Girls Will be Girls:
Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters
by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., with Teresa Barker
The following is an excerpt from Girls Will be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., with Teresa Barker (Hyperion, August 2002) About the author: JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., is an international speaker, educator, and school psychologist. She lectures frequently, often in tandem with Raising Cain coauthor Michael Thompson. She is a consultant to schools worldwide on issues of brain development, gender equity, and optimal learning environments for boys and girls.
Teresa Barker is a veteran journalist and coauthor of numerous books, including Raising Cain, Speaking of Boys, and The Mother Daughter Book Club. Barker and her family, including two daughters, live in Wilmette, Illinois. EXCERPT:
Most of us get one childhood to remember. I got two.
There was the picture-perfect one of my family: a mother and father very much in love, very loving parents to my older brother and me. We lived in a little town in the Midwest. My mother never worked outside of the home, but instead spent her days driving a station wagon, taking us, and all the neighborhood kids that could fit, to the public pool, the playground, and town. We even had a collie! That was my first childhood. It lasted fourteen years.
On a beautiful spring evening the Sunday before Easter of my freshman year of high school, my father suffered a fatal heart attack. Thus began my second life as a girl growing up, a life that began with an adolescence transformed literally overnight from a girlhood dream to a nightmare of loss and a new, bittersweet appreciation of life's nuances. Everything about my life changed, and with those changes came a heightened awareness of the gendered experience of everyday life for girls and women.
After my father's death, I watched my mother go to work in a factory; she was one of the few women there in the early 1960s. Since my brother was at college, I needed to get my driver's license as soon as possible because my mother worked the afternoon shift and was no longer there to drive me anywhere. An adolescent girl who drove herself to school, appointments, high school football games? I was not the only one, but -- like my mother -- I was one of just a few. What surprised and intrigued me the most was the way the rest of the world responded to the changes in our lives. My mother's best friend would become jealous when her husband came over to help my mother start the lawn mower. I proved quite able in my new life, yet without my father's enthusiastic endorsement, I felt smart but uncertain, more sensitive to what others thought, what others suggested, and what others assumed about me.
This second childhood was to become a particularly defining one for me for reasons that I would fully understand only later through my work as a child psychologist with girls. My father's death was for me a crucible event, a moment in which everything I knew and felt and was was put to a test. It was a trial by fire, and one through which I might emerge more fragile or more strong, or perhaps both. But whatever the outcome, I was changed. Without thinking consciously about it at the time, I've always separated my life into two parts: before and after my father died.
Subsequently, in my work with children and adults my sense of crucible events as the catalyst for emotional growth and development became a useful tool in helping others see the effects of life events on their own emotional development and their relationships with others. Through this lens of crucible events it is possible to get a better view of the inner life of girls. This I know from my work, and from my own personal experiences of moving from my family home out into the world. I would forever feel a particular empathy toward girls' emotional experience, and a strong desire to make sense of it for parents, educators, and girls themselves. But first I had to navigate those waters for myself, and it was a slow, deliberate journey.
My love of science and people drew me first to pursue an education in nursing, but I soon shifted my focus to teaching, earned my degree, and got the job. By my second year of teaching, when I couldn't figure out how to reach and teach some of my students, I took a day off to visit the nearest university, Kent State, to see which graduate courses were available to help me understand how the human brain worked. A serendipitous meeting and the discovery of an exciting doctoral program in preventive psychology prompted me to resign from teaching to resume my own education. With my Ph.D., I established a private practice and started a company with three other colleagues developing preventive psychological programs for schools. Soon one of our clients, the director of Laurel School, recruited me to serve as the staff school psychologist, a position I agreed to take for one year while we assessed their needs.
The next year Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, and her Harvard crew wanted to do a landmark study at the school. I had taken a course from her at Harvard; she now asked me to be an in-house interviewer for the next six years. How could I pass up the opportunity? I stayed on.
