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Interview with Carol Weston

Carol Weston has won the loyalty and respect of kids and teens, especially adolescent girls, through her down-to-earth advice column and many books. She's the author of advice books and novels including Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You; For Teens Only; For Girls Only; Private and Personal; The Diary of Melanie Martin; Melanie Martin Goes Dutch; and With Love From Spain, Melanie Martin. Her "Dear Carol" column for Girls' Life has been popular since the magazine's first issue in 1994 and Girltalk has been in print since 1985. Carol and her husband, playwright Rob Ackerman, live in New York City with their two teenage daughters.

CreativeParents:What kind of questions do girls ask you in your Dear Carol column in Girls' Life?

Carol Weston:They ask things like "My best friend likes a guy and I like him too. What should I do?" Girls want to know how to bring up awkward subjects with their parents. A girl might write in because she can't decode her boyfriend's behavior or because he's pressuring her "to do nasty things." The column is targeted to ten to 15-year-olds so it covers a range of topics, but mostly relationship troubles.

CreativeParents: Can you answer all the questions you receive?

Carol Weston: I may be crazy and I may retreat at some point, but so far, I try to answer almost every letter or email I get. Girls are pleased to get answers to their questions and sometimes they seem surprised when I'm able to answer quickly. Occasionally they write back to thank me or tell me what happened as a result of the advice -- which is great and makes me feel I've been helpful. The mail is overwhelming but somehow always feels just this side of manageable.

CreativeParents: How did you start writing for teens?

Carol Weston: As a teen I always kept diaries, and at 19, I sent an essay into Seventeen Magazine. They published it! Since then I've written two books and many magazine articles for grownups, but I really love writing for kids and teens. Teens are hungry for information and it feels good to get them on the right track. And writing novels for kids is fun because children aren't just readers, they're rereaders.

CreativeParents: How has life changed for teen girls from when you started writing for teens?

Carol Weston: The Internet, cellphones, thongs, flavored condoms! And now cute guys are called hotties instead of hunks! I guess girls are being sexualized sooner. You can watch MTV first thing in the morning. I keep reminding girls that just because a guy wants you to do something doesn't mean you need to do it.

Girls should do what they want to do--not what someone else wants them to do. A girl should ask herself if she's in a good, caring responsible relationship--I hate seeing girls get exploited. It's also important for kids to get accurate information on drugs and STIs (also called STDs). While pressures today have intensified, things are not totally out of control. And some stress surrounds positive things, like getting into college.

CreativeParents: How else have relationships changed?

Carol Weston: A lot of flirting goes on over the internet. Being able to write to a guy gives a new advantage to a girl who is shy but smart or funny. Of course, some naive vulnerable girls fall for cybercreeps--I get disconcerting mail from girls in "love" with a guy they "met" online. Another word that is new to this generation is "dump." I hate that word! Breakups should be thoughtful and gentle, not mean or abrupt. The term "dump" objectifies the boy or girl who's being left behind. I try to get kids to be sensible, but also sensitive. I also try to remind them that girlfriends usually last longer than boyfriends. Don't sacrifice your relationship with a girl friend for a boy you may soon be breaking up with.

CreativeParents: What other changes do you see in the questions girls ask?

Carol Weston: Eating disorders are still a problem. The focus used to be on anorexia and bulimia, but now obesity is a major concern. I try to help kids have a normal relationship with food. I'm really anti-soda and my S Suggestion is to cut back on Soda, Seconds, Snacks, and Sweets.

CreativeParents: We hear a lot about teen girls and smoking.

Carol Weston: So many young teens are anti-smoking, and I try to get them to hold onto their convictions. The longer kids can postpone something like smoking, the better. I want them to take their time. Enjoy being 12 when you're 12 and 14 when you're 14. I know what it's like to be in a mad rush to grow up, but it's ideal if kids can take their time.

CreativeParents: Any suggestions for parents?

Carol Weston: Keep remembering that you are the parent. Teens sometimes yell or say hurtful things but parents should try hard not to. And find things you like to do in common, whether it's playing cards, cooking, running, biking, watching a television show, anything to keep that closeness.

Kids want to be included in family life, but it's not easy for them to recognize this let alone articulate it. Why not invite your daughter or son to a movie, or to go shopping or out to lunch? This is particularly important if there is a new significant other or stepparent in your life. I get a lot of letters from girls who wish they could spend some time with just their mom or dad, without the parent's new lover vying for attention. And when you're with your teen, don't kiss them or diss them in public--too embarrassing!

CreativeParents: You're saying that teens want to be with their parents?

Carol Weston: More than you'd think. Of course they want to be with their friends 24/7. But if a teen is suddenly chatty or wanting your company, find the time to be there. Little kids say, "Mommy! Daddy! Watch me!!" aIl day long; when big kids say it, it's rare, so take note. Also, we parents really are role models. If you scream or never have anything that you're excited about, your kids are taking that in. If you yell at your kids, they'll yell at your grandkids. If you complain about your thighs or wrinkles, your daughter will have a harder time feeling good about herself. Kids also have a real sense of what you want for them. They know what you value and they want to make you proud. However, in the end, the job of teens is to separate. This can be ugly and painful, but it is healthy and necessary. You don't want them still living at home at age 40!

CreativeParents: How do your daughters react to your advice column?

Carol Weston: I ask my daughters to read everything I write. They give me opinions and make sure that I don't use any old fashioned or "dorky" vocabulary. I have two pretty different kids and it makes it easier for me to see that I can't come up with one-size-fits-all advice.

CreativeParents: How do you think you compare with other parents -- your daughters' friends' moms, for instance?

Carol Weston: I'm not as conservative as some I started writing for teens when I was at the age of a big sister. Now that I'm a parent, I still think that kids listen more if you remain aware of their world. My parents also raised me well and then trusted me and gave me a lot of liberty. I'm trying to give my kids a lot of freedom too. Our daughter is about to spend her junior year of high school abroad!

Creative Parents: How did you decide to write kids' books about travel?

Carol Weston: I spent my senior year in France on a program called School Year Abroad, so my wanderlust was piqued early and it hasn't peaked yet. Whenever I had enough babysitting money, I'd spend it on tickets. In fact I met my husband in Spain during the two years I lived in Madrid--I got my M.A. from Middlebury in Spanish after getting my B.A. from Yale in French and Spanish comparative literature.

CreativeParents: How did you choose the places for Melanie Martin to visit?

Carol Weston: One answer is that the Martin family goes places where my real family has visited. The first book is set in Italy; the second in Holland. Since the mother character is a middle school art teacher, I try to pick places that have wonderful art. Spain is in my soul, so setting the third book in Spain was a given. The challenge there was trying to figure out which cities to leave out! I'm always aware that the books are for eight to 12-year-olds, so I try to find the right balance between educational culture and suspenseful plot. Readers learn about art and architecture.

CreativeParents: What do you see as the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction?

Carol Weston: In my advice books, I try to help girls get answers and gain confidence. In my novels, I try to get them curious about travel, art, and language. Also, in my non-fiction, I try to solve problems. In fiction, I get to invent problems--which can be much more light-hearted!


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