The Wonder of Girls: Understanding the Hidden Nature of Our Daughtersby Michael Gurian
In The Wonder of Girls, Gurian, himself the father of two girls, provides crucial information for fully understanding the basic nature of girls: up-to-date scientific/i>/i>
Michael Gurian, whose national bestseller The Wonder of Boys presented a radical and enlightening view of parenting sons, now offers a groundbreaking approach to raising daughters.
In The Wonder of Girls, Gurian, himself the father of two girls, provides crucial information for fully understanding the basic nature of girls: up-to-date scientific research on female biology, hormones, and brain development and how they shape girls' interests, behavior, and relationships.
He also offers insight into a culture mired in competition between traditionalism and feminism and a new vision that provides for the equal status of girls and women yet acknowledges their nature as complex and distinct from men. He explains what is "normal" for girls each year from birth to age 20; what developmental needs girls face in each stage; how to communicate effectively with girls; and how to cope with developmental crises such as early sexuality, eating disorders, parental divorce, and more.
With personal insights, practical tips, real-life anecdotes, and accessible science, The Wonder of Girls creates a new parenting paradigm. Key elements include:
- a nature-based approach to why girls are the way they are
- the connection between the need for profound attachment and the physical and brain development of girls
- support for a girl's inherent need for intimacy
- tools to protect girls' self-esteem and emotional life
- a new approach to girls' character development and rites of passage.
With this scientifically based developmental map of girlhood, Gurian equips parents with a comprehensive guide for raising daughters. Challenging our culture to examine and embrace a crucial piece of the puzzle missing thus far, The Wonder of Girls elevates the dialogue on parenthood.
USA Today Explosive....Gurian raises interesting questions.
Library Journal The Wonder of Girls is...an excellent choice.
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Read an Excerpt
BEGINNING OUR SEARCH
A NEW LOGIC OF GIRLS' LIVES
"We have to look beyond patriarchy, that's for sure. But, you know, it's starting to be that we also have to look beyond feminism too. Our daughters' lives are limited by both theories."
-- Gail Reid-Gurian, mother of two girls and family therapist
On a sunny day in June, I took my daughters to Manito Park, our neighborhood play area. Gabrielle was seven and Davita four. Beyond the normal swings and slides, the girls always enjoyed a sculpture there, built from logs and shaped like a Viking ship. On this particular day, we arrived early, and the girls, who had brought some of their stuffed animals, began to play a game involving two mothers caring for children on an ocean voyage. I offered to be part of the game if they wanted me, but then, as they enjoyed their "girl world" without me, I settled into a book on a bench at the periphery.
Their play went comfortably, filled with creative ideas and adjustments, in that way girls have with each other. They could have gone on happily, alone together, until they got hungry for lunch. But a car pulled up, and out stepped a mom and two boys, around five and eight years old. The mom and I waved as strangers do in parks when the sweet energy of children is about. Her two sons dashed onto the ship loudly. I watched, fascinated at first, then disquieted.
The complex game Gabrielle and Davita had created was interrupted by the louder and more aggressive energy of the boys. Within seconds, my girls abandoned their game and took to observing the boys' action and cries. "I'm captain now!"
"Shoot the shark!"
Watching this usurpation of my girls' play-world, I felt a growing irritation. I thought sadly of how often this happened between boys and girls.
There it is, I thought. What we are so often warned about: that when the boys come around, the girls step aside. The girls' self-esteem drops and the boys take over.
My protective instincts for my girls rose even while I harbored no ill will toward the boys, who were, after all, just enjoying the world through their own way of being. I felt almost like a crime was being committed to my daughters. I felt like I should do something.
A professional student of human nature, I spend a lot of time observing children's behavior. When I'm not sure what to do, I fall back on watching. On this morning I did just that. And I learned a valuable lesson.
For about five minutes, my daughters tried to return to their game. This became impossible, given the noise and interruptions. Then Gabrielle said something to the older of the boys, made some suggestions, began a negotiation I couldn't hear from my bench. The boys slowed down a little, listened, talked in the midst of their bouncing and playing. Gabrielle, as the alpha female on the ship, seemed to talk mostly to the older boy, the alpha male. She pointed; he pointed. She told Davita to move one of the dolls over to where he was, and he instructed his little brother to take hold of it and prop it up on the aft rim of the ship.
