Girls Will Be Girls Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2002-08-07
  • Publisher: Hachette Books

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In Girls Will Be Girls, JoAnn Deak offers a comprehensive road map to the many emotional and physical challenges girls ages six to sixteen face in today's changing world. Renowned for her knowledge of what makes girls tick, Dr. Deak brings together stories and lessons from more than 20 years as a school psychologist and principal, and introduces original concepts as a framework to help parents better understand their daughters. Deak looks past the "scare" stories to those that enlighten parents and enable them to empower girls. She draws from the latest brain research on girls to illustrate the exciting new ways in which we can help our daughters learn and thrive. Most telling of all, she gives us the voices of girls themselves as they struggle with body image, self esteem, intellectual growth, peer pressure, and media messages. The result is a masterly book that addresses the key issues for girls growing up; one that fulfills a desperate need for clear guiding principles to help mothers, fathers, and their daughters navigate this chaotic contemporary culture. Book jacket.

Author Biography

JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., is an international speaker, educator, and school psychologist Teresa Barker is a veteran journalist

Table of Contents

Introduction 1(8)
The Search for Perspective
The Formative Years: The Layering of Nature, Nature, and Life Experience
Betwixt and Between: The Preadolescent Years
Everything and Nothing: Sharing the Adolescent Girl's Struggle to Be and Become Herself
Mothers and Daughters: Roots to Grow, Wings to Fly
Fathers and Daughters: Soul Mates, Strangers, and a Delicate Dance
The Galapagos Islands of Girls' Social Development
Aiming to Please: Moving Beyond the ``Tyranny of Niceness''
Parents Under Pressure: How to Think Straight When Worry Sets In
Girls in Action: The Magic of Doing
Epilogue: Girls in Progress 286


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 skimps 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.

From Silence to the Sounds of Success: Unlimited Options, New Questions

Looked at from one perspective, it would appear that girls have it all today. Studies confirm what we often see in everyday life. Developmentally, girls are generally more emotionally literate, verbally expressive, and socially facile than boys. At an early age, they tend to have good "school brains" that enable them to experience success in the school setting. They revel in relationship and emotional connectedness, the foundations of good mental health. In every facet of their lives, their choices have grown as society moves slowly toward gender equity.

Unlike girls a generation ago, they have access to sports and educational programs that were once for boys only. In many other ways, girls' lives today are illuminated by freedom of choice and unlimited aspirations. They are growing up in the company of girls and women whose natural talents are finding full expression in athletics, business, the arts and academia, and leadership and activism, as well as in family life. They see stay-at-home dads and corporate moms, and in countless other ways are witnessing transformations of family and workplace to accommodate evolving gender roles for women and men. They are beginning to realize their financial power, both as earners and spenders, and their political clout, both as citizens and leaders. And while boys still labor under the burden of masculine tradition to be strong and silent, girls have social permission to be tough or tender, and to be emotionally expressive.

At the same time, anyone who lives or works closely with girls knows there is a darker side to growing up female. Research, observation, and girls themselves document their continuing struggle with alienation, anger, depression, eating disorders, physical and sexual victimization, teen pregnancy, and other health concerns.

Today, by the time they are ten years old, most girls have probably heard discussion of child abuse, date rape and other sexual exploitation, drugs, and AIDS, HIV, and other sexually transmitted diseases, either in the media, in conversations among friends, or in school health programs. A generation ago, parents and schools dryly dealt out the details of human reproduction and the occasional cautionary tale of Reefer Madness. Today violence and sexualized imagery have become a backdrop in movies, MTV, TV and computer games, and, sadly, too often in real life. The Internet has expanded opportunities for girls to access the world in exciting ways, but it has also brought pornography and stranger danger as close as the family computer through chat rooms and on-line activities.

It would be a mistake to say that most girls live just this side of anorexia, depression, and suicide, or that most girls are victimized by boys and men in their lives, or that most girls languish in schools. But it is no exaggeration to say that most girls are in touch with these grim realities as part of the context of their everyday lives. Whether it's through a personal contact, the news or entertainment media, or the Internet, girls of all ages have full access to the world, and every girl struggles to make sense of it.