After the Laurel/Harvard study was completed, someone had to go to other schools and conferences to share what we had learned. Carol Gilligan was moving on to other studies and was too busy. Thus began my life as a gender expert. Laurel School graciously allowed me to take several days each year to do this. By now I was also experiencing the joys of being an administrator, having become director of the middle, primary, and early childhood divisions through another instance of serendipity. The previous director resigned in April one year, and the school was in chaos. What better person than the school psychologist to fill in the gap? It would only be temporary, the head of the school assured me. Well, it wasn't, exactly. Five years later, because of my speaking engagements around the country, and a growing list of requests for me to present gender equity workshops for parents, teachers, administrators, and students (girls and boys), I was asked by the National Association of Independent Schools to be on a national committee for women in independent schools. My already crowded calendar of speaking engagements and the growing demand for my gender equity workshops made my next career step clear: I became a full-time consultant, working year-round with schools, parent and teacher organizations, and students themselves in the United States and abroad.
Early in my career as a psychologist, after teaching for several years and then interning in a variety of settings, and with a variety of clients, from the very young to the very old, it was clear to me that for many clients, treatment was long, expensive, painful, and often ineffective. Being the idealist that I am, my core philosophy fit with the philosophy of prevention, and that is where I turned my attention as a specialist.
Preventive psychology is at the other end of the spectrum from the kind of private practice work most people envision when they think of a psychologist or therapist. I do counsel individual children and their families privately, but most of my time is devoted to what we call primary prevention. I evaluate factors in schools or families that cause mental health or learning issues and work to fix them, eliminate them, or modify an environment so those factors don't exist. As a public speaker and a consultant, I work with schools and communities around the country, conducting workshops for parents and teachers who want to create schools and families where children can thrive, and speaking with students about their concerns or issues of the day. My life and career have thrived in ways I would never have imagined in earlier years. I have made my way as many women do: on the winds of my intuition, a perfect model of affiliation motivation, influenced by people, connections, and gut feelings.
Wherever I go, I generally find thoughtful, caring, determined parents and school staff with a lot in common. They typically have high ideals, a desire for clarity, and a willingness to work at making their schools and homes places that support healthy development for girls. Parents always want to know in general how to be a good parent. Teachers want to be the one a student remembers fondly thirty years later.
But often, it is problems, issues, and concerns that motivate many of us to seek help, listen, and try to do something different. Sometimes it takes a problem to get everyone's attention, and then the task is twofold: Find a way to solve the problem and find a way to change conditions so it doesn't happen again. In these circumstances, I often encounter an undercurrent of fear, sometimes a kind of siege mentality, that prompts adults to respond to unwanted challenge by clamping down, nipping it in the bud. The prevailing attitude in that setting is that challenge or change are threatening and have to be quashed. It never works. Not for long, anyway. Not in families and not in schools. Not in politics or government. Not in nature. Growth requires change; how we fare with it depends on how we respond to it.
Girls face an extraordinary challenge in our changing world. They are dealing with more sophisticated issues than ever before, and they are doing so with less adult contact and guidance than ever before. Statistics tell the story of a population at risk both physically and emotionally: One in four girls shows signs of depression. Compared to males, twice as many females attempt suicide, and there is a sharp rise in actual suicides for females beginning at age ten and peaking at age twenty-four. One in four girls has been in an abusive relationship. When asked about their role models, girls only list one third of what boys list. Girls are five times less likely to receive attention from a teacher. Girls ages twelve through fifteen have the worst nutrition of any age group, followed by girls ages sixteen through nineteen. By age thirteen, 53 percent of girls are unhappy with their bodies; by age eighteen, 78 percent are dissatisfied with their bodies. Eighty percent of ten-year-old girls are on a diet, and the number one wish of teenage girls and adult women is to lose weight. Eight million American women suffer from eating disorders, and 90 percent of them are adolescents.
