Parenting, Abington Style: Settle down — it’s not the prom

Eighth graders in our area recently had the opportunity to attend their Eighth Grade Semi-Formal Dance. From the chatter overheard around my house as early as New Year’s, I should have known that this could turn into a big deal.

The dance is meant to be a celebration, to bring the student body together as they prepare to move forward to high school, the final leg of their pre-adult education. It’s a tradition to look forward to, a chance to dress up a little bit, and have a fun night out with friends. It is not, however, the prom.

The prom is a true American rite of passage. It occurs just as our teenagers are about to head out into the adult world. It’s a celebration of all of their hard work through their school years. Along with graduation, it marks the end of an era. They began as tiny kindergarteners who could barely read, and end as young adults who are ready to make something of themselves. It’s a goodbye to some lifelong friends. It is a coming of age milestone.

In early spring, I overheard my daughter and her friends discussing “The Big Ask.” Boys were trying to be clever and creative in their dance-proposals. Some were asking girls to be their date with choreographed dance numbers, original songs complete with back-up dancers, glittery posters and surprise messages delivered at restaurants (When I was a kid we didn’t even have an eighth grade dance, and for the prom, a simple note passed or phone call was all it took.).

I could sense the angst this was causing. I felt for the boys who were putting themselves out there, potentially to be publicly rejected. My heart went out to the girls who worried about not being asked, when all of their friends were.

As the date approached, I caught some conversations between other moms at the gym and along the sidelines of a game. Some discussed how and where to find the perfect dress, an expensive designer label an absolute must. There were discussions of manicures, pedicures, Brazilian blow-outs and fancy updos. A hot topic was where to get the most beautiful corsage or boutonniere.

There were red flags popping up and warning sirens blaring in my head. This is too much too soon! They are too young! They need things to look forward to later on! This pressure is going to destroy their fragile egos!

A week or two before the dance, we received a letter from the school. It encouraged every one of the eighth graders to attend, to dance, to have fun and to celebrate in a relaxed setting. It emphasized that the dance had become too formal over recent years. It stressed that it was not a formal event and that prom gowns, dates, limos, tuxedos and flowers should be reserved for the senior high school prom. I felt at one with the administration.

Fortunately, my middle-school-graduate-to-be did not let her dance preparations fly off the rails. What started around the holidays with talk of the “perfect” ensemble, ended with a simple, borrowed, cotton dress from a friend’s closet. Maybe it was my first response about the tiny budget I had allocated for this event and her need to earn anything to be spent beyond that. Maybe my years of training or her common sense kicked in; but sometime in early spring she commented that she did not intend to overdress.

“No sequins or anything too tight,” she told me. Taking hypothetical, parental credit again, I thought back to my many lamentations on what I consider to be inappropriate dresses I’ve seen on teenage girls via social media or on television. Whether they were teenage daughters of old friends in distant towns seen on Facebook, or girls on reality shows like “Prom Queen,” I’ve been known to call my girls over to analyze attire. We have agreed that the following are distasteful: cut outs that reveal abdominal flesh, tiaras, coiled hair extensions, sequins, faux jewel embellishments, platform stiletto heels, and dresses so short that sitting down becomes a potentially pornographic act. One of my daughters coined the phrase “sausage dress” for those stretchy, tube-like numbers that reveal every curve, bump and crease. Together we have pondered why some teens feel the need to have the body language and attire of an overly sexy adult woman.

My eighth grader ended up wearing moderate leather heels from her own closet. She borrowed my pearl earrings and asked me to paint her nails. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, it was not all as low-key as I might indicate. She did have a very handsome date, and she did give a boutonniere and receive a corsage. I let her get her hair blown out at Malcolm’s, but only because that expense brought the total dance expenditure up to $20.

The evening of the dance was a beautiful one and brought with it a sigh of relief. Eighth graders and their parents gathered to take pictures at one home and I was taken aback by how incredibly lovely they all looked. The boys were dapper in shirts and ties. The girls were exquisite in simple, age-appropriate, feminine dresses. Some had corsages and boutonnieres; others did not. Whether they had a date or not, each looked happy and relaxed as they mingled excitedly. I found myself feeling proud of my daughter for choosing to belong to such an optimistic, uncomplicated group of friends. It appeared not one of them had become Promzilla. Instead of following current societal trends towards excess, they all managed to keep it simple and make it about what should be important at their age: good friends and healthy fun.