Callie, a sixth-grader, described a litany of pressures that girls face: disrespect from boys, the unending demand to be perfectly pretty, the stupidity that prompts boys to judge girls by their breast size, the pain of periods, and the risk of pregnancy.

"Girls have a lot of things to worry about that can go wrong," she concluded.

Girls and their parents have a lot of things to worry about, or at least think about, and it's not only the risks that challenge our wisdom. Girls have access to opportunities we only dreamed about in our younger days, but with infinite options has come the competitive pressure to engage and excel at everything.

The mother of an athletic, happy-go-lucky fourteen-year-old girl confided that she was worried that she was pushing her freshman daughter too hard to excel in academics. "But if I don't push, she'll be happy to make B's and C's, and she'll never get into a really good college with those grades-it's just too competitive out there!" She had pushed, prodded, and at times pitched in to see that her daughter's homework assignments were "A" quality, certain that other parents were doing the same thing, and motivated by the competitive environment and desire for her daughter's future success. Lately, though, she had begun to feel she had crossed the line between her role as a mother and a personal coach. She wondered if there is a line, and if there should or should not be a line.

"The competitiveness of the whole scene doesn't feel right, and that bothers me," she said. "But I honestly don't know which is better. Should I let her do her own thing and throw away her chances for these great future opportunities? Or if I do this now, will she be grateful twenty years down the road that I cared enough about her to be this involved? How does anybody know?"

Another mother echoed the desperation of so many parents when she told me, "I'm not saying that being a parent has ever been easy, but my parents had much more clarity about the world and what was acceptable and unacceptable to them, and society supported them. There's just no script anymore."

Yet nobody really wants a script anymore. As fast as change occurs these days, by the time we learned our lines, the play would already be three scenes ahead. Girls are pioneers in a landscape that continues to redefine terms of family, friendship, education, recreation, health, beauty, love, and sexuality in ways that create unprecedented opportunity, challenge, and risk for them. Even the traditional milestones of physical development are changing, as an increasing number of girls are beginning puberty at younger ages-often as young as eight or nine years old. The emotional passage from girl to young woman presents challenges enough; it has become even more difficult as girls' physical maturation has begun to outpace the developmental maturity they need to understand and embrace life as a maturing female.

Girl Territory: A Dizzying Picture for Everyone

It has been twenty years since feminist scholar Carol Gilligan first alerted us to the silenced voices of girls and women with In a Different Voice. Nearly ten years ago, Mary Pipher, in her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, brought those voices forward in the first candid portrayals of girls struggling in crisis through the most painful passages of adolescence. In the past few years, long-overdue attention to the ignored emotional life of boys has drawn public attention away from the unique challenges girls face as they struggle with the pressure to be "everything and nothing all at once." I am not suggesting that boys or their parents have it easy, but I have worked extensively with boys and girls, and with parents and teachers of boys and girls, and I believe the challenge of raising and working with girls is uniquely more complex. We'll look at the biological, social, and emotional reasons for that in the chapters to come, but suffice it to say at this point that when you combine the complexities of female development with the array of opportunities, challenges, and risks that life presents to girls today, it makes for a dizzying picture.

More Savvy, Yet More Vulnerable Than Ever

When I was five years old, I knew all anyone needed to know about milk: It came from a cow. It was good for you. And it was especially good with brownies after school. For most of history, that's all most people knew or cared about milk, especially if they were five years old. Today there is much more to know about milk, and a little girl set me straight on the details as we walked through the cafeteria line during my lunchtime visit to her kindergarten.

"Don't get the red milk-that's the bad milk," she said.

"Bad?" I replied. "Do you mean it's sour?"

"No," she said. Then she matter-of-factly explained to me the difference between "red, purple, and blue milk" and why it is bad to drink anything but "blue milk." The blue cartons contained skim milk, fat-free. Purple cartons contained milk with 2 percent fat. Red milk cartons contained whole milk.

"Red milk has the most fat, and fat is bad," she said.

I thanked her for her helpful explanation, and marveled silently at her decisive understanding of the subject for a five-year-old. Interestingly, she already had learned to think of whole milk as bad, despite such health benefits as calcium and other nutrients important for early growth. She had also learned to assume fat is bad.


Excerpted from Girls Will Be Girls by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D. with Teresa Barker Copyright © 2002 by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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