“I have a question about boys,” my 7-year-old daughter says from the back seat of the van. “When I play with my Barbies and they go on dates to dinner or the movies, I say they're 'going out.' So why do kids say they're 'going out' with someone but they never go anywhere?”
The drive from school to our home covers just six miles, which doesn't give me much time to explain the adolescent mating process. “I think people say they're going out when they like someone and the person likes them back,” I answer.
She sits quietly and absorbs this information. I imagine she's thinking about the Disney princesses and wondering why Sleeping Beauty never talks about how she's “going out” with Prince Charming.
Before I can change the topic from romance to homework, my eighth-grader pipes up with a story about a couple in her class who are going out or are they breaking up? No one knows because it changes from hour to hour.
Talking with my daughters about boys gets more complicated all the time. Boys used to be just people friends, even we mentioned with the same casual interest with which we discussed movies, a math test, or a hangnail.
All that has changed. Boys are either “yucky” (the second-grade conclusion) or “annoying” (the eighth-grader's assessment). Or else they're something we can't discuss, as in the case of my high school sophomore.
Somewhere between middle school and last week, my 15-year-old daughter decided 50 percent of the world's population is off-limits for conversation if the topic goes anywhere near her personal preference for one member of the male species over another.
Not that I sense she's all that interested in a serious romance. The young men in her universe walk on boat-size feet, bathe only sporadically, and respond to conversation starters with monosyllabic grunts or a disgusted “whatever,” leaving friendly girls such as my daughter to wonder why boys are so what's the word I'm looking for? unappealing.
This probably is the reason she's having a hard time deciding whom to invite to the upcoming Sadie Hawkins dance, the traditional “girl's bid” event at her high school.
You would think that in the post-feminist era, Sadie Hawkins would be a thing of the past. Certainly there's hardly a teenager in America who has any idea that Sadie Hawkins was a creation of Li'l Abner cartoonist Al Capp.
Sadie was the “homeliest gal in the hills,” the character in the Li'l Abner strip who got tired of waiting around for a suitor to “come a-courtin'.” Sadie's pappy, Hekzebiah Hawkins, was even more worried about Sadie's prospects for marriage, so he declared “Sadie Hawkins Day” and devised a foot race in which the unmarried women of the town of Dogpatch chased down the local bachelors. If they caught 'em, they married 'em.
Back in 1937, when Al Capp unveiled Sadie's strategy for securing a husband, he inadvertently created an American folk event. In just a few years, schools all over the country had Sadie Hawkins Days that allowed the gals to choose their dates for dances and parties. According to the official Li'l Abner Web site, “It became a woman-empowering rite at high schools and college campuses, long before the modern feminist movement gained prominence.”
Sadie Hawkins Day was held annually in Mr. Capp's comic strip for 40 years and, incredibly, is still an event on some high school social calendars.
But whom to invite? I made the mistake of asking my daughter this question a few nights ago. The dance is coming up soon, so it seemed like appropriate timing for her to arrange a date with a boy of her choosing.
The conversation didn't go as I expected. First, you would think I had asked the girl to reveal top-secret information that might compromise national security. Her face turned red, her eyes bulged from their sockets, and she puckered her lips as if she were sucking a lemon.
“Mom,” she wailed, “why are you asking me this question?”
How should I answer?
Because I want to be sure the boy is someone we know and feel comfortable with?
Because I'm wondering if I can expect to spend an evening carting high school sophomores from dinner to a dance and home again?
Because I want to see her suffer the degradation and humiliation of discussing her social life with her mother?
I employed a time-tested parenting trick I answered a question with a question: “Why are you making such a fuss?”
“Because you're embarrassing me,” she whined.
I'm clueless. We were alone in the kitchen, so it wasn't as if someone was listening. Our conversation was no more embarrassing to me than if I had asked which flavor ice cream she wanted for dessert.
Obviously, I mistook my daughter for a regular person with whom I would have a normal conversation. I forgot that I was dealing with a 15-year-old girl and that we were talking about boys.
We had a mother-daughter chat about her plans for the dance. I tried to remember we're not girlfriends, which I work hard not to be, but I wish we could gush and giggle over the possible dates among the sophomore boys.
Of course, because I'm her mother, I think whomever she chooses for the Sadie Hawkins Dance will be pretty lucky.
That's probably what old Hekzebiah Hawkins thought, too.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)