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The Juno Effect

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Q: I am so glad Juno didn't win the Oscar for best picture. I am also relieved that Ellen Page didn't win as best actress for playing the 16-year-old Juno MacGuff. If they had won, I wouldn't know how to deal with my daughter. As it is, I am having a hard time starting a dialogue with her about pregnancy and abortion. Anyone with tween daughters knows what I am talking about.

My 11-year-old daughter and her friends have seen Juno about five times. They delight in the main characters, they want to wear the clothes, they try to mimic their banter, and they envy their "cool" parents. Every time I seem to put a limit on my kid regarding curfews, homework, or behavior, she tells me that I need to be more like Juno's parents. They are supportive, she says. They don't yell. They understand. I want to yell back, "They're lousy parents!" but I hold my tongue.

My daughter wants to know why our family can't be as much fun as Juno's. She wants to know why I can't be as approving of her friends as Juno's step-mom is of Juno's friends. Of course, I can understand what my daughter is saying: Why can't we be friends? It would certainly be fun not to have to impart limits or impose values. Can this be done? Can we joke with each other? Can I be completely and unconditionally supportive of her while being a responsible parent?

A: Ah, adolescence! This is one of the great joys of parenthood - a great, if not greater, challenge as well. As everyone knows who has been through that passage in their children's life, you can be assured that they will make it through. The question is will you? Adolescence is tough on a kid, but they're young enough to take it. It can be tougher on the parent. Among other things, we know what can go wrong.

Let's just review some of the issues pertaining to adolescence. This is a time of what we shrinks call separation-individuation. What does that mean? It means your child is trying to move away from the paramount identity that they have had up until this time -- as a member of a family unit. Now they want to separate from you. They want to become their own person. They trust and look to their peer group for guidance and they think of you as not quite informed. They are rebelling. They are working on their own identity as an adult, one who's independent and capable of making their own wise choices. If they were a snake, they'd be crawling out of their old skins.

At the same time, they are scared and ambivalent about becoming an adult. Isn't it easier to stay a child and to just let others take care of you? They become aware that an adult has many -maybe too many -- responsibilities. So, they want to have their cake and eat it too - be independent and, at the same time, have Mom around for support when, as sometimes happens, things go wrong. Some days they're an adult, some days a child -some days one in the morning, the other in the afternoon.

So, how do you know what to do? How do you know what they need, as opposed to what they want? It can be maddening to satisfy their true need and get nothing but invective by way of thanks. Nevertheless, the best path to follow is not to look to their clues, but to remember that you are a parent, not a friend. Be clear about the choices you would make. Be clear about the choices you therefore want her to make. You have a set of values. She has been raised with them. She's relying on you to remain consistent.

As long as your child is your child, and that is for a lifetime, you have a legitimate right, if not solemn obligation, to express your own views. You do not have to defend your views up against a movie. Teen pregnancy can be fraught with difficulty and abortion may be the choice a family makes. This is real life, not a movie. No background music here.

But, don't ever forget, no matter how difficult, that you also love your child. That means sharing good times, laughing together and loving each other. Being a mom can entail a difficult balancing act, not between being a mom and a friend -You are always a mom -- but between your daughter's proclivity to be an adult one moment and a child the next. You have responsibility for the totality of your daughter's life, not what's happening at the moment, no matter how intensely felt. You should be parenting your child while simultaneously enjoying your child. Like a mantra, keep those two thoughts defining your choices and actions.

You can agree with your child that Juno has a swell relationship with her parents. They have fun with one another. They banter. They joke. This is what you want to keep working towards, the aspect of the movie that is truly worth emulating. This is something you and your daughter can agree on - not the pregnancy, but the warmth of the family. The conversation you want is not whether you would approve of a teen pregnancy -that's a settled matter - but about your relationship with your child. The subject can change. The subject will change. What cannot change is the comfort level you and your daughter must have to discuss anything. This is not only a discussion about pregnancy and abortion. Instead, it's a discussion about how your family can achieve fun and cohesiveness, while respecting not only your daughter's views, but yours as well.

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