Off Limits For All

I’m sure you’ve heard about it, but a couple of weeks ago, Malia and Sasha Obama were criticized by (former) congressional aide, Elizabeth Lauten for…well, for them basically being teenage girls. She said the girls needed to show “a little class,” referring to their looks and posture during an appearance with our President as he decided the fate of two turkeys that hoped to live and not be the main course for Thursday’s dinner.

Our President delivered a well-written pardon, filled with political jokes, history of why we even go through pardoning turkeys and how they would visit a shelter later as the first family. But, the truth is, viewing through the lens of a teenager, the whole situation was a little corny. However, he was doing his job as President of the United States and sometimes you have to do the things that don’t seem so exciting or presidential. Pardon the turkeys, make the people chuckle, and share how the first family will serve others later on in the day.

Barack Obama was elected to this position. Malia and Sasha were not. Although the girls have some responsibilities as members of the first family – pretending to be amused by political, corny activities is just something teenagers shouldn’t have to do. This is not to say they’re not interested in the farmers who bring fresh food to our tables, which was part of the President’s remarks, but this setting was not focused on the farmers.

Like a lot of folks, I have enjoyed watching Malia and Sasha grow up. I have also enjoyed seeing them navigate as members of the first family while remaining as normal as possible – or so it appears. I love that they participate in the White House events, like the Easter egg hunt and pardoning the turkey. But, they are still teenagers and also do teenage regular stuff, like take selfies, attend basketball games and work in internships. It seems like their parents and grandmother make sure they have some since of normalcy and for most cases, stay out of the ridicule of the press.

But every now and then, you have people like Ms. Lauten who seem to forget the Obama daughters ARE normal teenage girls. Normal teenagers should be allowed to develop. Normal means they get to look bored and not pretend that they’re happy about some lame activity or that they have to laugh at a bad joke, that wasn’t even intended for them. Adults have to do that stuff, not teenagers. Malia and Sasha should have more time before they have to smile for the cameras or give “good face” because others are watching. They should have time before they have to fake the funk and perform for others, because they’re teenagers and they should get to be teenagers. All while still showing class.

Now, as much as I love Malia and Sasha and agree they should be off limits for public ridicule and opinion, I would appreciate it if ALL teenage girls were off limits for the same thing. There are many girls who are ridiculed by random people and aren’t offered the “off limits” pass, particularly black and brown teenage girls. Many black and brown teenage girls are familiar with public opinion about their lack of something. Whether it is class, intelligence, style, speech…the list goes on. And the sad part is, black and brown girls know they’re ridiculed and there are not enough people are coming to their defense saying “off limits”!

One thing that all teenage girls have in common, regardless of race and class, is the developmental stage of adolescence, the transitional period. It’s the stage with the most change in a short amount of time, the most freedom with very little choices, and the stage with the most unknowns. Funny thing is, most adolescents would love to rush through this stage because there is a false impression that adulthood is so great. Adulthood may come with the ability to be free to go and do whatever you want, but it brings way more responsibilities than homework and “likes” on InstaGram.

I’m convinced, the “awful teen years” as Ms. Lauten puts it, are made worse by awful grown folks who offer so many opinions and give little authentic interest in teenagers – let alone actually partnering with them in their youth development. As someone who works with young people and has a large family full of preteens and teens, there is a lot of youth development going on around me.  I’ve had numerous moments where I wanted to offer opinion, voice, or judgment to something a teenage girl was doing, or address the look she gave, or comment on the lack of interest she showed in something. But, I have to constantly check my position, my judgment, and my motivation because I could be causing harm rather than teaching the art of engagement.

Most of all, I have to check my approach because youth development is going to occur with or without me. I can’t expect girls to listen to me or care about what I have to say unless I first listen to them and care about what they have to say, including those in my family. Every adult can remember the things that certain grown ups didn’t understand or approve of as they navigated their own adolescence. Here’s your chance to be different with your approach and be a highlight in a teenage girl’s adolescent development. We can’t control the outcome, but we are responsible for our approach. Off limits for all!

This is what I do.


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