“The Girl’s Guide” A Review and Q&A with Melissa Kirsch

I am a mom of boys. What I know about raising girls could fit neatly on the head of a pin. But here is one of the things that would be atop that pinhead: if I were sending a daughter out into the world I would make sure she was tightly gripping a copy of Melissa Kirsch’s The Girl’s Guide: Getting the hang of your whole complicated, unpredictable, impossibly amazing life.

In a single volume Kirsch covers the waterfront of a young woman’s life. She calls on experts and her own voluminous research to help dispense practical, even-handed, modern and sometimes humorous advice to the very real challenges young women face. It is almost impossible not to love a volume that has a first chapter subtitled, “Real Women Get Pap Smears, Eat Bread, and Negotiate Cease-Fires with Their Full-Length Mirrors.”

The Girl's Guide by Melissa Kirsch

Kirsch spills a great deal of ink on the very practical matters a young adult might face. She covers jobs and finances (everything from credit card use/debt to student/car/home loans to banking), modern home economics (my favorite is how to roast a chicken on Sunday and make a week’s worth of meals) to modern-day etiquette for every conceivable social situation. She ends each chapter with an indispensable list of experts and organizations that her readers can turn to for more advice and information.

But Kirsch is at her absolute best when she tackles the much trickier subjects of romance, family and friendship. Here she offers sage advice but more often challenges young women to reflect deeply on their actions, values, motives and feelings with regard to friends, siblings, parents, serious relationships and more casual romances. She shows wonderful insight when she tackles such subjects as:

  • The Four Dating Principles (1. You will not meet any potential dates in your apartment)
  • Identifying The Smart, Dateable Few From The Psychotic Masses
  • Shut Up And Look Pretty And Other Bad Advice You Shouldn’t Follow
  • The Dubious Benefits Of Friends With Benefits (FWBs)
  • Breaking Up Without Going To Pieces
  • Tell Me About It: The Importance Of Communication
  • Seeing Your Parents As Real People
  • Should Your Parents Be Your BFFs
  • When Saving The Friendship Is More Important Than Being Right
  • The Messy Intersection Of Dating and Social Media

Interview with Melissa Kirsch

We had a chance to ask a few of our own questions. Inside her intelligent and witty responses is some very wise advice for our daughters, and us.

GF: 1. You give young women some great advice about their growing adult relationship with their parents and the fact that a certain need may always be there. Any advice you would like to give to parents? Do you have thoughts on the best ways for parents to transition into a relationship between two adults?

MK: It’s true! No matter how old we get, we still long for parental approval. We still want our parents to tell us we’ve made good decisions, to celebrate our accomplishments, to adore our partners. How many of us have kids of our own yet fall back into old patterns of approval-seeking when we’re around our parents? That desire doesn’t ever really go away, as much as we (or our psychotherapists) feel we should grow out of it.

I talk a lot in The Girl’s Guide: Getting the hang of your whole complicated, unpredictable, impossibly amazing life about how it may require some work, but when you become an adult yourself, your relationship with your parents can only deepen as you both begin to see each other as human beings.

For kids, this means recognizing that your parents are human, fallible people who have done their best but have probably made some mistakes along the way. For parents, the challenge is to see your children as the adults they are, to loosen the impulse to protect, to influence decisions, to be in charge. Notice I didn’t say to *stop* doing these things, but to understand that actions there were necessary to protect your kids from the dangers of the world when they were small and helpless are no longer productive, and to them, your continuation of the same level of management of their lives can feel less like love and more like an effort to control them.

This doesn’t mean you and your daughter or son are best friends, that you relinquish the role of mother or father. Rather, this role changes. It expands to allow your child to be a human being separate from you, one whom you raised to be this smart, charming, independent person. You can choose to advise rather than lecture, to recommend rather than insist, to get to know this exciting person your child has grown up into rather than exert your influence over them. Exhale: you did the hard work of molding this person into an adult who makes decisions for herself. If there were a parenting contract, the final provision, after the stipulations that you mortgage the house to help pay for college, would say, “Let go.”

GF: 2. We love any book that hands out advice to our daughters that says, “Call, text and email your parents regularly.” Consider yourself our hero. Again can we turn the tables. We want to give our kids space, we want them to have their own lives. How much communication should parents have with their college or grown kids?

MK: This really depends on the relationship you have with your kids. Some parents text their kids all day every day, others talk to them on the phone once a month. It’s helpful to set up a schedule—”I’ll call you at 8pm on alternate Sundays”—so you know that no matter how busy either you get, you have pre-arranged check-ins where you’ll get to catch up.

There are so many ways to communicate now that you can really tailor the cadence and means to whatever suits your life and your kids’. My dad and I email almost daily, because we’re both at desks working and it’s an easy way to stay in touch, to share the news items we’re both voraciously consuming. My mom and I talk on the phone every Sunday night and have since I was 18. As long as you are communicating with some regularity, there’s no “wrong” way to do it.

