Raising Daughters

When I envisioned myself as a mother, I saw boys. All boys. I wasn't much into fancy hair-dos, painted nails, or cute outfits, so I never imagined myself with girls. (Let me just say that I am so thankful for daughters and unsure whether I could have survived any more sons.)

It turns out that you don't actually have to be into hair, nails, and clothes to raise girls. We dressed Rachel in "boy clothes" for the first year of her life. (Now, she often wears them by choice.) And I apparently broke some sort of unwritten rule when I took six-month-old Lucy to the salon for a haircut. Sure, she had lots of dark, beautiful hair. But I could barely keep up with Rachel's hair. If I had to make hair look presentable for two girls, I was never going to get out of the house.

(It should be noted that I have since learned how to do hair, my sister-in-law does fabulous nails, and my girls are generally better dressed than me.)

People say boys are more difficult when they are young and girls are more difficult as they get older. Agreed. Little boys don't like to sit still. Or follow rules. Or use toilets. But raising girls to become the type of women that they should be (that we need them to be) requires great effort. I want to teach my girls to rise above worldly expectations (and acceptances) and be virtuous, confident, independent, pleasant, balanced, remarkable, noble.

And that is why so many quotes and ideas from this book have been on my mind. After my surgery, I cruised through a number of books until I hit this one. It was not a fast read, but it has influenced me as a mother. I don't agree with everything. But there are plenty of valid points. . . points I wish I would have had on my mind eight years ago when I started this parenting thing.

Here are some of the things I underlined in my book. I will put them down word for word, without any personal opinions or interpretation.

And I would also like to echo the author's statement: "I am hardly one to judge other mothers' choices: my own behavior has been hypocritical, inconsistent, even reactionary." Yes, it has. And, unfortunately, it still is.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

It is tempting, as a parent, to give the new pink-and-pretty a pass. There is already so much to be vigilant about, and the limits of our tolerance, along with our energy, slip a little with each child we have.

Don't our possessions reflect who we are; shape, even define our experience?

Whether you love or loathe Barbie, you cannot have grown up in the last half century untouched by her influence.

Fifty years later, baby boomers and Gen Xers who had treasured the doll were so eager to share her with their own daughters that they didn't wait until the girls were eight to twelve (Barbie's original demographic); they presented her to their three-year-olds. That instantaneously made her anathema to her intended market.

The innocence that pink signaled during the Princess years, which seemed so benign, even protective, has receded, leaving behind narcissism and materialism as the hallmarks of feminine identity.

I found myself mulling over why we parents want to- even need to- amplify the differences between boys and girls.

How much do we want our children to be products of social engineering? As long as we don't consider the behaviors and interests of one sex as inferior to the other's, who cares? Does gender segregation matter, for either the good or the ill?

Toy choice turns out to be one of the largest differences between the sexes over the entire life span.

Nurture becomes nature. "Think about language. Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds and grammar and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires itself up to only perceive and produce a specific language. . . "

At any rate, gender is a pretty weak predictor of a child's potential gifts or challenges; the differences within each sex in any given realm (including math and verbal skills) tend to be far greater than the ones between them.

Years of same-sex play leave kids less able to relate to the other sex--and can set the stage for hostile attitudes and interactions in adolescence and adulthood.

. . . Young children who have friends of the other sex have a more positive transition into dating as teenagers and sustain their romantic relationships better.

Where does desire end and coercion begin? When does "get to" become "have to"? I'm not sure parents how are that deeply invested in their children's success are able to tell. And if love, however subtly, seems conditional on performance--whether on the playing field, in the classroom, or onstage--how can a child truly say no?

Marketers call (it) KGOY--Kids Getting Older Younger. The idea, similar to the rejection of Barbie for Bratz by six-year-olds, is that toys and trends start with older children, but younger ones, trying to be like their big brothers and sisters, quickly adopt them. That immediately taints them for the original audience. And so the cycle goes.

I have often idly wondered, since those same KGOY theorists claim that adults stay youngerolder--fifty is the new thirty!--whether our children will eventually surpass us in age. Or perhaps we will all meet at a mutually agreed upon ideal, a forever twenty-one.

As it is, girls are going through puberty progressively earlier. The age of onset of menstruation has dropped from seventeen at the beginning of the twentieth century to barely twelve today. . . Yet, although they are physically more advanced, the pace of girls' psychological and emotional development has remained unchanged; they only look, and act, older on the outside.

I will leave the world of boys for someone else to explore, but it is clear that children of both sexes crave larger-than-life heroes. They need fantasy. They also, it seems, need a certain amount of violent play.

