For a little while now, I’ve been reliving some of the worst memories of my adolescence. I suppose it’s my way of living vicariously through my daughters, both now tweens.
Like all mothers, I pray they will grow into level-headed, self-loving, decent young women. In my generation, many of us instead grew into neurotic, self-doubting, low-self esteem bundles of emotion. Sadly, and many women won’t admit this, we developed this way at the hands of other women – bullies, social climbers, gossips, etc. In my day, women were their own worst enemies. And I think very well may still be.
We give a lot of lip service these days to raising strong, independent, self-actualized young ladies. We encourage them to do whatever they dream, to be who they are, and see themselves as powerful. We remind them they’re capable of math and science. We have them playing football and hockey. We change the body type of Barbie so they don’t see themselves as sexual objects. And yet somehow, that cattiness is still alive and well in females everywhere, and at even younger ages.
I have been working for the last 11 years now at raising my own strong little ladies. I don’t sugar coat the lesser amenities of life for them – we all need to be responsible and productive. Even with my own very pronounced short comings (depression, diabetes, heart disease) I’m dedicated to providing them with the tools they will need to take care of themselves with confidence as they become adults in a very cruel world.
Yesterday, for the first time, I began to wonder if I’m doing it wrong.
My oldest daughter asked me if she could go to a different school. I was surprised…somewhat. She has had a hiccup or two in her emotional development, and is regularly referred to by people at our school as “sensitive.” That means she’s known to cry at school when she feels put down, alone, overlooked, overwhelmed or teased. She shows her hurt. That makes some kids think she’s not cool, and some teachers that she’s less intelligent.
Nothing could be further from the truth. She’s quite smart, a wonderful cartoonist, dedicated musician and overall good-hearted person. Her academic test scores are well above average. And she’s very likable. Similar to other girls her age, she’s also a bit awkward and confused. Like others, she’s gained a little weight, struggles with athletics, is stymied sometimes by her developing body and feels left out of almost everything. She seeks affirmation.
She’s had a few “best friends,” but all in all, it seems when she finds one, that girl finds someone else who doesn’t want her around. It appears she’s been labeled uncool, and is regularly alone in a sea of little girls, who, unlike her, do not appreciate country music, trombone, Disney animation, black jelly beans and Minecraft.
I was like this growing up. Like her, I lived a bit farther away from the others in my class, didn’t play with those kids often after school, and my activities were considered weird. I went through that awkward phase where I got a little overweight and couldn’t get my hair to lay just right. I was an early bloomer. I was teased and bullied regularly by kids who today don’t remember doing it. But I remember – and that treatment stayed with me my whole life. I still doubt my worthiness and abilities today.
I had hoped in this new age of the Strong Girl, my daughters would not experience this catty competitiveness that should have died off by now, allowing young women to support one another while appreciating their differences. Yet it now seems to start more strongly at younger ages. (For my youngest in first grade.)
What are we doing as mothers, teachers, role models that tells girls it’s ok to ostracize other girls on the basis of what society tells us is cool or not cool? Is it right not to invite one girl out of a class to a party because she doesn’t get an A on every test, or because she doesn’t have the coordination to play basketball? What about if she’s chubby, or tells silly jokes or repeats herself when she talks?
All girls, little ones, tweens, teens, even adults, want a friend or two to share life experiences with. As adults, as a society, are we subtlety telling our daughters that some girls don’t deserve friendship or an ally in the battle of growing up?
It seems so. We can do all we can to encourage them to be who they are as their parents. But there’s little we can do when their peers deconstruct that confidence daily simply because who they are isn’t in style. When push comes to shove, they believe other girls over parents “who have to tell them nice things.”
As women, likely all of whom have experienced this type of abandonment by friends, shouldn’t we be encouraging our daughters to embrace differences and build support for and among all girls facing the perils of young adulthood? Let’s find ways to kill the spectre of “popularity” among kids before we create more girls who are afraid to engage their gifts.