For parents, every day presents fresh challenges to tradition, and the future is unpredictable, shaped as it is by newly emerging influences from media, technology, peer culture, and a society in flux. Contrary to the days when mainstream society supported parents' efforts to protect, nurture, and guide their growing girls, today society itself is the high-pressure, high-risk realm where girls are more vulnerable than ever to the pressures for perfection and casual exploitation and experimentation, which can carry serious consequences. Parents often lack the information or insight to feel competent. It's easy to lose confidence in our intuitive wisdom, uncertain at times how much our judgment is clouded by ignorance or our own discomfort with social change.
Whether we feel ready or not, we are beyond the days of one-line answers to life's questions, or cookbook-style recipes for building self-esteem and smarts in girls. All of us -- girls, parents, and teachers -- share the same need for information, insight, and a perspective that enables us to make sense of the landscape and make reasonable day-to-day decisions that protect and promote a life of possibility.
A friend of mine says that as a parent, she often feels like the hapless character in the folktale of a bumbling farm boy, who repeatedly goes to town on an errand, and each time returns home carrying his purchase in such a way that it is ruined. He looks foolish. The first time, his mother scolds him and tells him the correct way to carry the thing, and the next time he goes to town, he follows her instructions to a T, but the circumstances have changed, the item is different, and he screws it up again! Dragging butter on a leash, carrying a donkey over his shoulder; each time, he's doing what he was told from the time before, but it isn't the right thing to do now. His intentions are good, but he is always one step behind in his ability to think and act effectively.
Parenting feels like that at times, and tidy lists of do's and don'ts fall short of helping us "think like a grown-up," as my friend says.
All of us want our girls to thrive. We want them to live lives in which they feet competent, confident, and connected to others, and to the grand scheme of life. That's not something we can give girls, or do for them. However, as parents and teachers and other adults who care, we can cultivate opportunities for girls to experience themselves this way. To do so, we need to understand girls better, develop our capacity to think like grown-ups, and expand our repertoire of responses to be effective in the moment and for the long-term, in the lives of girls.
One of the most gratifying aspects of bringing this book into being has been the opportunity to share the science of girls with parents and teachers who live in the laboratory of real life with them every day. Advances in neuroscience -- the study of how the brain grows and works -- are just beginning to shed light on fascinating differences between female and male brains. Research is also advancing dramatically in the study of hormones and other physiological and psychological aspects of growing up female. Every new scientific finding not only informs us about the true nature of girls -- forget the underscores the need for parents, teachers, schools, and communities to see girls in a new light, and move more deliberately toward gender equity in all these realms.
In Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters, I share this science and my guiding principles for understanding girls, understanding their hopes and dreams as well as their struggle and pain, and understanding what we can do, as adults, to create family and school environments in which they can find their best selves and live their best lives.
The Search for Perspective
"It's pretty hard being a girl nowadays. You can't be too smart, too dumb, too pretty, too ugly, too friendly, too coy, too aggressive, too defenseless, too individual, or too programmed. If you're too much of anything, then others envy you, or despise you because you intimidate them or make them jealous. It's like you have to be everything and nothing all at once, without knowing which you need more of."
Nora, twelfth grade
My friend Clara calls me every now and then with one of her "bad mother" confession stories. Ostensibly it's to give me fodder for my talks and workshops, but just after she finishes the story comes the real reason: She needs some reassurance that she hasn't ruined her daughter for life. She's not a bad mother at all -- just the opposite, in fact -- but with a twelve-year-old daughter, her parenting judgment is always subject to criticism, and her confidence takes a drubbing.
The parenting dilemmas she describes are usually garden-variety, everyday episodes involving her daughter and school, friends, fashion, and responsibility. But sometimes even simple decisions -- like whether to let her daughter buy the stylish but scanty swimsuit she wants -- become more difficult in the high-risk, high-pressure context of contemporary life for girls.
