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.
Copyright © 2002 JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
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