Taking Mom's Advice

updated 11/30/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/1998 01:00AM

As a teenager in the affluent Boston suburb of Lincoln, Margaret Winship knew that finding a long, handwritten note in her bedroom after school meant that her mother, Elizabeth, had a serious point to make. "I remember the yellow pad she wrote on," says Margaret, 53. "She has always been an incredible communicator."

To the legions of young fans who have read the elder Winship's wise words, that fact has been abundantly clear since 1963. Ask Beth, the teen advice column started by Elizabeth Winship (known as Liebe), appears in some 50 U.S. newspapers from The Boston Globe to the San Francisco Chronicle. Now Liebe, 77, has turned over the feature to Margaret, who hopes teens will keep relying on it for advice on everything from fashion to drug abuse. "Kids know they're writing to someone who's anonymous but who also cares about them," says Margaret.

Many of the questions in the scores of letters the column attracts each week reflect the '90s. "Twelve-and 13-year-olds used to ask, 'Should I kiss him?' 'Should I hold hands with him?' " says Margaret, who has cowritten the column with her mother since 1993. "Now it's 'Should I have sex?' " Yet most concerns of teens have stayed constant. "They're trying to get a boyfriend or a girlfriend," says Liebe. "Or they say, 'My parents don't let me talk on the phone.' "

Liebe attributes her sage counsel to her father, an assistant professor of chemistry at Harvard, and mother, a schoolteacher, who raised their four children in Cambridge, Mass. In 1942, Liebe, then a Radcliffe undergraduate, married Thomas Winship, who went on to become editor of The Boston Globe. She was in her early 40s and the mother of four (including Lawrence, now 51, Joanna, 48, and Benjamin, 39) when a Globe editor suggested that Liebe, who had been writing children's-book reviews, try an advice column. "I thought it sounded great," she recalls.

In the early '60s many readers' questions were about clashing generational tastes in clothes and hair length. She initially ignored letters from pregnant teenagers because she didn't believe there was a widespread problem. But, Liebe says, seeing a young mother-to-be walking down a Cambridge street "made me realize I couldn't keep ignoring this issue." She also advocated sex education, reassured gay teens and occasionally comforted teens whose parents disapproved of their interracial relationships.

In her daughter's opinion, considering such weighty matters turned Liebe into a better mother. "I think the column made her realize she had to make herself available," says Margaret, who describes her mom as a creative and resourceful parent. Once, when Margaret complained about not having a boyfriend, Liebe made up a pretend beau she named Lance Bradford. "It just lightened up the whole thing," Margaret says.

After stints as an organic farmer and acupuncturist, Margaret earned a master's degree in psychology from Antioch New England Graduate School in 1982; she began helping her mother the same year, answering questions on such issues as depression and substance abuse. A decade later she became a full collaborator. "The column has helped me become a better parent," says Margaret, whose son Jesse is a junior at the Evergreen State College in Washington State. In 1993 she married her second husband, environmentalist Douglas Reed, with whom she lives in Upstate New York.

Mother and daughter worked so closely on Ask Beth that they often can't remember who wrote which replies in old columns. That problem has evaporated since September, when Liebe stepped down to spend more time on writing about her travels and drawing. Margaret will keep the column's name, but plans to branch out, soliciting answers from experts and from teenagers themselves. But no matter what the question, one piece of advice will still apply: Ask Beth.

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Jennifer Longley in Lincoln

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