Within ten minutes from the boys' arrival, the "set" was rearranged. Now the four children were in a group near the helm of the ship, each of them with a different job, and all of them engaged in some new game, even more rich and complex than had been my daughters' or the boys' original intentions for play, this one featuring princesses, giants, pirates, treasures, and, I found out later from Davita, Cinderella's lost shoes.
My disquiet, my irritation, even my hidden anger were replaced now by admiration. As so often happens in the world of children, something small was really something large. The kids were living out their nature wholeheartedly, and it was worth a lot to observe it at work.
A Moment of Awakening
This moment at the park was the first of many incidents that cried out for me to think beyond our culture's present ideas about girls, about girls and boys, and about women and men. If you think about it, how many times have similar things happened on playgrounds, in workplaces, in homes, among children, teenagers, adults? Initially, there is overwhelming energy from males, but soon, gradual assessment, then guidance, from females. As a married man, I am no stranger to this circumstance!
And in the five minutes of negotiation that went on between Gabrielle, Davita, and the two boys, I realized I needed to revise the timeline by which I watched for drops in girls' self-esteem. Among these four children there was no drop in self-esteem, though initial observation seemed to show there was a sad drop for my girls. Instead, there were the natural interpersonal relationships that emerge when we are patient enough to observe them.
This incident occurred many years ago. It was one of the times in my life that I've felt dissatisfied, as a parent, by what our present, conventional conversation about girls has taught me about "gender stereotypes," "girls' self-esteem drops," "girls in crisis." A number of catchphrases dominate our dialogue about girls, but our girls actually live far beyond the words. That morning, I went home and began a list of these phrases, as well as some of the theories that indoctrinate me nearly every day -- in some form in our media and pop culture -- to see girls in a way that allows very little for the subtleties in which girls really live their lives.
I told Gail about my observation. As she does so often, she smiled at me, a little bemused. Quite often she sees things more clearly and much earlier than I do, but just doesn't tell me about it. "Mike, hardly anyone anymore really looks under the surface of girls' lives," she said. "Feminism used to do it twenty, thirty years ago. It was deep. But now it's skidding on the surface." It was during the rest of that day that Gail and I talked about this, talked about my writing this book, and acknowledged something we, brought up in the feminist tradition, had avoided dealing with.
The great ocean of girls' lives actually lies beneath the surface of the simple formulas we are now taught about "girl power" and girls' self-esteem. Feminism is, we realized, no longer the best theory to care for many of our girls.
In this book, my primary objective is to help parents and caregivers raise daughters. I am a teacher and counselor who greatly enjoys working intimately with people and their families. I am not seeking to be a political figure on one "side" of a political debate.
And yet to write about girls in any way different from current convention is to immediately become a person of the fight. My experiences from around the world, my research, and my own parenting lead me to somewhat different conclusions from my peers. Thus, in offering this parenting guide, I feel compelled to speak not only as a helpful professional but as a figure in a social debate. I don't think The Wonder of Girls would be comprehensive if it did not briefly explore some of the ideologies and theories our girls are now being raised in.
This chapter, then, is about the social debate we raise our girls within. If you are uninterested in politics of this kind, you might want to move to Chapter 2. If, however, you want to revise some of the political logic by which girls have been raised for the last few decades, then this chapter will be enjoyable. It is an analysis of feminist theory, specifically of feminist theories about factors predominant in making girls the way they are. It is also a call to move beyond feminism, to a new logic of girls' lives.
The central core of the new logic is this: Feminism as we know it today is "power feminism" -- based in acquiring more and more social and workplace power for females. While this acquisition is important, it is being pursued at the expense of what I will argue that my daughters, and yours, need and want as much or more. Feminism has, in its worthwhile and useful search for power, neglected this other world of girls' needs. In the last chapter of this book, we will define a set of principles by which to provide our girls with an even wider scope of happiness and success than present-day feminism offers.
Looking Beyond Feminism:
Old Myths and New Theories
Almost four decades ago, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and others based their feminist revolution on showing us the Victorian and patriarchal myths that impeded the progress of girls and women. The myths they fought against -- and many of us along with them -- went something like this:
Because of the inspiration and direction provided by the feminist movement, we have each, over the last decades, seen amazing changes in the home, the workplace, the school classroom, and the media. There are still many battles to fight in pursuit of women's equality, but many have also been won. Because of the inspiration of feminists, we've worked to change our culture, and we've succeeded.