. . . After twenty years of writing and talking about girls, I know what to say: I have delivered the script hundreds of times at colleges and high schools, in churches and temples, to parent groups, teachers, Girls Scout leaders. So, for the record, here is what you are Officially Supposed To Do: stress what your daughter's body can do over how it is decorated. Praise her for her accomplishments over her looks. Make sure Dad is on board--a father's loving regard and interest in a girl, as the first man in her life, is crucial. Involve her in team sports. . . Volunteerism can give girls greater perspective and purpose, reducing body obsession. Media literacy can raise consciousness about marketers' manipulations.

I would have rattled off those solutions with the greatest confidence and authority--before I had a daughter of my own. Because the truth is, regardless of what we say, from the get-go everything else, everyone else, in our culture tells girls that their weight and looks matter--a lot. Though appearance shouldn't dictate how they are treated by others--let along their self-worth--it does.

Talent? Effort? Intelligence? All are wonderful, yet by middle school, how a girl feels about her appearance--particularly whether she is thin enough, pretty enough, and hot enough--has become the single most important determinant of her self-esteem.

Though I applaud its rebel yell that women can remain attractive as we get o-l-d-e-r, I also feel a creeping despair--like dang, now I have to be. I was secretly looking forward to letting it all go to hell at a certain point.

"Should women simply grow old naturally, since their looks don't define them, or should they fight the signs of aging, since beauty and youth are their currency and power?"

So--stick with me here--that means that girls are now simultaneously getting older younger and staying younger older.

The phases of our lives have become strangely blurred, as girls try to look like adult women and adult women primp and preen and work out like crazy in order to look like girls.

. . . I notice my own habit. . . of greeting my young subjects by commenting on some aspect of their appearance: their earrings, a new shirt, their hairstyles. I decided, as an experiment, to stop cold turkey, to find another way to connect: asking how a play rehearsal was going or what they were reading in English class. Anything. It felt surprisingly forced; physical compliments grease the conversational wheels among women and girls.

. . . I would speak about that experience, encouraging my audience to give it a try themselves for a few days. "You mean we shouldn't say anything about their looks?" How about this, I would counter: try not commenting on your own looks-- on the size of your thighs or the tightness of your jeans. At least not in front of your daughter. Girls receive enough messages every day reducing them to their appearance without women they love delivering them, too.

Although my body and I have reached if not peace, at least a state of detente, "fat" remains how I experience anger, dissatisfaction, disappointment. I feel "fat" if I can't master a task at work. I feel "fat" if I can't please those I love. "Fat" is how I blame myself for my failures. "Fat" is how I express my anxieties. A psychologist once told me, "Fat is not a feeling." If only it were that simple. As for so many women, the pathology of self-loathing is permanently ingrained in me. I can give in to it, I can modify it, I can react against it with practiced self-acceptance, but I cannot eradicate it. It frustrates me to consider what else I might have done with the years of mental energy I have wasted on this single, senseless issue.

Give all of that, I wonder how I could expect--or even hope--to raise a daughter who is both less invested in and more confident about her appearance than I was.

I recalled the conversation I'd had about the Disney Princesses with the mothers of Daisy's preschool classmates. One of them felt the answer was to shower her daughter with compliments about her looks as a kind of inoculation: she wanted to impress upon her girl that, regardless of what anyone might say, she was beautiful. Besides, the woman said, if you never tell your daughter she is pretty, rather than realizing that appearance is unimportant, she may suspect you think she's ugly. Maybe. Yet over-emphasizing a girl's looks is clearly hazardous--and that overemphasis is pervasive. How to find the sweet spot?

"'You're beautiful' is not something you want to say over and over to your daughter, because it's not something that you want her to think is so important."

"That said," she continued, "there are times when it is appropriate to say it: when she's messy or sweaty, when she's not dressed up, so that she gets a sense that there is something naturally beautiful about her as a person. Ant it's also important to connect beauty and love. To say, 'I love you so much, Everything about you is beautiful to me--you are beautiful to me.' That way your'e not just objectifying her body."

If Disney could try to brainwash my child, I suppose I could, too.

Like so many moms, I was willing to compromise to find some mutually acceptable middle ground.

The gift of power elevates but also isolates.

I had tired to explain my aversion to Cinderella. Had my worst fears during that episode come to pass? Rather than becoming more conscious of manipulation, had she instead learned that the things associated with girls--and by extension being a girl itself--were bad?

Certainly, I didn't want her to think that all things snips 'n' snails--like, gulp, superheroes?--were superior. It was one thing to reject the image of girlhood being sold to her, another to reject girls who might embrace it.

Segmenting play by sex, remember, may be good for sales but not necessarily for kids' development.

