A piece of bubble gum and a starlight mint candy.
That was what my two daughters told me they wanted to be for Halloween last year. I immediately texted the information to my husband, punctuated by three words: “We freaking rock!”
It was actually the first time we’d given them a choice. Previously, Halloween had been a totalitarian regime. Blair, six, had trick-or-treated in years past wearing only mother-sanctioned attire: a giraffe, then a bumblebee, then a jaguar. All fuzzy. All cute. All little-girl-y. Drew, our four-year-old, had worn all the same costumes in the same order, because that’s what happens when you’re the younger sister and not old enough to care about what a control freak your mother is.
Last year, though, they both most certainly cared. And even as I asked the question, I was terrified of their answers. I expected requests for things along the lines of “cheerleader,” “mermaid,” “Hannah Montana” or “bunny,” knowing each would have translated in my mind to “stripper.”
When, instead, they asked to dress up as the things they happened to love most at that particular moment in their lives—gum and mint—I felt as though I’d won. That “Sexy and I Know It” song, which they’d heard somewhere and wouldn’t stop singing, be damned. And that second-grade girl who wore makeup to school? She was invisible to us. My fascism had paid off: My little girls were still little girls.
And so like Martha Stewart on meth I rushed to Jo-Ann Fabrics, spending way too much on white poster paper (which I cut into two big circles to make a sandwich board) and red tempura paint (which I used to artfully draw swirls on those circles). I bought shiny silver wrapping paper (which I spray-adhesived to a vest I’d cut out of cardboard to make a “gum wrapper”) and a pink balloon (which I blew up and tied to a pink headband to be the “bubble”).
When the girls first saw their costumed selves in the full-length mirror, Drew began jumping up and down very fast, and Blair screamed like, well, like a little girl, then ran and tackled me in a hug: “I love you, Mommy!”
That night, they couldn’t walk fast enough to the Monster Mash party at their elementary school. Drew the Starlight Mint charged right into the fray of kids doing the limbo. But Blair the Bubble Gum? She stepped through the gym door as though she fully expected a spotlight to shine down on her, to be followed by wild applause and, maybe, a gong. She zipped over to her group of friends—among them a gypsy, a genie and a black kitten—and I sat down on one of the metal lunch tables pulled out from the wall.
“Did you make those?” one mother asked.
“Those are the coolest costumes ever!” she exclaimed.
Yet just as I was about to explain that they were the girls’ own ideas, a pink balloon was tossed into my lap. Standing in front of me was a six-year-old with tears in her eyes.
“I’m embarrassed,” she whispered in my ear. “I should have been a gypsy.”
And I realized: This was it. This very moment was it: the beginning of the end.
I, of course, did what any rational mother would do—I blamed other parents. The fact that my sweet, innocent six-year-old had decided she was suddenly too old to be bubble gum was their fault. Obviously.
Ever since Blair’s first day of kindergarten, when our world suddenly and irrevocably collided with those of other families, I had assumed we all shared a collective agreement concerning certain basic parenting tenets: Bullying is bad; playdates shouldn’t include screenings of The Walking Dead; Halloween costumes for elementary-school children should be limited to cartoon characters, innocuous food items and woodland creatures.
I was mistaken. And I just didn’t get it. Why would a parent say “Yes” when a six-year-old daughter asked to dress up like a gypsy, or like anything that might, by someone, by anyone, be considered suggestive? Or inappropriate? Or mature? What was the point of speeding it all up? Didn’t we want our kids to stay as young as they could for as long as they could?
Maybe this sort of fast-forwarding was excusable on Halloween. But it wasn’t just on Halloween.
Barely two weeks after the Monster Mash, I stood in the playground during morning drop-off with a group of moms who, like me, all had their hands to their mouths. A girl in the under-11 set stood in line wearing boots clearly borrowed from an employee of Delilah’s on Spring Garden.
“She can’t even walk,” said one.
“I couldn’t walk in those,” chimed in another.
“Did her mother not see her leave her house?”
Reports spread that the girl’s mother had not only seen but had in fact purchased said boots for her little girl. How very “free range” of her. It’d be nice if that old adage was true—what happens in your family stays in your family. But it doesn’t. Because when your free range ends up in the school drop-off line, it crosses over into my range.
And what that meant was this: I had to spend the next month with my six-year-old (and, because this growing-up thing spreads like the plague, her four-year-old sister) clomping and wobbling around the house in my black leather boots with the two-and-a-half-inch heels, begging (read: screaming, yelling, stomping, slamming) every day to wear them to school, because little Delilah had.
I spouted all the tried-and-trues, like “If I let you wear those, the police will come and take me to jail.” Because what I really wanted to say—“Slow down!”—would have been completely lost on Blair. She had glimpsed the promised land of seven, eight, nine, 26. And it had pierced ears, miniskirts, eye shadow, Justice, bikinis, fully caffeinated Pepsi, YouTube, Lady Gaga, and tight t-shirts with “Hot!” written all over them.
My daughter wasn’t the only one paying attention. This phenomenon of teen babies is so prevalent that marketing people have coined a term for it—“KGOY,” a.k.a. “Kids Getting Older Younger.” A New York Times Magazine article explained why: Three-year-olds are now doing things that used to be reserved for middle-schoolers. Like playing DS games. And wearing Juicy Couture.
