Last month I covered some of the challenges that are unique to raising boys. This time, we’ll look at issues and difficulties that occur in the raising of girls. From birth, differences can be observed in males and females. I dismissed these differences as rigidly socialized stereotypes until we had a girl and a boy. For instance, we limited violent media but even as a toddler our son turned twigs and pretzel sticks into guns and swords. From the time our daughter could grasp, she would reach for dolls. I’ve heard that studies of babies show marked differences between girls and boys. When surrounded with human faces, girl babies will look longer and more intently at the faces. Boy babies are more likely to scan the faces and then get distracted by the ceiling fan and watch it for a while instead.
This observation shows that girls are naturally more socially involved and that relationships are an essential part of their development. As a result, many of the everyday challenges of raising girls are linked to social issues. In Mary Pipher’s book “Reviving Ophelia”, doctor Pipher shares important insights from her work with girls in early adolescence. She states: “I found girls to be obsessed with complicated and intense relationships. They felt obligated and resentful, loving and angry, close and distant, all at the same time with the same people.” Mary Pipher’s observation reiterates the importance of relationships in girls’ lives, and this is why the adolescent stage poses such dangers particularly for girls.
In my own work with parents and their daughters, it seems that seventh grade is commonly seen as a pivotal time when many problems emerge for girls. During elementary years, girls tend to find happiness and confidence through their own abilities and self-directed choices. About the time girls enter junior-high, parents see their daughter’s confidence and curiosity decline into self-doubt and shyness. This is due to a normal developmental shifting of focus in their identity. In adolescence there is a natural increase in awareness of social inclusion and acceptance for both girls and boys. Whereas pre-adolescent girls define themselves more or less, adolescent girls begin looking to others for their identity. Problems result, though, when this shift is too dramatic and extreme. Instead of asking “What do I think about myself?,” adolescent girls begin asking “What do you think about me?” and “What must I do to make you think I’m good enough?” When girls begin asking these last two questions, all kinds of trouble are invited into their lives.
As adolescent girls look out to the world to help them form their identity, Mary Pipher identifies three factors that make this a dangerous time. First, puberty is bringing total change to the female mentally and physically. Secondly, our culture sends very unhealthy answers to girls asking the question “what do you think of me and how can I be good enough?” Third, girls feel a pressure to distance from their parents just when they need their guidance and protection the most. Based on these three factors, what can parents do to protect daughters as they grow into adults? The first factor is pretty much out of parents’ control other than listening and telling them many of these changes are normal. Parents can definitely impact the second two factors.
The second factor of cultural influences must be aggressively dealt with before girls reach adolescence. Parents must serve as filters to the media. Magazines, music, and TV shows popular with teens have a lot to say about what makes a girl “good enough.” The message often received from the media is that girls are good enough if they are a certain size, sexually experienced (but not too experienced) and alluring, and receive the approval of some powerful male figure. In order to embrace such values from the pop culture, girls basically have to deny their true selves and adopt a false self. This results in an abandonment of how they used to be and an extreme obedience to what the media and social group dictates. If parents limit the exposure to media, daughters are more likely to keep looking to the parents for guidance on what is “good enough.”
Furthermore, parents can impact factor two and three by maintaining open lines of communication with their daughters. Good communication must be established before girls enter adolescence. Here is what must be communicated: that you believe your daughter is good enough regardless of performance and especially regardless of appearance. You must convey that you believe your daughter is capable of thinking on her own and able to make healthy choices. Talk with your daughter about the choices she is facing every day. Ask them to identify the messages they get from the media – how are girls and women viewed by various media? As your daughter enters adolescence, let them know that boys have no authority to evaluate their self-worth. Encourage your daughters to balance their focus on other’s emotions and thoughts with an awareness and acceptance of their own feelings and thoughts. Remind them they are responsible for their own thoughts, feelings, and choices and not anyone else’s. As parents, you should be modeling this approach to life as well.
The differences between boys and girls pose specific challenges to their rearing, but also provide special blessings. I believe we were created differently for reasons that are sometimes beyond our understanding. As boys and girls become men and women however, the differences provide the potential for wonderful marriages. In closing, I give you the final lines to a song by John Mayer called “Daughters”:
So fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters, too