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Generation Chef by Karen Stabiner
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  • Let's hear it for the girls

    Did the movie "Thirteen," with all its sex, drugs and recklessness, make you shudder at the thought your little girl would be a teenager someday?

    Did "Mean Girls" make you squirm?

    And did "Reviving Ophelia," an alarming book about our "girl-poisoning society," make you long for a drink yourself?

    Then here's a tonic, just in time for Mother's Day: a new declaration that the dreaded teen years don't have to be hell.

    Author Karen Stabiner argues that our culture's horror stories about teen girls descending into rage and dangerous behaviors are grossly exaggerated and insulting to most teenagers out there, who are doing just fine, thank you very much. Too often, Stabiner says, the many who are thriving are obscured by the relentless focus on the few in deep trouble.

    "If you refuse to embrace the bad-girl stereotype,'' Stabiner says, "you stand to survive your daughter's adolescence intact, and even happy.''

    Many mother-daughter duos say they are living out that upbeat message. They enjoy each other's company and expect to remain close. Yes, they may have door-slamming fights, but those blow over. They join book clubs together, go out for special breakfasts one-on-one and talk often about how to handle the class queen bee.

    "When I tell people I have two teenage girls they say, 'Oh, you poor thing,' but I don't feel that way,'' says Helen Matusow-Ayres of Ridgewood. "You're not doomed to have a failed relationship with your daughter.''

    Women who make such optimistic pronouncements tend to add a quick "knock on wood'' to avoid jinxing their futures. They do endure snide remarks and friction over schoolwork and chores. Overall, however, they are proud of their rapport.

    Matusow-Ayres describes a day when she arrived at a coffee shop to pick up her 15-year-old, Genna, who was sitting with friends.

    "She said, 'Hi Mommy! I love you, Mommy!' in front of all these kids,'' Matusow-Ayres marvels.

    Genna and her 12-year-old sister, Marcy, often cook the family's dinner because their mother works long days as vice president of student affairs at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She, in turn, takes each daughter out for breakfast alone twice a month.

    "We get a chance to talk about everything, how life is, and it keeps us close,'' Genna says. She's grateful that her mother encourages her independence and lets her take the bus into Manhattan with friends. "I want to repay her by being worthy of her trust,'' she says.

    In her new book, "My Girl: Adventures With a Teen in Training,'' Stabiner chronicles her own daughter's rather calm journey into adolescence. (The author insists that her Sarah doesn't mind being under a public microscope.)

    In Stabiner's view, assuming that the teen years will be a nightmare can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Parents need to be vigilant, but those who expect disaster may overreact to small missteps. "What does it do to a girl's sense of self to have her parents always anticipating the worst?'' she says.

    After writing books on breast cancer and all-girl schools, Stabiner decided to write about teen girls because she felt they had suffered particularly bad publicity in recent years. In the late 1990s, several respected books came out about boys, such as "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" and "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood.''

    Stabiner thought it was time for the pendulum to swing toward the positive for girls.

    "My Girl" follows Sarah from age 11 to 14 as she navigates puberty, academic competition and her exclusion from the "cool crowd.'' It ends before what might turn out to be her toughest phase, however. Stabiner says she focused on younger teens because it's important to establish a rapport early on, and girls grow up fast now. "What confused and scared me at 17 confuses and scares these girls at 13,'' she says.

    Certainly girls can be messy, selfish and sarcastic, but most aren't in serious turmoil, she says. She cites studies finding that, for example, only 3 percent have diagnosable eating disorders and less than 15 percent have an unhealthy attitude toward food.

    The rates of teen sex and drug abuse have gone down in recent years. (The National Survey on Drug Use and Health said 11 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 reported using illegal drugs - mostly marijuana - in the month they were surveyed in 2003.)

    Many parents are determined to remain close to their teens despite the emotional roller coaster that can come with dramatic physical changes and social pressures. Donna Del Moro, an English teacher at Wayne Hills High School who lives in Pequannock, says wryly that how things are going with her 13-year-old, Annie, "depends on when you call me. ... It's a minute-to-minute thing.''

    They're both strong-willed and fight a lot, but they always make up and talk honestly, they say. They clash over Annie's punk fashion tastes, her Marilyn Manson "shock rock" music, inappropriate language and grades.

    "Often we'll have a knock-down, drag-out fight and then Annie will come into my room and say, 'I don't understand why I fly off the handle, I'm sorry,'Ÿ'' her mother says. "I'm willing to ride through that storm. Apologies need to be said on both sides.''

    Annie understands that her mother worries she'll "fall in with the wrong crowd and they'll lead me into the wrong things.'' Annie says she has too much backbone to try drugs or alcohol, and she has told her mother that "a million times.''

    Both want to feel close, and often do. "Sometimes when I feel we're growing too far apart I'll go over and ask about her day,'' Annie says. "She has a really interesting job.''

    Many mothers and daughters join book clubs together to share a fun, eye-opening hobby. Lois Brodie, who runs several groups at the Ridgewood Public Library, says that in the club for girls in Grades 6 through 8, lively discussions have covered the power of cliques, prejudice and family dynamics.

    "The book club is a perfect venue for touching on issues you may otherwise be afraid to go near,'' Brodie says. "When you're talking about them in relation to a book, it's easier.''

    Linda Salzman, who's in the club with her 12-year-old daughter, Phoebe, says many parents worry aloud about the teen years but still don't try hard enough to understand their children's daily struggles.

    "Parents here are consumed with getting kids to sports events at the right time, making sure they go here and go there,'' Salzman says. "There's no focus on just hanging out together'' and listening.

    Nicolette Maggiolo, 12, another book club member, agrees that some families suffer from a lack of down time together. "A lot of kids in my school get in trouble because their parents aren't around, so they connect with their friends,'' she says.

    Her mother, Robin Wittich, left a real estate job in Manhattan and launched a personal gift service from home so she could be with her two children after school.

    Wittich says she's not daunted by the teen years ahead.

    "Eighty percent of what you worry about never happens,'' Wittich says. "You should be aware you might face obstacles and tests, but ultimately you have to have confidence in your relationship."