Tween Queen: A Chat with the Author of “How to Hug a Porcupine”
Twenty-one years ago, when Julie Ross’s first child was born, she made a discovery: those child-development textbooks she’d read for her master’s in psychology had little to do with diapers and feedings and crying spells. Theory was fine, but now she needed on-the-job training. She looked for a parenting support group, and discovered that the people leading them had the same degree she did.
“So I thought, let me just explore this,” she remembers. What she found was that parenting books and media “experts” were creating a generation of panicked parents uncertain about how to guide their children through the minefield of body image, Internet safety, substance abuse, sex-in addition to the less modern challenges of plain old growing up. “My whole business began with the idea of giving parents practical techniques to fix these things that people are writing about.”
Two decades later, Ross’s Parenting Horizons offers an array of workshops as well as individual counseling to New York City parents. I sat down with her in her office, which is also her living room-an eclectic space decorated with folk-art masks and anchored at one end by a grand piano, under which a free-range pet rabbit was shuffling around. ”Our goal isn’t to create cookie-cutter anything,” Ross explained. “We believe in standard techniques that we’ve found work for everybody, but we’re very clear that everybody has their own story and that each child is different, so we keep the groups small in order to address that diversity of issues.”
She offers different “toolboxes” depending on the age of the child: zero to five years, elementary school, tweens, teens. All of her techniques involve good communication, but as children grow there is an important shift. “Parenting younger kids involves dialogue, but it’s much more rule-focused: we say these are the rules, and if you break the rules, here’s what happens,” she said. “With tweens and teens we’re really saying, let’s talk about what the rules need to be-let’s develop a relationship in which parents can influence rather than control.” Her latest book, How To Hug a Porcupine: Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years, illustrates her approach with the stories of her clients. Practical and forthright, it’s the antithesis of the broad-brush child-development titles that were so little use to her years ago.
A Texas transplant, Ross has found fertile ground for her work in New York. “There’s one group of parents who’s so focused on financial or career goals that they farm out the parenting to somebody else. I don’t deal with them, because they don’t come to me. Then you’ve got the parents who are A-plus achievers, and they also want to achieve in parenting, and that’s my population,” Ross said. “And then you’ve got the parents who have kids with some sort of special need: the ones who are highly gifted, or have learning disabilities, or both-those are what we call 2-E children, meaning ‘twice exceptional’-very tough. Or they’ve got ADD or ADHD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder-they’ve got something, and those are the parents who need a lot more support.”
And then there are clients who just need a little help with a rough parenting patch. Full disclosure: my pediatrician sent me to Julie Ross five years ago when my two-year-old wouldn’t sleep and his nocturnal screams started to draw hate mail from the neighbors. Ross’s recommendations were reasonable, not revolutionary. With her guidance I created a script: a step-by-step manual of actions and statements to follow during nighttime screamfests. Kiss him goodnight, leave the room, wait this many minutes, reassure him, repeat. Ross dictated specific language to convey serene firmness with no room for negotiation. It seemed awkward and canned at first, but David did better on the new plan, and it was quickly clear that we had both been in need of retraining-the script was teaching me a different way to respond to him, and soon I was ad libbing in the spirit of Ross’s advice without reciting her phrases verbatim.
As Ross sees it, the challenges facing children and parents in New York aren’t that different from anywhere else-the difference is one of intensity. “There’s a pressure-cooker mentality,” she acknowledged. “The Northeast is much more focused on the Ivy League, and that trickles all the way down to the preschool level. No question, that’s different here.”
What isn’t different is the 24/7 exposure to media noise: television, texting, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. “Kids today are what I call digital natives,” Ross said. “They’re growing up with it-it’s the landscape they live in. Parents are digital immigrants-we don’t speak the same language, we don’t understand it on the same level. We can be extremely skilled at it from a technical point of view, but it’s not innate.” It’s a perfect metaphor to describe a new generation gap. “There’s a lot of fear,” Ross continued. “How do I as a parent protect my child from something that I don’t fully understand? How do I use what my children know to create dialogue, relationships, connections?”
Ross is currently working on an updated edition of a previous book, Joint Custody With a Jerk: Raising a Child With an Uncooperative Ex, to reflect this new environment. “It used to be that estranged parents would just scream at each other over the phone,” she said. “Now there’s bullying via email, or posting on Facebook, and then the whole world knows, and in addition the kids know, because the kids are on Facebook.”
Joint Custody With a Jerk, written with Judy Corcoran, a (divorced) former client, is not autobiographical-Ross and her husband have raised two children together. Her daughter has just graduated from college, and her son, who passed through on his way home from final exams, has one more year of high school. Was it hard to have a parent who’s a parenting expert? “There have been awkward moments in the past-my daughter could recite them in fine detail,” Ross laughed. “But I think if you asked them they’d both say they appreciate what I do. They’ve been very clear about how sad it is that some of their friends don’t have as good relationships with their parents as they have with us. They see that my husband and I have put a tremendous amount of work into living these techniques at home, not just preaching them.”
Ross is an appealing combination of pragmatism and passion, a realist who loves to help smooth the kinks in the parent-child relationship. “The people who come are the ones who really want to be here,” she said. “I don’t have to persuade them of the importance of parent education. And the techniques affect real change.” A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. “I’m almost always shocked when I meet the child,” she concluded wryly. “Invariably they’re much shorter and more innocent than I ever imagined.”
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