This summer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning San Diego Union Tribune, hired a new writer. Her name's Lauren and she's 10. Her column, Ask Lauren, offers advice to kids with kid problems.
What qualifies her as an expert? "I'm a kid just like you." She's also more open than most girls on the cusp of fifth grade. "I have been through a lot in my life, like being bullied, changing schools, having my parents divorced, family illnesses, friendship problems, pet deaths and lots of other experiences, some good and some not so good," she explains in her introductory column published in May.
By the time I discovered her (while researching a story on viral wedding proposals), she'd already fielded questions from local kids about braces and being afraid of the dark. They may seem like kid problems, but take away some of the metal and monsters, and the concerns are no different than those of a 33-year-old woman, this one in particular.
Avery, 9, is having problems sleeping. "I am tired all the time, and this is driving me crazy! Sometimes I can fall asleep, but usually I lie in my bed for a really long time totally scared. What can I do to get some sleep and stop worrying about every single noise I hear? Everyone says I look so sleepy."
A grown-up expert might tell a kid to drink warm milk and count sheep because that worked for children in orphanages in the 19th century. A grown-up expert might advise a grown-up person to consult a doctor, and ask about prescription sleep-aids.
Here's what Lauren suggests: "Soft music. It lulls me to sleep and covers up noises." She recommends ambient music from a band called Marconi Union. "My mom found it and made a CD for me...my favorite song is called 'Weightless.' It's really mellow."
Sometimes Dr. Vanessa Neves, a pediatrician with North County Health Services, offers a more professional opinion at the bottom of Lauren's column. When an 11-year-old writes in about her first period and her awkward bodily changes, Neves gives the kind of sound, but boring advice grown-ups are known for. "Even though you can't control the changes in your body, you CAN take charge of your health by eating right, getting plenty of rest and exercising daily."
Lauren's feedback is less medical but more practical: while you're freaking out about your changing body, wear layers and deodorant. Those two tactics are quick fixes during bouts of hormonal hell and the self-consciousness that comes with it, she says in more tween-like language. (It's good advice for bad PMS days too.) She's also found the real silver lining in this whole 11-year-old first period over summer break situation.
"You might not think this, but getting your period in the summer is the best time. It would be much worse for it to start in class one day when you aren't ready," writes Lauren.
Dr. Neves may know more about how the body operates, but Lauren knows more about how people operate, especially the difficult ones.
Take copy-cats, a term that can apply to an insecure pre-teen or a serial monogamist who assumes his partner's identity in every new relationship. It's "annoying," as one concerned 9-year-old puts it.
Lauren's approach is at first diplomatic: "You could tell her it bothers you, and that when she copies you, you don't feel unique anymore. Then just ask her to stop. If she does, then great. But if she doesn't, then she really isn't taking what you are saying seriously and respecting your feelings."
Next she offers a more strategically deceptive approach: "If you go shopping together, you can pick something out for a sibling or someone else and then if your friend copies it, it won't be you she's copying! Then you buy what you like on a different shopping trip with your mom or dad."
Forget psychology, Lauren's on the fast track to becoming a political strategist.
So who is this Lauren and why is she a genius? I reached out to her newspaper in hopes of getting more information, but maybe my eagerness set off some security alarms. Lauren's last name isn't included in the paper for her protection, though her picture is. She also has a Twitter account, launched in conjunction with her column.
So far she's used it to tweet Daniel Radcliffe once and Ellen DeGeneres twice.
Her Twitter bio almost reads like it's constructed by an adult posing as a child (or a children's t-shirt slogan writer). "I love horses, kitties, music, TV, movies, reading, dogs, camping, swimming, hanging out with friends and helping others. I HATE math and mean people."
The idea that Lauren could be a product of a young adult author, or even an adult writer who picks the brain of an 11-year-old daughter's brain, isn't out of the realm of possibility.
But a lot of people thought the same thing about Tavi Gevinson, the child blogger who revitalized the fashion industry at age 12, and at 16 is running an esteemed online magazine for girls. We're always under-estimating kids' intuition because of their lack of 'life experience,; when in fact, their experiences are the same as adults, only harder. Scars of betrayal, insecurity, identity crises, fear of loneliness and failure, kids go through it too, sometimes all in one day and for the first time. Lauren knows. She's been there.
Here's what she wrote in her very first op-ed for the paper, entitled "Don't Be Fooled by Frenemies."
"A girl from one of the groups of girls at my old school came over to me one day at the lunch table. She acted really nice like she wanted to sit with me and have lunch. We talked for a little bit and then she asked me if I liked a certain boy. I said, 'Yeah, he's nice. He's my friend.' She went back to her group of friends and spread rumors that I had a crush on this boy. She totally tricked me into making me think she liked me and wanted to be friends."
It's a cafeteria equivalent of a backstabbing co-worker climbing a corporate ladder, or just a sexy guy with problems. The warning signs are no different.
"They're only around when there's something in it for them," writes Lauren of frenemies. "It's always all about them and what they want to do. Sometimes a frenemy will say something really nice to you and then something really mean right after. For example: 'You have really nice clothes, but they'd look better if they weren't so tight.' They say things that sound like a compliment but end up making you feel bad or sad."
Here's an obvious question no one ever answers properly: What kind of horrible monster does that?
"They are kind of like bullies. Only with frenemies, they may like you and want to be your friend but something inside them doesn't want you to be better than they are or have better things than they do."
So they're the ones who are confused! And how should someone handle them?
"Start to pull away and let the "friendship" fade away. Don't act mean or rude or pick a fight. Just stop phoning, texting, or hanging out a little more each day."
Very cool. Where was she in 2007 when I sent that emotionally overwrought email I deeply regret? Oh right, she was in kindergarten.
Still, my favorite nugget of timeless wisdom goes back to Lauren's advice on wearing braces (or any other shame-producing device, real or imagined.)
"Don't not smile at all because you are afraid someone will notice because that will be even more noticeable, and everyone will ask you 'what's wrong?'"
I hate when that happens.
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