But I have heard it said that we adults are immigrants to this land of technology; our kids are natives. They use it differently than we do. They experience it differently, without our old-world accents or values. Much as the mall was for a previous generation, the Internet has become a place where they experiment with identity, friendship, and flirtation. The fact that none of it is real does not make it any less revealing.

Now their thoughts, photos, tastes, and activities are laid out for immediate approval or rejection by hundreds of people, many of whom are relative strangers. The self. . . becomes a brand, something to be marketed to others rather than developed from within. Instead of intimates with whom you interact for the sake of the exchange, friends become your consumers, and audience for whom you perform.

Apparently, teenagers are not the only ones at risk of turning the self into a performance, though since their identities are less formed, one assumes the potential impact will be more profound.

In the early days of the Web, people feared their daughters would be stalked by strangers online, but the far bigger threat has turned out to come from neighbors, friends, peers.

Gossip and nasty notes may be painful staples of middle school and high school girls' lives, but YouTube, Facebook, instant messaging, texting, and voice mail can raise cruelty to exponential height. Rumors can spread faster and further and. . . there is nowhere to escape their reach.

Watching the unparalleled social experiment being conducted on our children, it's worth considering--for boys as well as girls--how Internet use enhances their real lives, their real friendships, their contributions to the real world. And if we can't answer all of that in a satisfying way, maybe it is time to give their second lives some second thought.

If we can force change in the food industry, why not do the same for toys and media?

Talking to little girls about body image and dieting, for example, can actually introduce them to disordered behavior rather than inoculating them against it.

Though it may sound like a big old duh, the best approach is to put reasonable limits on the girlz-with-a-z stuff for as long as you can and, over time, engage (without nagging) in regular dialogue with your daughter about what she consumes. Watching TV or listening to music along with your child is also a good idea, if you're willing to discuss the content; otherwise, your presence comes off like an endorsement.

The point . . . is not so much to raise children who are cynical about the media as ones who are skeptical.

Our role is not to keep the world at bay but to prepare our daughters so they can thrive within it. That involves staying close but not crowding them, standing firm in one's values while remaining flexible.

I think that last one is my favorite. I'll end with that.


Rebecca said...

That's some good food for thought. Thanks for posting it. I have thought about the gender specific toy thing a lot since S&T are so close together and since the other T has gotten very disturbed in the past when T plays with Sydney's "girl toys" or when I paint his nails (who cares!).

P.S. Sydney got some fake nails for her birthday from a friend and I just put them on her before reading this:)

Kacie said...

I think I am thankful to have a boy and a girl close in age instead of two girls. While India is CLEARLY very interested in dressing up and loves sparkles and pink, I notice that she really isnt interested in "girly" things. Not into dolls, barbies, ponies, pet shops....NONE of that. Her and Fred seem to find a middle ground in pretending they are animals or other non gender specific things.

Kacie said...

It IS really hard for me not to comment on how beautiful she is. I cant stop myself....but I definately dont want her thinking that is her most important quality.

Thankfully some little boys like to use the toilet : ) (mine pees on the seat though)

MaRea Hess said...

LOVE, LOVED, LOVEd this post!! Thank you, for taking the time and sharing all of these wonderful ideas from the book. It reminded me of the talk last General Confrence
" What Manner of Men and Women ought yea to be"

we must be careful not to say things that would cause them to believe that what they did wrong is who they are. “Never let failure progress from an action to an identity,” with its attendant labels like “stupid,” “slow,” “lazy,” or “clumsy.” 2 Our children are God’s children. That is their true identity and potential. His very plan is to help His children overcome mistakes and misdeeds and to progress to become as He is. Disappointing behavior, therefore, should be considered as something temporary, not permanent—an act, not an identity.

We need to be careful, therefore, about using permanent phrases such as “You always …” or “You never …” when disciplining. Take care with phrases such as “You never consider my feelings” or “Why do you always make us wait?” Phrases like these make actions appear as an identity and can adversely influence the child’s self-perception and self-worth.

Identity confusion can also occur when we ask children what they want to be when they grow up, as if what a person does for a living is who he or she is. Neither professions nor possessions should define identity or self-worth. The Savior, for example, was a humble carpenter, but that hardly defined His life.

In helping children discover who they are and helping strengthen their self-worth, we can appropriately compliment their achievement or behavior—the do. But it would be even wiser to focus our primary praise on their character and beliefs—who they are.

I have a lot to work on;)!

Thanks again for the wonderful reminder of teaching our children that they are Children of God.

Lori said...

i think i'm going to print this out and really look at it. thank you so much for posting!