Clara called one day, exhausted, confused, and depressed. She had just bought her daughter Robin the swimsuit of her choice. Of course, it wasn't as simple as it sounds. What had begun as an ordinary shopping trip had morphed into an episode in which Clara's parental judgment and values had fallen victim to a tiny two-piece bathing suit. As they walked from store to store, from mall to mall, from one slip of a swimsuit to another, it had become very clear to Clara that it would be almost impossible to find a fashionable teen suit that wasn't extremely revealing. Robin, ordinarily a modest sort, had begged to buy a popular style of two-piece suit, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it only barely covered any piece of her anatomy. Clara urged her to find something less revealing. Robin argued that in years past -- before she "had boobs" -- she could wear anything, and she felt that she should still be able to wear whatever she found comfortable and stylish.
Clara countered with a few predictable words about the way our clothes communicate something about ourselves. She said that while Robin might feel moved to buy such a suit because she felt stylish and fit and at ease with her body, the fact was that the males in the crowd would make their own interpretation of her clothes, her body, and her intentions, and their reactions had to be taken into account. She had to be careful "not to send the wrong message," Clara counseled.
But even as she spoke, Clara winced at the sound of her own words and the message they sent to her daughter -- that Robin was not free to simply dress as she pleased for a day at the pool. She had to consider the possibility of undesirable consequences. That despite her girlish view of herself and the world, her body spoke of womanly potential, and that was problematic. Yet why should a girl have to view her blossoming body as a liability?
Robin objected and was furious. She didn't care what boys thought; why should she have to take them into account?
"The trouble was, on the inside, I agreed with her," Clara said. "I can't say that I honestly thought anything bad would happen to her at the pool. At the same time, there is a real element of danger for girls -- you can't ignore the news stories of sex molesters, rapists -- girls and women are preyed upon. But there was something else, too. It was depressing for me to see her wanting to buy into this media image of girls as hot chicks, at twelve! She's this wonderful girl, with a great mind and funny sense of humor and a good heart, and I don't want people looking at her body and sizing her up that way. It's so demeaning!
"She's right -- it ought to be okay for a girl to wear what makes her happy. Boys don't have to worry about what they wear, but the reality for girls is different. It made me angry to think about it, and sad to hear myself telling my daughter that she has to go by the same old unfair rules 'because I said so.' But I didn't want to go into much detail about my reasons because I didn't want her to have to think about the dark side of all this like I do.
"It was," she said, borrowing from the title of one of her daughter's favorite childhood books, "a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad shopping trip."
Eventually, though, Clara gave in. Every other girl in Robin's circle of friends had the same skimpy, stylish suit. To dress differently would have set Robin up for teasing and the most humiliating attention. Clara could remember the pain of that from her own girlhood; who can forget? There was also the fact that no other parent she knew had mentioned this as a source of worry, dismay, or a conflict of values. Maybe she was being unreasonable, too protective, too reactive. Maybe it really didn't matter anymore. She didn't believe that, but she wasn't sure that winning the bathing suit decision was worth the cost to her daughter, who would be the one to suffer the consequences in her peer group. Clara threw in the towel, so to speak, and accepted the inevitable. It was, after all, just a swimsuit.
"But I'm still upset by the principle of the thing," Clara told me. "Just because everybody's doing it doesn't make it right. There's so much that 'everybody's doing' that isn't right or healthy for girls. And how can I expect my twelve-year-old to make sense of things if I can't do it myself?"
Clara often feels like the Lone Ranger as she grapples with the issues of the day, but she isn't alone. In my work as a school psychologist, consultant, and speaker, I hear from thousands of other mothers, fathers, and teachers, and thousands more girls themselves, all of whom share similar stories of their own struggles to navigate the rich and risky contemporary landscape for girls.
Copyright (c) 2002 JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
The above is an excerpt from Girls Will be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughtersby JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., with Teresa Barker (Hyperion,August 2002)