Heavy Meddle: My Teenage Daughter Is Headed To France And I’m Kind Of Freaking Out
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My 13-year-old daughter is going on a French exchange program in June. We're hosting two French students in April, then my daughter will spend five days with one of their families, and five with the other. My daughter has been Snapchatting/Instagramming/whatever with them, and one seems very sweet — excited to come to the U.S., interested in her schoolwork, a typical “good” girl. The other one — 15, though she's in the same grade — has told my daughter that she smokes secretly, and has an Instagram full of pics of her kissing her boyfriend. My daughter is more like the first girl than the second. How can I prepare her to be nice to, and get along with, the smoking nymphet while encouraging her to deplore all those values?
The other [exchange student] -- 15, though she's in the same grade -- has told my daughter that she smokes secretly, and has an Instagram full of pics of her kissing her boyfriend.
I also worry that she’s going to encounter more sexual harassment in France. The last time we were in Paris, some men selling jewelry tried to grab her. I was there and could stop them, but what can I say to make sure she knows it's OK — it's necessary — to protect herself when I'm not around?
What's linking these two issues in my mind is a more basic question: How do I talk to my daughter about these things without making her think I don't trust her?
A Worried Mère
Dear Worried Mère,
Let me start by noting that I don’t have a teenage daughter, only a precocious 10-year-old. So I can only begin to imagine the sort anxieties that take root when your daughter starts moving off into the world. That’s an important part of all this, maybe the most important part. The fact is, it takes a great deal of trust for you to allow your daughter to have this experience.
And it’s therefore perfectly natural that you would feel some trepidation about whether you’re showing too much trust, both in your daughter and the world at large.
One basic question to ask yourself is this: How much of my worrying is about the dangers posed by this experience, and how much is about my daughter’s ability to handle this experience?
I ask because it’s important to reassure yourself on both counts. When it comes to the experience itself, keep this in mind: You can and should speak with the folks who run this program, and to the French families in question. You should share your concerns with them, including your specific concerns about sexual harassment. And you should ask any questions you need to about how your daughter will be supervised during her trip. The folks who run the program no doubt deal with a lot of worried parents, and can speak to these concerns, as well as directing you to other parents and kids who have been a part of this exchange in previous years.
What you need from her is a basic assurance that she’ll make good decisions, especially if she finds herself in a sketchy situation.
I suspect the program directors, along the French parents (whose daughters you will, after all, be hosting in April) will be able to reassure you. If they can’t, well, it’s better to know that sooner than later.
You’ll also get a chance, in April, to meet the 15-year-old and to observe how she interacts with your daughter, and vice versa. If this doesn’t allay your concerns, you can speak to the program directors about them.
Finally, it’s important to have a candid conversation with your daughter, as well, even a series of them, if necessary — preferably after you’ve learned more about the program. It’s okay to admit to her that you’re worried. In fact, it’s better to get these feelings out into the open than to pretend they don’t exist. Your daughter will probably pick up on them anyway, if she hasn’t already.
What you need from her is a basic assurance that she’ll make good decisions, especially if she finds herself in a sketchy situation. She can’t exactly sign a promissory note on her good behavior. But if she wants to undertake this adventure, she can and should provide that assurance.
It’s possible to be both vigilant and trusting, and the best parents I know are both. Most of all, they are trusted by their kids, who feel comfortable talking with them because they don’t feel judged by them.
So by all means, learn what you need to learn and say what you need to say. But recognize, too, that ultimately you’re going to have to place your faith in your daughter’s ability to make good decisions, should they be necessary.
Consider it an exercise — and a big one — in building trust. Ultimately, you want a daughter who isn’t afraid of the world but one who also learns to trust her gut if she senses trouble.
Author's note: This is the part where all the parents of teenagers write in to tell me how incredibly clueless I am. Okay. Have at it. You know the drill: Pass along your feedback in the comments section below. And for gosh sakes, please send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.
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