As an aside, I don’t want to get into a heated discussion about so-called “helicopter parenting,” as I really do think these things are very personal. However, over communication can indeed be stifling. If you’re getting the sense that your child feels you’re checking in a little too much, see above where I discussed loosening your grip a bit. This doesn’t mean you love less, it just means you love differently. Both parents and children need wide berths at the moment when kids are leaving the nest—the roles of parent and child remain intact, but the dynamic gets renegotiated. This requires a little space!

GF: 3. Do you have advice on social media for young women? Some dos and don’ts that their parents might not know?

MK: Oh my goodness. This is a topic that can engender so much unnecessary alarm! I think parents are probably well-versed on the pleasures and pitfalls of social media as there’s a new story of Twitter bullying or “revenge porn” in the news every hour. I could go on about this forever (and I guess I do, in the book), but a few key pieces of advice I have for young women are:

– Be vigilant about your privacy settings. If you’re posting photos of yourself in anything that smacks of unprofessional, assume potential employers, colleagues, grad school admissions officers and even people from whom you’re trying to rent an Airbnb are going to see them.

-Don’t say anything Twitter you wouldn’t say loudly at a cocktail party.

-Don’t take things personally. Someone not liking your Instagram photo isn’t a referendum on your friendship. Your co-worker not following you on Twitter doesn’t say anything about how much she likes you. And people are not constantly out having a blast without you—it only looks that way.

GF: 4. You suggest to women to date copiously and to keep someone on the back burner. The dating culture does not seem to be thriving, How can young women follow this advice? Any advice moms can give on safety?

MK: I want to be clear I’m not advocating for dating multiple people at once with the “Back-burner Theory of Dating,” only advising women to protect their hearts and keep not to go all-in with one potential mate to the exclusion of all others only to end up heartbroken. Keeping your eye on another crush helps keep perspective, especially when you’re not necessarily dating for keeps yet.

I think dating culture is in fact thriving, but it’s thriving in ways that are bewildering to parents. Online dating and Tinder are not the recourse of people who can’t find dates in the real world—they *are* the real world. Moms can help ensure their daughters’ safety by advising them to always meet dates in public places, not to give out their last names before they’ve gotten to know someone, and letting them know they can call any time, at any hour, and expect no judgement if something comes up and they need help.

GF: 5.You are not a fan of FWB. Are women being misled into thinking that this is a good arrangement?

It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. I don’t know if women are being misled (do you mean by their partners? movies?) into thinking ongoing casual sex is a good idea, but I do talk about how the benefits are dubious. It’s very hard to go back to being just friends after you have been sleeping with someone, and the risk of a broken heart lurks ominously in the wings.

In an excerpt from The Girl’s Guide Kirsch explains:

Occupying the middle ground between an actual, honest-to-god relationship and a one-night stand, Friends with Benefits sounds, in theory, like just the setup for the free-spirited young girl with a busy schedule: a sexual relationship with someone you actually like and want to see again…

After talking with a lot of women about this, I’m inclined to say that in practice, Friends with Benefits is pretty much casual sex with a cuter name and higher stakes. In a fling, you have sex and rarely see each other again. In a FWB situation, you’re allegedly friends, so you do the things that friends do: hand out and watch a movie, text about normal everyday stuff, go to dinner with other friends. Ostensibly, you’re just adding sex to the mix with none of the drama and everyone walks away satisfied.

I’m here to say that while such a setup may be easy of a small number of us, I know very few women with strong enough emotional armor to guard themselves against developing feelings and expectations from a relationship that so closely mimics conventional romance,  I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I’m staying that it’s rare.

The danger with FWB is when things go south–one of you develops stronger feelings that the causal framework that FWB dictates, or you meet someone you’re really crazy about and want to be in a serious relationship.  What happens to the very foundation of FWB–the friendship? The chances of it surviving are slim. Is it worth risking the friendship by adding so-called no-strings-attached sex to begin with?

Let’s be frank: The “benefits” in FWB are actually not that hard to come by.  It’s not like they’re really valuable benefits like health insurance or paid vacation.

GF: 6. When is the guy book coming out?

MK: This is a conversation I’ve had with my editors! We pretty much decided The Girl’s Guide IS the guy book. Put a brown paper cover on it and give it to your sons, because most of the info in it is gender neutral, and most guys are not going to buy a self-help book on how to figure out their lives for themselves.

On a more serious note, if you were to write a guy book, what would be the greatest differences? What do you see as the most important pieces of advice for young men just starting out?

The most important advice for young men is the same as for young women: Be humble. Be grateful. Don’t assume you don’t know anything, and don’t assume you know everything. Your first job is not going to be your last job, your first apartment is not going to be your last apartment, and your first love is not going to be your last love, but you should still treat all of them with respect. Call your parents. Judge less. Worry less. And don’t wear flip-flops to work.

Melissa Kirsch (credit: Lynn Borowitz)

About Melissa Kirsch
Melissa Kirsch, a senior editor at the online magazine The Mid and a former senior producer at Oxygen Media, has written for New York magazine, National Geographic, and Ladies’ Home Journal, and consulted as an expert on relationships and etiquette for Glamour, Jezebel, and Cosmopolitan. She lives in New York City.

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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