her legs, you could even start by asking her what she thinks about it. You could find out what she thinks would be good about it and what might be hard about it. If we hold off with our opinion for awhile, we might find that our kids have thought things through more thoroughly than we anticipated. Also, sometimes these discussions that start out about shaving legs end up about how hard it is to figure out who your friends are in middle school. Listening to your kids can help you and them get to the heart of the matter.
. Allow them some choice with responsibility. It is interesting that you say that your daughter is "acting immaturely" in the midst of her push to try on more adult behaviors. This is not an uncommon juxtaposition. Kids often take one or two steps back before taking one or two steps forward. However, this gives you an opportunity to talk about the responsibility that a big decision like shaving her legs entails. You could share your concerns with her about her inconsistency with her responsibilities. You could let her know that when she is able to fulfill her responsibilities consistently, that you will know she is closer to being able to make this decision about shaving.
Depending on the temperament of your child, you might need to set up a clear-cut system where after she keeps up with her responsibilities for a set period of time, you will let her make the decision. There are other ways to encourage kids to take responsibility for their decisions. We can require that they earn the money for the things they want or that they take on some added responsibility in the family.
Some families decide to set specific ages that young people will be allowed to make certain decisions. This system can work well for them, but it runs the risk of not allowing kids to make decisions earlier even though they might be ready. It also runs the risk of giving kids the right to make decisions just because they have reached a certain age and not because they have demonstrated their readiness to make that decision. On the other hand, it can give kids a sense of power and responsibility to put the decision within their reach.
. Save your absolute limits for real safety issues. It helps if you can negotiate on the issues that are not a matter of safety. Then, when you need to set a clear, unbending limit around a safety issue, children are less likely to resist it.
. Talk to your kids and listen to them about peer pressure. Even though kids are in the midst of it and are not always able to ignore it, it is useful to let your daughter know how peer pressure works. Basically, kids fear (either real or imagined) that they will lose friends if they don't conform. You can talk to your daughter about what makes a true friend and ways to resist the pressure to do things that don't make sense to her.
. Provide plenty of opportunities for healthy, rewarding activities. During these years when kids' sense of independent identity is forming, it is important for them to have activities that help them feel competent, strong and resourceful. Sports, crafts, collections, music, cooking or any skill-based activity is bound to reinforce your child's sense of confidence. It is important that kids have opportunities to do these as well as more free-form play during the middle school years when school and homework take up so much of their time.
. You can acknowledge your daughter's feelings and also expect to be treated kindly. Finally, in the midst of middle-school angst, many young people spend a considerable amount of time berating their parents. While it is important not to take most of this personally, and necessary for kids to have some place to vent their feelings, it is equally important to tell your daughter that you don't like being called names. You can offer her many other ways she can share her feelings without calling you "stupid." Helping her find acceptable ways to express her feelings will go a long way towards teaching her successful relationship skills she can use in the family, as well as in the world.