The name Jane Fonda generally draws associations with fitness, Oscar-winning performances (“Klute,” “Coming Home”) and political activism. But Fonda has another great passion – helping teens.
The already best-selling fitness author and memoirist has written another book, “Being a Teen.” It’s geared to instructing teenagers, as well as their parents, in everything they need to know about relationships, love, sex, health, self-esteem and identity, during what Fonda describes to be those inherently awkward formative years.
At a recent luncheon at the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich, organized by Family Centers, a nonprofit social services agency there, Fonda spoke to a ballroom full of parents about her new book.
“How many of you have adolescent children?” Fonda opened her address, and quite a few hands in the room went up.
“How many of you have been an adolescent?” she continued, and everybody laughed. But there is no escaping the message Fonda was trying to impart: Everyone has been there. Everyone has gone through the trials that adolescence presents.
Stylish and energetic as always, Fonda was candid, engaging and even humorous in discussing her own challenging childhood. (Her mother, Frances, committed suicide when Fonda was 12, and she had for a time a distant, somewhat fractious relationship with her father, screen and stage star Henry Fonda.)
Fonda’s interest in helping teenagers, then, stems in part from her own difficult experience as an adolescent, a time in which she said she felt confused, scared and insecure, with nowhere to turn.
“I have a real soft spot for teenagers and one of my goals in life is for that to become contagious,” said Fonda, who attended Greenwich Academy and the Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y., before going on to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. “They act like they don’t want to listen to what you have to say. … But the fact is they really need us to be there for them.”
Fonda acknowledged that she remembers needing someone with whom she could talk about feelings, image and self-esteem and therefore, “tried to write a book that is very holistic.” That result comes from two years of research as well as things she wishes she knew while raising her own children. As she says, “You teach what you need to learn.”
There is a strong link between the nearly 30 years Fonda has spent advocating for adolescents and the Family Centers’ services. The organization provides health, counseling, support and education services for more than 23,500 clients per year, including children, adolescents, adults and families in 14 licensed facilities throughout lower Fairfield County. An umbrella to 30 separate social services programs, Family Centers also has four school-based clinics in Stamford that offer free medical, dental and mental-health care for students. This year, the organization will be opening its fifth clinic there.
During the 1970s and ’80s, Fonda and her second husband, Tom Hayden, ran the Laurel Springs Performing Arts Children’s Camp in California, serving disadvantaged youngsters. After marrying Ted Turner and moving to Georgia in 1991, she started the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, which has grown to encompass healthy relationships, nutrition and physical fitness as the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential. She also founded the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory University, which partners with the teen clinic at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
Following Fonda’s talk, there was a Q & A, including advice on how to remain appropriately involved in teenagers’ lives, crucial parenting mistakes to avoid (“Don’t wait too long to have the Big Talk… show you’re an approachable parent”) and how to engage the challenges of the Internet and social media.
One woman posed her concern about the danger of girls losing their voices. “Yet we see you today as having one of the strongest voices of women and female role models out there. Can you talk about how you developed your voice?” she asked.
“I was lucky that I was born resilient,” Fonda said of what might’ve been a mixed blessing. “I grew up in a troubled family but my resilience meant that …any warm body that could bring me love and nurture and could teach me something, I would latch onto. … I learned from my mistakes.”
Fonda continued, “I cannot speak highly enough of the value of researching your life and what that includes – who your parents were and who your grandparents were.
“It’s very, very empowering.”