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On being twelve

This isn’t about my own, current, 12-year-old, or about any of my former 12-year-olds. Maybe it’s a bit about the 12-year-old I used to be, and about who that has made me as a parent. It’s a copy and paste from a message board, where I was responding to a mom whose daughter had stolen some money from her. I wrote it a couple of months ago and forgot about it. Yesterday I stumbled across it with Fiona and was surprised by how much it resonated for both of us. That claustrophobic feeling of being confined and controlled, just itching for the world to take you seriously…

I stole money from my parents as a tween and young teen. I grew into an honest law-abiding adult. At the time I knew it was wrong. I knew lying was wrong. I felt badly about it. I still did it. Why?

Well, in my case it was to right injustices that I felt (and still feel) very keenly. The injustices were personal but also to a larger extent societal. Twelve-year-olds are capable and intelligent; many of them are probably stronger and smarter than some adults. They are hard-wired to want independence and responsibility. Yet they are terribly infantalized by our culture: they have almost no control over their lives, almost no autonomy for personal decision-making, almost no ability to contribute meaningfully to the world. They have to get permission for almost everything they do, whether to eliminate bodily wastes (ask to go to the bathroom at school) or to eat or to walk their body 100 metres to the north or to buy a soda. They can’t work — they can’t even volunteer most places, due to liability and supervision issues. Like seriously: for someone who has near-adult capabilities, 12-year-olds have absolutely microscopic levels of freedom, power, autonomy. 

And here’s the thing: whenever we give kids just a little smidge more responsibility and independence, the instant they make a choice that doesn’t align with our preferences, perhaps because they’re just learning to wield it or perhaps just to be sure the choice is really theirs to make, we call that “not ready for the responsibility” and we punish them by restricting them even more. We ground them, we remove discretionary choices we call “privileges,” we shorten the apron strings.

Being an adolescent, especially a bright capable one, sucks. You are ready for so much more than society says is allowable.

And in our society money — like it or not — is a very potent symbol of those things that adolescents hunger for: freedom, power and autonomy. Snatching some money is an alluring way to feed a little bit of that hunger for control over your life. It will probably take your daughter, like it took me, a decade or two to understand the real reasons underlying her theft, but I’d be willing to bet she’ll ultimately come to the same conclusions I did. 

I can pretty much guarantee that your daughter knew what she did was wrong. She said as much; she cried, she’s sorry about the whole thing. I don’t think you need to do anything else to show her that you disapprove, that she was wrong. This isn’t rocket science. She knows.

What she needs help with is in addressing the feelings and impulses that caused her to do something that she knew was wrong. And here’s where I need to make a case for something that probably seems really counter-intuitive to you. I think that if you possibly can you should consider giving her more freedom, more responsibility, more trust and more money. Not less. If you are clear in how you discuss this with her, she will not interpret it as a reward for dishonesty.

I’d wait a few days and then take her out for an ice cream date, or to a favourite café for a heart-to-heart. Tell her that for her to do something so wrong, you know she must be really struggling inside. And you wonder whether part of what she’s struggling with is a desire for more independence and responsibility. You understand that it’s really hard being 12. At 12 the world still treats you like a child but in a lot of ways you’re practically as smart and as strong as an adult. As her parent you know that she is kind and good and strong and capable, though admittedly it can be hard for parents to let go and give their kids the freedom to look after themselves more and maybe even make a few mistakes. But as best you can you’d like to start treating her more like the adult she is becoming. And you’d like to enlist her help in coming up with some strategies for doing that. Ask her what she thinks would help.



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