How Do You Shut a Girl Up?

kissKiss her. Or so went the new post on my ‘little’s’ Facebook page.

Well … she’s not so little anymore, to tell the truth. She just turned 16, and has a boyfriend, and is deeply enmeshed in the same unhealthy online culture as every other teenager, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Yet, though perhaps developmentally understandable, there’s still a whole lot wrong with that ‘Kiss’ sentiment. If you’re reading this, you probably know what it is. Particularly if you’re a parent, a social worker, or a woman who came of age during the ‘second wave’ feminist movement of the ’70s. I happen to be all three.

First, a little background.

Savannah — I’ll call her Savannah, though that’s not her real name — isn’t technically my ’little sister’ anymore. We saw each other for three years, starting when she was 9. We had a lot of structured fun together, exactly as the mentoring agency suggested we do. We went bowling and iceskating, saw movies, baked lemon pound cake, and pieced together jigsaw puzzles. I taught her how to plants bulbs,  double a recipe, and find middle C on a piano. We made Valentines, played miniature golf, and ate Chinese food. I introduced her to Indian cuisine, which she hated, and Enya, who she loved. We talked about her mom, her mom’s boyfriend, their new section 8 apartment, and her neighbors, some of whom she thought were scary. She was smart, but needy and impulsive. She had a hard time keeping her mind on her schoolwork. Every year, she barely made it into the next grade.

She was the only child of a capable mom, but her family situation remained a mystery to me. No adult in her life had a job or made moves toward getting one. Instead they got by on free and subsidized services, a mix of government checks, and the charity of nearby churches and nonprofits. It wasn’t easy, but they were surviving. And survival was what mattered. Savannah’s mom wanted the best for her, I know that she did. It’s just that ‘the best’ meant something different in their world than it did in mine.

It seems ridiculous now, but it took me years to realize that Savannah and I came from different cultures. I thought my life was the ‘normal’ that Savannah would one day reach for; she, naturally enough, considered her life normal. To her, I must have seemed like a benevolent foreigner. I came bearing exotic gifts, but otherwise I was of little relevance.  I liked to talk about school and college and careers. I liked to talk about getting ahead in the world. But Savannah was uninterested in all this, even suspicious.  The fact was, she wasn’t any more interested in adopting my ‘values’ than I was in adopting hers.

I didn’t know what to say — maybe I’d never known what to say to her, really. So I just came out with it: Don’t depend on this guy. Don’t need him. Don’t let him shut you up, even — or especially — with kisses.

Eventually she started getting a little bored with me. Making dates with her became harder, partly because she never wanted to go anywhere unless a friend could come along. We did that for a while, but then I balked. She sounded relieved when I asked if she wanted to take a break.

We fell out of touch for a while.

But a couple of months ago, I heard from her mother. Things weren’t going well for them. Her mom’s boyfriend had tried to stab her and was in prison. The local newspaper covered the story, and Savannah’s friends – never dependable — deserted her. She stopped going to school. Her mom asked if I could get back in touch, maybe via Facebook.

One look at her page and I could see that Savannah wasn’t a pudgy 10-year-old in pigtails any more. She was a pretty, if somewhat hard-looking, teenager. But I could still see the little girl underneath.

I set up a time to call, and we ended up talking several times. I brought up school, but she put me off. She didn’t want to talk about it. All the problems with her mom’s ex-boyfriend — a man she had happily called ‘Daddy’ — had left her feeling abandoned and vulnerable. To make matters worse, her mom had recently invited a new boyfriend to live with them, and according to Savannah, he ended up pulling a knife on her mom, too. Everybody in their lives had betrayed them.

Except Savannah’s older boyfriend. When we first talked, he had just broken up with her, but by our second call, he was back. On her Facebook page, she’d uploaded photos of herself sitting on his lap, and written notes to him sprinkled with little red hearts. He never had a name; she only called him ‘babe.’ And of course there were lots of nuggets of romantic wisdom from the internet, the ‘Kiss’ sentiment included.

I didn’t know what to say — maybe I’d never known what to say to her, really. So I just came out with it: Savannah, please don’t get pregnant. It’s too hard, and you won’t overcome it. Don’t depend on this guy. Don’t need him. Don’t let him shut you up, even — or especially — with kisses.

Will she take my advice to heart? I don’t know. Getting pregnant may seem like a reasonable next step in her life. And why should she want for herself what I want for her, anyway?

Looking back, I’m not sure what Savannah got from our relationship. I know what I’ve learned, though. I don’t think mentoring is simple anymore. In fact, I think it’s one of the most complicated things we do, embedded  in layers and layers of unspoken assumptions and judgments. If we want to be effective, we need to be honest about that. We also need to acknowledge that girls set adrift in today’s hypersexual media culture face some very real dangers, and poor girls most of all. The false glitter of romance shines brightly for Savannah, as for lots of girls with nothing else going for them.

So what to do?  I don’t have answers, just observations. But we need a conversation.

(April 2013.) Melanie Wilson is Youth Catalytics’ Director of Research.