Monday, July 15, 2013


Mary just got back from a week of girl's camp, and when she got home, I wondered where my child had gone, the darling girl I sent off to the woods with people I love and trust. 

Good things happened at this camp. It was well done, she was well cared for, the girls learned and grew and were kind to each other. There was no bullying, as far as I can tell. There was no meanness.

But she left a nice kid and came back... a teenager. 

So here is my question. Do teenagers have to be teenagers? Do they have to be obsessed with how they appear to others in every respect? Did going to this camp trigger something in Mary that was going to come out anyway? Has homeschooling her somehow sheltered her from this, so this is a good thing she is going through it now because she has to go through it sometime? 

Mary and I had a talk. I won't go into details, but I told her about how obsessed I was with how I looked and appeared to others at her age. I told her about how much I hated my arm hairs, for example. I hated them. They were blondish-brownish, and I thought I had way too many of them and I envied those girls with no arm hair or totally blonde arm hair. I used to stare at my arm hair with a desperate loathing. I think I bleached my arm hair once, I know I tried shaving them, but I gave that up when I read in a fashion magazine that shaving makes your hair grow in thicker. That nearly gave me a panic attack.

I don't even think about my arm hair anymore. Not too long ago, I noticed they were getting a little darker, but it didn't bother me in the slightest. It did, however, remind me of how much I used to hate my arm hair. As if everyone in the world saw nothing but arm hair whenever they looked at me. 

It was a meandering, nonsensical talk for the most part, but I think she got the picture, because she seems pretty much back to normal today. She's not snapping at everyone, and she's no longer out-of-the-blue making comments about random fashion issues or food issues or hair issues, etc... 

My whole point in recording this actually has to do with books. She didn't crack a book for the entire week. She "claims" she forgot to bring one (though I reminded her a thousand times to do so—I think she may have thought it wasn't a cool thing to do, which I could go on a diatribe about for a long time if I really let myself get going). 

Reading books (good books) requires empathy. It requires you to put yourself in someone else's shoes. It requires you to try and relate to how that character is feeling. It forces you to ask yourself questions about the world and what you would do in that character's situation. 

If you are truly engaged with the story, it forces you to stop thinking about yourself. 

I think Mary would have benefited from a little reading on that trip. Being with a large group of teenage girls 24 hours a day and being fed, entertained, instructed, and rewarded, flipped the world around for my daughter where her focus became herself and how she fit in with the people around her. It didn't seem to give her much empathy. In fact, she came home so short-tempered and easily irritated, her empathy for those living with her (even her parents) seemed to have evaporated completely. 

Empathy. Isn't that what we want for our kids in the end? To develop a true sense of empathy? To rid themselves of selfishness and to go out in the world and be kind to the people around them? Not just to the people they encounter in social situations, but the people they live with every single day? 

In all of these experiences, we need to remember the power of wonderful books in children's lives. We need to use books to foster empathy as much as we can. I don't live in a third-world country. I can't give my kids a horrible upbringing that will force them to grow up too fast (well, I suppose I could). But I can give them books that for small moments will push them out of themselves and into someone else's world, hopefully giving them the building blocks of true empathy.

Because in the end, how we treat people is really all that matters.

1 comment:

  1. It's so funny--I had major issues with my arm hairs too. Ha, ha. I had almost forgotten about that.

    I really loved this post. My oldest is 12, and so far she is still in kid mode, but I'm bracing myself for the day when she starts caring more about how others perceive her and worrying about fitting in. I hope that day doesn't come, but I'm afraid it's almost inevitable. I absolutely agree with you that books provide a wonderful way for teens to get outside of their own little "me" bubble for a while.