Q.My fifth-grader is receiving invitations to boy-girl parties where dancing and games like "Spin the Bottle" are part of the evening's activities. Those reluctant to join are scorned.
I have no strong objections to boy-girl parties with a non-coupled focus, such as bowling, but I don't see the wisdom of these more grown-up parties.
The parents who give them say they help the children avoid awkwardness in junior high school, but I think junior high "awkwardness" is appropriate. It shouldn't be lessened at the expense of rushing youngsters of 10 and 11 out of childhood. A.A. Fifth-graders -- and more
A. particularly sixth-graders -- are going to play, or try to play, some version of "Spin the Bottle" at their parties whether parents encourage it or not. (Think back to the days when you were 9 or 10.)
Dancing by choice is unlikely. It depends on the children's backgrounds and the tradition in their area. These kind of parties may start a year or two sooner in some parts of the South, for instance, than they do in your part of the country, but seldom before the sixth grade. Children should move out of childhood at their own particular gaits, one awkward step at a time, for awkwardness is as inevitable in junior high as posters on the wall.
They may be interested in the opposite sex at this age -- indeed they are -- but it isn't their main concern.
They are now moving away from their romance with order -- filing and classifying and putting everything, including themselves, in the proper place, and they are entering the passionate years of 10, 11 and 12. You see these children throw themselves into a single interest with an intensity that may dazzle you but the objects of their affections are impersonal. They concentrate on baseball, ballet, a horse, the swim team, only exploring the next interest when they think they have mastered the last. The preteens define themselves by their interests, each time sure that they know just where they're going. If every preteen could fulfill his or her dream, the world would be awash with athletes and veterinarians.
These are magical romances and to interfere with them is unfair -- but this is happening with increasing frequency.
Some parents rush their children ahead as if they can't wait for their tomorrows. In the process they may steal the child's joy in today.
We do this rushing in many ways: The kindergartner who is given designer jeans or the second, third- and fourth-graders who are allowed to have that status symbol of the 11- to 14-year-old -- the slumber party. Many parents complain that the younger children have no curfew at their parties and that they stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning.
It doesn't have to be this way.
If some children, or even most of the children, are allowed to grow up too soon, you don't have to go along.
Rather than expose your child to scorn, you can claim another "previous engagement" or simply say, "I'm sorry, kiddo. I know you want to go, but I love you too much. I'd worry."
This is an answer you'll give many, many times in the next 10 years; you may as well get practice.
Your child may throw a scene every time, but take comfort. The parents who have the courage and the integrity to say "no" are the ones who teach their children these values, too.
This is not to say that all boy-girl parties are a bad idea at this age, only that they need to be handled differently.
Concerned parents might have bigger parties for all the neighborhood children between 10 and 14. The more sophisticated ones, whatever their chronological ages, will dance while the younger boys will hang out in groups and the younger girls will march about, side by side, in bands of two, three and four -- the tribal style. This sort of gathering makes the teen-agers feel suave around the sub-set while preteens feel more grown-up by being with their elders and all of them will feel less awkward, particularly if the main thrust of the party is some sport, like swimming or skating (or bowling).
It is indeed unwise for parents to set the party stage for fifth-graders to dance and play kissing games. That's silly business. Children need to be accepted as they are and at whatever age they happen to be.
And if you can't steel yourself to say no when a no is needed, read one of the most important family books of this decade: The Hurried Child by David Elkind (Addison-Wesley, $7.64, paper). There is enough thoughtful ammunition here to remind you that mothers know best -- if not for other children, then certainly for their own.
For that's the crux of it. Each child is different and is reared in a somewhat different way. This is how a family defines itself.