Teens come of age at parties they're not old enough for
MTV's "My Super Sweet 16," a reality show for teens marking their 16th birthday, doesn't apologize for being over-the-top. The show's website promo uses words like "extravagant" and "extreme." In one episode, a birthday girl from Staten Island arrives at her party in a horse-drawn buggy. Across the country, Sierra makes her entrance by helicopter. Natalie gets an $800 manicure (she has tiny diamonds glued to each nail), and Ava travels to Paris to shop for a dress.
"This is a magical night," Ava says as her party winds down. She thanks her parents for helping her to make this "major transition from childhood to adulthood."
Sounds more like a coming-of-age ritual run amok.
A ritual to mark a child's coming-of-age can be a positive milestone, a way to acknowledge growth and readiness for responsibility. It can also be a millstone.
"Some preteens and teens end up pushed into behaviors they aren't ready for," says parenting lecturer Margaret Sagarese.
Repetition alone can be a problem. In the seventh-grade year, for instance, a 13-year-old may attend 10, 15, even 30 bar mitzvah celebrations, which commemorate the Jewish coming-of-age. "As the year goes on, there's a cumulative effect on kids' souls," says Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of "Putting God on the Guest List, How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah, 3d edition" (Jewish Lights Publishing).
With each successive one they attend, preteens get more and more bored. Salkin has seen that translate into destructive behavior, including vandalism, and to experimentation with sex and alcohol. "It turns girls into nymphettes and it gives boys an expectation of sexual moves that I didn't know about until I was married for a couple of years," he says.
Unfortunately, the typical antidote to have something unique that holds their interest and distinguishes the party, a chocolate fountain, say, or a casino only makes preteens jaded and cynical.
"The way parents spend money and celebrate is a powerful transmitter of values," says Salkin. "The message they get is, `You are what you spend, you are what you look like.' " He is senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta.
Pre-adolescence is a stage of conformity. The idea of being different is threatening: "My friends won't like me!" This isn't manipulative behavior; cognitively and emotionally, they can't help themselves. If your seventh-grade daughter goes off to her first bar mitzvah party in a frilly dress and comes home wanting something short, strapless, and sexy for the next one, it's a safe bet she was dressed "wrong."
As teens get a little older, there's a shift. They may not mind being different. "They want to show [off] what they are becoming," says Sagarese. Typically, the emphasis is on how to attract more attention. Helicopter anyone?
Carlos Rivera of Hyde Park bucked the trend when his daughter, Carla Marie, turned 15 last March. In many Hispanic communities, the quinceanera, which traditionally marks a girl's marriagability and includes a church ceremony, resembles a wedding in its expense and importance.
"I don't believe in this competition among parties," he says. "We modified." There was a ceremony at their Pentacostal church and a small party at home. That was more than he did for his oldest daughter, Joan Marie, when she turned 15. "For her, it was just a normal birthday party," says Rivera, who is Puerto Rican. "But I think maybe she felt she missed out on something; she wanted us to do more for her sister."
That he managed to keep "more" modest is no small accomplishment.
"Sometimes I say to myself, `What are these parents thinking?' " says Eli Levin-Goldstein, 23, a Boston-area DJ who founded Next Generation Productions and has been doing the bar mitzvah circuit for seven years. "The sexualization definitely has increased," he says. "The girls dress and dance like they're on an MTV video. They're 13 going on 20."
With a party mentality sweeping teen pop culture, the line between celebrity and reality is blurred. "Without realizing it, parents end up providing a stage for them to act out the messages," says Jean Kilbourne, creator of the "Killing Us Softly" film series on images of women in advertising. She is also a visiting scholar at Wellesley College.
What's more, she says, "We're sending them onto this stage with our blessing."
What behaviors get acted out drinking? lap dancing? fellatio? depends on the group.
"Today's teens have grown up in a culture that is increasingly immersed in celebrity, commercialism, materialism, and premature sexuality," says Sagarese. "Today's `It' girl is Paris Hilton. You can watch her lap dancing. Is that far behind at the next Sweet 16?"
Sagarese is co-author of several books for parents of middle-schoolers. Her newest is "Boy Crazy! Keeping your daughter's feet on the ground when her head is in the clouds" (Broadway), due out early next year.
Talking to daughters about the messages that clothes send can be a powerful tool: "Do you know that this dress says, `sex object?' What do you think that means? Is that what you want to be saying?"
Plus, says Kilbourne, "Many girls this age will be angry if they understand how they are being manipulated by a fashion/celebrity industry to buy clothes that are very expensive and don't hold up, or don't look good."
On the other hand, speaking as a mother of a daughter, Kilbourne says it's not fair for parents to make a girl an outcast among her peers on a matter of principle.
"What we need is a sense of community among parents, not denial about what's happening and what values are conveyed," she says. She tells parents to group together and agree to standards of behavior, dress, and spending, so for that group, at least, there's a sense of shared values. When her daughter was 10, she organized her best friends and their mothers to meet monthly and talk about popular-culture issues. "It was helpful for the girls to hear that other mothers had similar views, that it wasn't just their mom who was horrible," she says.
Mothers of boys would be wise to do the same.
"Boys mimic what they see in the popular culture, too," says Sagarese. Their hearts may be in it less than girls ("They're 13 going on 10," says Levin-Goldstein), but they can strike a pose or an attitude just as well as girls.
There's something else in the mix for boys, too. "Pornography is centrally integrated into the life of the 12- and 13-year-old boy, and it's not your father's pornography," says sociologist Gail Dines, a professor at Wheelock College. Because it is so accessible on the Internet, and because the trend in pornography features young girls with bodies as undeveloped as some of their dance partners at bar mitzvah parties, boys can easily transfer their fantasies and expectations to girls they know.
Printouts from these websites have been known to circulate at bar/bat mizvah parties. Levin-Goldstein says he is not as quick as he once was to dismiss "stories" about fellatio in the bathroom. "The dancers who work for us who, by the way, we tell to dress as if they are going out to dinner with their parents, not to a club they get to talking to the girls and, well, I guess there's a lot of truth to the stories. More than you'd expect."
As a DJ, he prides himself on playing the hottest music, but if parents ask for clean versions, he'll play them. "Trouble is, kids will sing along with the [objectionable] words anyway, and if we don't play any of the versions they want, that's when they're likely to lose interest and, well, wander off," he says.
He remembers his own bar mitzvah party as "fairly modest; I shared it with seven other kids." With today's emphasis on stardom, he doesn't think that will work for many preteens today. "I shouldn't say this," he says, "but if I was a parent and I was worried about this, I'd scale back on the party. I'd focus less on the music, and more on activities."