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The A to Z's of Teenagers: Y is for Younger

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My mother was a reader. When she wasn’t doing any of the million other things a talented, energetic stay-at-home mother does—leading my Girl Scout troop, refinishing furniture, cooking her way through Julia Child (and not getting a blog out of it), designing and sewing trunks full of doll clothes, gardening, chauffeuring, heading the Parent-Teacher Association, just to name a few—she was reading. She sat in the gray-blue wingback chair (the fabric was the color of her eyes) in the corner of the living room smoking Parliaments and reading. She read classics, and she read trash. She read The New York Times and Ladies’ Home Journal. She read guidebooks, cookbooks, gardening books, the backs of McCall’s patterns. She read.

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Is this why I became a reader? I don’t know. My love of reading, which led to my respect for the storyteller, which became my passion for becoming a storyteller myself, must have had something to do with her. Everything I was had something to do with her. Mothers are the air we breath when we are kids, our atmosphere: Necessary for life. Taken for granted. I never thought when I proclaimed, later, “I want to be a writer,” that I owed any of that to my mother. I see now, quite clearly, that I did. I do.

What our children dream of becoming, from superheroes to stockbrokers, presidents to plumbers (oh, OK, no one dreams of being a plumber. I was just going for the alliteration), whatever their dreams; I really do believe they have something to do with us. With who we mothers are, with what we say and do, with the books we read to them and the songs we sing, with trips to the grocery store and to the park, with adventures in the backyard or on the other side of the planet.

When Lizzie told me she wanted to write about what she dreamed of being when she was “younger”—thus satisfying the Y entry in our march through the alphabet—I had to laugh. “When you were younger?” I wanted to say. (Maybe “scoff” is a better verb choice here.) “You ARE younger, like right now.” This, however, is not what one says to an older teen (or even a younger one). There are many things I do not know, but I know this.

I’m glad I held my tongue. I’m glad Lizzie wrote about what she wanted to be when she was “younger.” When I read about her many and varied dreams and saw where they came from, I was struck both by the incredible power we have as mothers to open the world to our children, and by how powerless we are—and should be—in directing and channeling our kids toward a dream we might have for them. The Easy Bake oven I bought for Lizzie the Christmas she was 5, a casual present I didn’t think much about, started a passion for baking that continues today and appears to be a career path. But the years of insisting on her taking band at school, the private coaching with a top college track star when Lizzie showed promise on the field… nope.

You never know what will turn out to be meaningful: Something you say in passing. A song you hear on the radio when you’re in the car together. An activity that, magically, appeals to you both, like writing blog posts.

I wanted to be a baker because of the Easy Bake oven my mom gave me for Christmas when I was 5.

And now a word from the teenage daughter . . .

Here’s what I wanted to be when I was younger (in no particular order): rock star, Broadway musical star, fire fighter, dancer, veterinarian, clothes designer, baker, dietician, musician, flower shop owner, rancher, teacher, personal trainer, blogger. Just kidding about that last one. I actually never dreamed of blogging (or writing anything other than what I was forced to write in school), but hey, here I am.

OK, I know you can’t possibly care what I, personally, wanted to be when I was younger. But you might care where I got these ideas from about what I wanted to be. Because I’m betting your kids are getting their ideas from some of the same places. Kids are really impressionable. I never realized how impressionable I was, how everything I saw and heard and read, all the people who were part of my life, everything made a difference, if only for moment.

Like, the reason I wanted to be a Broadway musical star was watching (so many times I lost count) a DVD of West Side Story with my family. I sang along with “I Feel Pretty” and “I Want to Be in America.” We also watched tons of other classic musicals like Camelot and My Fair Lady (my parents are fans). And, of course, like zillions of other families, we watched the Disney musicals like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. I wanted to be a singer, a dancer, a musician. The reason I took band in elementary and middle school was not because my two brothers did, but because I wanted to make music like in these movies.

I wanted to be a baker because of the Easy Bake oven my mom gave me for Christmas when I was 5. As for veterinarian…that’s because of the animals and pets that were (still are) part of my life when I was younger—from gerbils Joey and Chandler to BunBun (you can guess what kind of animal that is) to Trotsky, the Russian tortoise—and including various chickens and the longest living goldfish in the universe. But mostly because of Sonny, the best cat in the world, and Simon, the craziest cat in the world. And just one more: For maybe a week or so I badly wanted to be a fire fighter. This was right after some super buff, seriously cute fire fighters came to my school for career day.

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The point is, I guess, that what my parents exposed me to and what my everyday life was like really influenced me to think one way or the other about my future. But my teen advice to you is—don’t actively, excitedly encourage your kid when you see he or she might be interested in something. That’s the best way to make something not cool and kill their interest. (My mother knows this all too well.) But inspiring your kid is a different thing. It’s fun to be inspired.

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