By Francie Arenson Dickman
I read my twelve-year-old daughters’ texts. I admit it. I take a peek whenever I get the chance, which isn’t that often because my kids are on to me and take their phones wherever they go, which includes the shower. I found this out a few weeks ago at the “Genius Bar”in the Apple Store where we went after one of the phones mysteriously stopped functioning. When Jeremy, our trouble shooter, asked if the phone had gotten wet recently, my daughter answered, “Not like soaked, but maybe like misted from steam in the bathtub.” Her face went red and she gave a small smile, as if to acknowledge the idiocy of her actions. I, however, stayed silent, unable to admit that I’d had a hand in it, that in a court of law, under but-for rules of causation, my own nosiness could be blamed for the broken phone.
I’ve heard the arguments against reading your child’s texts. Texts are private. It’s the way children communicate nowadays. They need to feel like they can freely express themselves. Obviously, these are the views of the more well-adjusted parents. I would like to be one of them. I would like to stop reading the texts, but honestly, I can’t. In this area of parenting, the realm of preteen relations, I am, like my daughter’s iPhone, damaged goods. I don’t need to apply any fancy rules of causation to tell you why. I was bullied in sixth grade.
When I say bullied, I don’t mean your garden variety name calling or not including, but the real deal, the stuff that makes up a parent’s worst fears and messes up a grown woman’s psyche. Girls throwing rocks at my mother as she shopped in town. A chain of arms linking across the hall so I couldn’t make my way. Walking home in the cold, after my winter coat had been buried in a snow drift while I’d sat in class.
As for why it happened, I can’t tell you. Although over the years I’ve developed a few theories which center around the fact that I was clueless and so was my mother. She sent me off in blind faith and Wranglers to sixth grade where I learned about Queen Bees and Wanna Be’s through on-the-job training.
But, like any survivor does, I gradually moved on and eventually, I moved away. I made friends. I got a degree. I found a career. I found a therapist, then a husband. I had kids. I was healed. And then, first physically and now it seems, emotionally, I moved back. I never intended to. I’d vowed to never return to my hometown after I graduated high school. But I’d found a house I loved in a neighborhood I liked with close friends and my parents nearby. “Go back,” the therapist told me, “and get it right.”
I tend to take any assignment with goodie two shoes seriousness (a habit which I suspect, along with the Wranglers, had something to do with the bullying), and so we bought the house, and I threw myself into my task of getting it right. For a while, the job was easy. But gradually, my girls got older. Third grade rolled into fourth, fourth into fifth, and before I knew what hit me, my SUV was rolling around the circle drive of Junior High. My girls were in sixth grade, and once again, so was I.
In an instant, I was off the wagon, undone, nauseous as could be when I dropped off my kids in the morning. When I looked out the window at the kids clustered around, I saw potential social terrorists. When I watched my own kids head into the melee, I saw potential targets. This time around, however, I vowed to be on guard, to get it right.
In my efforts to do so, I led my daughters in a series of well-intended but largely ignored lectures which touched on themes such as bullying, cyberbullying, empathy, inclusion, how to look our for yourself, why to not look out only for yourself, and when all else fails, how to throw a right hook.
I also committed to keeping tabs on social dynamics, which I quickly realized was more difficult than anticipated due to modern technology. Gone are the days when a parent can keep a finger on the pulse by simply pressing an ear against a bedroom door. Kids don’t talk, they text. So one day I decided to read, and I never stopped until the phone broke down. All in the quest to have what my mother did not—a sense of what’s going on.
The irony, of course, is that nothing is going on. In six months of school, while I’ve been patrolling and panicking, nothing has happened. As twelve-year-olds go, my children’s friends are saints. They have kind hearts, good values and nice families. It seems the only troublemaker in the sixth grade so far is me.
The other day I had to fill out a profile on each of my kids for camp. Has your daughter ever been teased? It asked. And I, in turn, asked my kids. “Have you ever been teased?”
Lilly answered with, “I don’t think so.”
Gracie answered with, “Only by Lilly.”
Their answers and their relaxed attitudes beg a few follow up questions for me, like can one really “get it right”when so much—having a twin, having nice neighbors—comes down to luck of the draw? Which in turn begs a better question: what the hell have I been doing with my time? Except, I’ve realized during the idle hours I’d allotted for advising on the non-existent bullying, scarring my children. In the name of getting it right, I have been screwing it up by handing down my issues—an aversion to groups, a distrust of people, the assumption that a friendship can go permanently south on a dime. My guess is that I am, like a parent who passes down an addiction, giving my own sixth grade to my daughters. Let’s face it, when the last words children hear as they head out the door are, “Stick together and don’t take shit from anyone,” their outlook on the day can only be so grand. I assume many parents would tell me that a better approach would be the more traditional, “Have a great day, girls. I love you.” Obviously, these are the same parents who aren’t sneaking peeks at their children’s texts, the well-adjusted ones who weren’t bullied in sixth grade.
I admit that maybe I have erred in the opposite direction as my mother. But isn’t that what parenting is all about? Swinging the pendulum, over compensating for the ways in which our parents fell short, making the big mistakes that keep therapists in business. My girls may likely grow up to be cynical, paranoid people with attachment issues. After all, one is already showering with a phone. But I hold out hope. There are still three months left of sixth grade and an entire year of seventh—an eternity at an age when all can go south on a dime.
Francie Arenson Dickman‘s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.