Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tweenage Wasteland — Then and Now

Here's how it always starts.

"When I was your age ... blah blah blah." (Insert idealized memory that makes each of us sound like a character from some Laura Ingalls Wilder novel.) "Milk was a nickel." "We didn't have computers or cell phones or paper clips or diet soda." "I walked six miles to school in the snow, uphill, both ways."

Every generation romances its own past and despairs for the future.

And, with today's tweens and teens growing up in the digital age, there really are some great differences. I mean "great" as in unusually or comparatively large in size or dimensions, not necessarily as in wonderful, first-rate, very good. (Whatever did we do before Oh, right, we used a big fat book!) Media has radically changed and, consequently, tween and teen media consumption has as well.

At a glance, it seems as though everything is different. We've jumped from Leave it to Beaver to The Jetsons. But are 14 year old girls in 2011 really so different from their ancient ancestors of ... say ... 1976?

Sometimes I wonder.

Here are some typical tween traits one might have observed then and now:

Blind Brand Loyalty
The very very first words of one of my very very favorite Elton John songs: "Blue jean baby, L.A. lady ..." Blue jeans were and are important. The right ones mean you get it. The wrong ones? Well, you might as well find a seat at the lunchtime loser table. (And sit down fast so no one can see the stitching on your backside pockets, the tell-tale sign that your mother found those disgraceful denims at some discount store rather than Abercrombie or Hollister.) As a harried working mother in the middle of middle age, I want to say "Jeans are jeans!" But, as a one-time tween, I know better. Back then, nothing came between me and my Calvins.

Fancy Footwear
The shoes to choose these days are suddenly Converse All-Stars. Not to be confused with Converse One Stars. As my tween daughter logically put it, "Why would you want only one star?" Your average tweenage girl needs several pairs — paint-splattered, plaid, two-toned. To my unknowing eyes, they look like any other canvas athletic shoes and they cost more. But, I remember needing (not wanting, mind you, but needing) Adidas sneakers in the 70s. Trust me, they weren't giving those little stripes away.

Long-Haired Teen Idols
Welcome to the generation gap. I do not have Bieber Fever. Let's face it; it would be kind of disturbing if I did. He's 32 years my junior and the idea of his baby baby-face, singing "Baby, baby, baby, oh like baby, baby, baby, no like baby, baby, baby, oh, I thought you'd always be mine," is more than slightly ridiculous. He does have good hair though. In fact, it reminds me of someone from way back when ... hmmmmm. And they called it puppy love?

Parental Under-appreciation
Remember when you first had a baby and you swore you would never say those things? You know the ones I mean, "Because I said so." "If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?" Well, in the last several months, I have become my own worst cliché. "Look at all the things I do for you," I whine. "You don't appreciate me." For the record, my daughter does not appreciate me. However, my daughter does appreciate me as much as any other fourteen year old girls appreciate their mothers. And, I'm sorry to admit it, but my daughter appreciates me as much as I appreciated my own mother. (Sorry, Mom.)

A Flair for the Dramatic
Tween tragedies are nothing new. Remember, Juliet herself was "not yet fourteen." These girls are starring in a Technicolor (or maybe in 2011 I'd better say, a high-definition) movie of their own life. Like any sweeping saga, it has funny moments, romance, twists of fate and grand passions. Best friends come and go. Feelings are hurt. The highs are high, the lows are low. When my husband shakes his head in helpless wonder, I reassure him that our daughter, like Gloria Gaynor back in my generation, will survive.

Music or Noise?
Was there any haven on Earth more precious and personal than your bedroom when you had your stereo on? Music marks the personal journey from child to adult. The soundtrack of my own tweens and teens was fairly eclectic. It included Fleetwood Mac, The Who, Carly Simon, Elton, The Eagles, as well as decidedly uncool but absolutely top of their particular games: John Denver and Barry Manilow. Eventually I moved into new wave with Blondie, Elvis Costello and the B-52s. Whenever I am tempted to diss my daughter's discs, I have to remind myself that I consumed an awful lot of "noise" in my day.

I guess the purpose of this little trip down memory lane (and, I didn't even mention my Dorothy Hamill haircut — oops, I just did — actually, now that I think about it, it looked a lot like Justin Bieber's) is to suggest that tweens today are not so very different from the tweens of yesteryear. We may not agree with their fads but we owe it them to admit that we had our own.

The more tweens change, the more they stay the same.

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