“Tell me about yourself.” If someone asked you this question, you would probably talk about your family and what you do with your time. But if they probed further, “Yes, but tell me about who you are.” Well, wouldn’t that be refreshing! You would pause to consider, then begin telling about what you care about in life, what you enjoy doing. You would delve into your passions and beliefs, what brings you joy or pain in life, your inner qualities. It is the job of children and teens to explore and discover answers to these questions for themselves, yet experts say there is a growing problem of girls in America suffering from an underdeveloped “sense of self”. Research shows that many teen girls are now answering these questions at the same level that a 7-year-old might: “Well, I have straight dark hair and I like pizza”….Or “I’m good at soccer, but not good at math”….Or “I’m nice, but not very pretty.” They answer at the question at “face”-value, not going any deeper than surface level. They answer by describing what they look like, by listing their accomplishments and failures, by repeating what other people say about them. This is a crisis because it means that physically maturing girls are not “seeing” or discovering their inner selves, not connecting to themselves below surface level. This is a crisis because it leads to a sense of emptiness, a lack of spiritual centering, which many girls strive to “fill in” with dangerous behaviors. A person with a healthy, developed sense of self can answer the question: “Who are you on the inside?”
I recently heard a re-broadcast of an interview with Leonard Sax, a phycologist and child development researcher who has written a compelling book on the subject: Girls on the Edge: The Current Crisis for Girls. Listen to the interview
Here is the thinking: The emptiness that girls can feel is dangerous because it leaves them susceptible to the media’s message of early sexualization of girls, the skipping directly from Barney to Brittany Spears. Sax, among other experts, claims that girls today have simply lost out on a crucial stage of “self” development, middle girlhood. He says that the age of Pippi Longstocking (6-11-year-old) has been eradicated. This stage when girls get to continue being children, but increasingly independent, increasingly self-aware, increasingly self-assured. The age when girls get to explore nature, explore interests, explore possibilities, explore books, explore the physical strength and abilities of their bodies. Think Laura Ingalls splashing and finding frogs in Plum Creek, think Ramona Quimby chasing boys on the playground and jumping in mud puddles on the way to school, think the Parent Trap twins camping and fishing and telling jokes with their dad.
Growing up is a journey of discovery. In young childhood, children are discovering the world around them. In middle childhood, children should be given a chance to discover who they are and how they want to be in the world, and then in adolescence they begin to discover and create a path for themselves to fit into the world as the person they are becoming. But for many girls today, middle childhood has sadly become a period of the world telling them who they should be and how they should be. This was NOT the goal of feminism in America. The goal of feminism was to offer our young girls more choices, not to limit them by putting them in a box, by corporate America selling them “girlhood” wrapped up in a pretty pink make-up filled box at age 4, then a sluttily-dressed Bratz doll at age 6, by high heals and “sexy” products at age 10. The media and consumer messages around them, since they can remember, have not-so-subtly beating them over the head with the message that what matters for a girl is being pretty. That for women, power comes through sexual prowess. That their value comes from the outside. And girls are watching and listening, and texting and spreading these messages. 80% of girls 13-17 have Facebook accounts, and Sax calls Facebook “toxic” for girls. Research shows that the more time a girl spends online with Face book friends, the more likely she is to become anxious and depressed. Facebook promotes a positive spin on people’s lives, a “slice” of life, a “surface” impression of reality. As adults, we often don’t even have the mature insight to keep that perspective when we begin comparing ourselves to our virtual “friends”. Certainly, a teenage girl, whose pre-frontal lobe is still developing (that part of the brain in charge of judgement and understanding consequences, reason and rational thinking). They are constantly comparing themselves to other girls and women, and to impossible and unrealistic images of them. No wonder the numbers have become shockingly high on rates of self-mutilation, depression, drugs, and eating disorders among girls and teens!
Sax says that without intending to be, we as parents in a digital world have become permissive of this trend and these behaviors of sexualization and exploitation of our daughters. But take heart! There are things, we as intentional parents can do to protect our daughters, to give them a fighting chance at middle girlhood and a healthy self-concept. To help them to become not just the best that they can be, but fully themselves.
- Read books like this and “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” to educate yourself on WHY the early sexualization of girls is so harmful and prevalent, so you can do something about it. Awareness is the first step to empowerment. (Or just read my Cliff’s notes version with tips for what to do about the problem: “Up to Your Eyeballs in Pretty Pink Princess Paraphernalia?“)
- Sax suggests taking simple, but direct steps towards protecting your daughter by YOU being the parent and calling the shots: keep the cell phone charger in your room at night so she can’t text or talk in the wee hours, keep computers and TV’s out of bedrooms, offer a safer alternative to Face Book, install phone and computer software to protect your children.
- Send her to summer camp where she can be away from the pressures of school and her “image”, away from all things digital, where she can engage in activities that will increase her worldview, her experiences, that will challenge her and grow her self-esteem. Where she can participate in an old-fashioned middle-girlhood!
- Spend real “Face” time with your children! Eat dinner, ask questions, check in, know her friends, know her friends’ parents, talk. Go camping, do something active together that will mess up your hair and make-up (or even keep you from wearing it!)
- Don’t pressure her to be perfect! Accept her for who she is. Tell her you like her, not just that you love her. Teach her, tell her that her value comes from the inside! AND that you value her just as she is, period.
- Let her succeed and fail. Praise her efforts and intrinsic characteristics, not the “surface” stuff – the grades, the looks, the awards.
- Get your daughter involved in a community of women that forms bonds across generations (think of a quilting community). This used to be a built-in feature in our culture, but churches and communities have mostly segregated youth now, though this is not what is best for them. They need to hear stories, hear struggles, form bonds, feel that sense of acceptance and security, get encouragement, get “real” perspective on life and time and what matters.
- Get your daughter involved in community service and volunteering. This is another great way to help her to develop a healthy sense of perspective, and a healthy sense of self, protecting her against the onslaught of damaging female images, of “spin” and “hype” and values portrayed in a “reality” TV-world.
- Show your daughter (teen) the documentary “Miss Representation“, and talk about it. Find positive female role models, and fill your brain with their images instead of the Kardashians or the Bachelorette!
- Consider a “No-Tech” Day for your family. Here’s how…“Disconnecting to Connect”
Interested in hearing Leonard Sax speak? He will be offering a free lecture on this topic on Tuesday, Aug. 7th in Grand Prairie. Here is the info…
Facebook ate my daughter…..and my son won’t stop playing “Call of Duty.”
A FREE INFORMATION SESSION FOR ARNOLD AND KENNEDY PARENTS WITH DR. LEONARD SAX
August 7, 2012 n 6:30 p.m. GPISD Education Center n 2602 S. Belt Line Road
- What is the story with Facebook? Should I be my daughter’s Facebook friend?
- My child sends or receives more than 4,000 text messages a month. Should I be concerned?
- I heard that the more time a girl spends on Facebook, the more likely she is to become anxious or depressed. Is that true? If so, why isn’t it true for boys as well?
- How much time spent playing video games is too much?
- Which video games are ok?
Dr. Leonard Sax is a leading expert on the role that gender plays in child development and education.He is the founder of the Montgomery Center for Research in Child and Adolescent Development. He currently works with schools offering insight into the main difference between teaching boys and girls.His work with parents focuses on how best to navigate the unique and ever- changing challenges faced by today’s children.