Businesses aren’t dumb. The last time the girls and I went grocery-shopping at Wegmans in Cherry Hill, we drove past the über-pink Sweet & Sassy store and watched a parade of girls, all with fresh manis and pedis and all wearing tiaras (as were their moms), strutting single-file into the equally über-pink Sweet & Sassy stretch limo parked out front. The girls were four. I didn’t ride in a limo until I went to junior prom; I didn’t get my first pedicure until I was over 30. If you are doing these things at four, what are your parents possibly going to use for bribery later on? If you do your spelling homework, you can have … a Vespa?
“Sweet & Sassy will never see me, ever,” declares my friend Mara, like me the mother of a six-year-old daughter. Also like me, she has set rules about certain things. She won’t allow princess attire, aside from jammies and undies. “I guess for me,” Mara says, “part of it is wanting my kid to experience things for the first time when she can appreciate them. Like a first sleepover.”
Curious, I asked other friends if they had rules I could steal.
“Makeup? High school.”
“No soda until six.”
“No Star Wars until six.”
“Facebook equals never.”
“She has to call me ‘Mommy’ until
“My kids are not allowed to read the third Harry Potter book until they’re eight,” says my theater pal Chelsea. But then my college friend Mike jumps in: “We let our six-year-old read the first three.”
There probably was a good lesson for me in this moment, something about how letting kids be kids might actually mean letting them navigate their differences for themselves. But suddenly I was in no frame of mind for learning lessons. Instead, I’d become instantly fixated: Did Mike just say that his six-year-old read the first three Harry Potter books?
Meaning that his six-year-old is an advanced-enough reader to read Harry Potter?
And Blair has turned seven, and I can barely get her to read the comics?
That afternoon when I picked up Blair and her sister from after-care at school, we immediately drove to the local library. As usual, Blair trotted toward the picture books, but I ran ahead to intercept and redirect, literally pushing her into the juvenile aisle, where the chapter books are. It’s not a fun place, the juvenile aisle. It’s not even a fun word—juvenile. The books are shelved in stacks that are way too high for a short seven-year-old—actually, for any seven-year-old—to browse. So I started pulling them down.
“What about Magic Tree House?” I asked brightly. “What about Clementine? Geronimo Stilton? What about these fairy books …” I thought better of it. “No, not the fairy books.”
“Let me see the fairies,” she begged.
“They look kind of silly,” I explained, using “silly” as code for “not even slightly challenging enough to prep you for the Hunger Games trilogy you’ll be starting at the end of the week.”
I should have just stated aloud what my brain was yelling: Hurry up!
Somewhere in the linty pockets of that brain, I knew I was being ridiculous. Kids learn to read at different times; not only had I read that in Parents magazine, I’d written the article. I’d spent months researching the trend of parents teaching babies to read, flipping flash cards in front of four-month-olds who couldn’t even babble yet. The bottom line: No matter when kids start reading, they typically end up on the same page by second or third grade. Blair was just starting second.
Even so, I couldn’t shake the idea that she was going to be the child left behind. So I did what any rational mother would do: I blamed myself. This was my fault. If I’d quit working so the kids came home from school to read with me instead of screwing around at after-care making God-knows-what out of paper plates and Floam, she’d be breezing through Lemony Snicket by now. If I’d been reading her The Little Prince at bedtime as opposed to Barbie in A Mermaid Tale, she’d have renamed the pink beanbag in her room her “reading chair.” If I’d banned the TV like my friend Amy had, Blair would have won the cool art kit during the library’s summer reading contest, instead of just playing with it at her friend Callie’s house. Because Callie won it. Because Callie’s mom is clearly a superior parent.
“I’d really like to have an art kit like that,” Blair had said.
“Well, in order to win a reading contest, you need to read,” I scolded, which is always an effective tactic when one wants to convince a kid to do something.
“Or I could just go to Callie’s house and play with hers,” she reasoned.
“You will not! You will not!”
I thought I might be going crazy. Then Mara confirmed that maybe we all are. “I’m finding I’m tortured by what other kids are doing,” she said.
Except I was also feeling tortured by all of the blaming I needed to do to temper the torture. It was everyone else’s fault that Blair was growing up too fast; it was my fault that she was growing up too slow. It’s the maddening Catch-22 of my generation: We want our kids to stay little till their Carter’s wear out, while also making sure they know French by age five so they can start shoring up that application to Yale. But the truth behind it is the worst torture of all—kids grow up regardless. And there’s actually nothing you can do about it.
So, naturally, I started to do everything about it. Banning access to lipstick and belly shirts, assigning chapter books, controlling the time allotted for iCarly—I began helicoptering like the last bird in Saigon, as if I could somehow take charge, as if this would grant me a say about the speed with which this all flies by, as old ladies in grocery checkout lines always insist on reminding me, usually when I’m contemplating just leaving my kids there.
“Mommy, can I have a phone?” Blair asked a few months ago, standing in the kitchen after the second-to-last day of the summer rec program at her school. “Everyone has a phone.” By everyone, she was referring to kids fifth grade and below. Before I could answer, she started singing a song she said she’d heard on someone’s phone that day: “Remember all the things that you and I did first/And now you’re doing them with her.”
She opened a drawer and pulled out a whisk to use as her microphone, and sang that line—over and over and over—as she hopped around the room.
“This is ‘sexy dancing’!” she announced, then began jutting out her arms on random beats she heard in her head, cocking her hip while she kicked her leg out behind her—looking like a kid is supposed to at seven. Awkward. Silly. Fumbling in that twilight between being a little girl and being a “juvenile.” And finally I saw it: We were in the same place, Blair and I.
“Yes, indeed,” I said. “That is sexy dancing.”