Yet if you are like Gail and myself, while ready to congratulate feminists for the powerful work the movement has done for our girls and women, you have begun to suspect, over the last few years, during moments of your own awakening, that feminist theory is often static and overreactive, sometimes unfair, and generally incomplete in its assessment of human nature. But you may also feel like the villagers in the story "The Emperor's New Clothes," hesitant to cry out, "But look! There's something wrong with this picture!"
Let's feel this hesitancy no longer. Let's explore some of the most predominant feminist theories in our culture, and make decisions about whether they really do apply to our homes, our classrooms, and our culture.
Let's look at the four most prevalent feminist theories, and the imperatives they impose on our thinking as parents, regarding why girls are the way they are. To fully care for girls in this millennium, these four theories will have to be broken through.
HUMAN NATURE IS NOT VERY IMPORTANT TO GIRLS' LIVES.
Girls are who they are predominantly because of the way they are socialized in our society. Nature plays a smaller part in why girls are the way they are.
What we need to know about girls, we are told, can be learned by studying "socialization." In our society, a girl's socialization is patriarchal and male dominated, and females are second-class citizens. When a girl experiences a self-esteem drop, a problem, an unrequited desire, or a fear of life itself, interpretation of "socialization" provides the reason. To spend time looking at hormones, the female brain, and the natural evolution of the female is to risk limiting girls' potential, so we must avoid it. Human nature (as girls live it) is a subject too risky for contemporary parents and teachers, for spending a lot of time on the nature of a girl will lead, ultimately, to her oppression.
This first feminist theory found its genesis just under forty years ago. It was a logical response to the misuse of biology and nature-based observations by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century neurobiologists and psychologists. When, over a hundred years ago, we discovered that the male brain was ten percent larger than the female, some male scientists cried, "You see, men are smarter than women!" Sigmund Freud, a genius in many ways, based his own theories on just a few people -- his patients -- and found in them penis envy; he claimed this to be natural to females, and overburdened this "nature-based" theory with male chauvinism.
Early feminists reacted strongly and effectively to the limitations and just plain bad theory of many of the men in the early century. In the 1960s and '70s, academic feminists buried neurobiological and sociobiological research. They've continued this trend unflinchingly. In a 1995 television interview on male/female brain differences, Gloria Steinem told 20/20 reporter John Stossel that to talk about biology was to continue the patriarchy.
Hormonal and biochemical research -- so useful in helping adult women understand pregnancy, menopause, and daily life -- has been largely absent from the books and resources on raising girls. In 1998, I asked Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, whether she thought biology played a part in the lives of girls, especially the girls who were suffering so deeply in her book. Biology, she told me, plays a much smaller part in what's going on for girls than socialization does.
Christina Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism? told me she saw the feminist hyper-emphasis on "nurture" and nearly complete lack of emphasis on human nature to be a "feminist fear of what is natural, because feminists see what is natural as being defined through a male lens." Early feminism had to disconnect itself from many of the scaffolds of human life in order to develop as a dominant theory. Nature was owned by men. Biology was owned by male theorists who got their guidance not just from science (dominated by men for hundreds of years) but also religion (dominated by male imagery). The imperative behind Gloria Steinem's sense that to talk of biology is to be patriarchal was crucial to early feminism's time and place.
And yet, even given the immense liberation for women that feminism has accomplished, the basic questions of human nature remain. They especially remain for parents who are trying to raise children of nature without understanding the original nature from which the children have come.
The Wonder of Girls hopes no longer to skirt questions involving human nature, for the very soul of the human is lost when human nature is taken out of the human dialogue. At the Gurian Institute, where we train teachers and parents, classrooms and homes become very different places when communities learn the hidden secrets of human nature. We have found that parents, teachers, and community members who are not equipped with the wisdom of nature in understanding their children make painful mistakes both in action and in thought -- they think themselves to blame for things in which they play little part; and they neglect to provide ways of love and nurturance that they did not know they should provide. They become embattled in causes, but discover they do not understand the girl herself, or the boy beside her. And they often try to direct their daughter toward certain social and political goals that may not be right for the personality and nature of that particular girl. They become cut off from the child, especially during adolescence, when their child wants desperately to be understood. A great deal of our society's woes grow from the isolation adolescents feel from their caregivers.
When parents don't fully understand their children, much of the wonder of parenting is lost. In both the minds of parents and children, parenting becomes like a business, always on the verge of failure or bankruptcy.
There is another way, available to us once we push beyond the simplistic idea that girls are who they are "because they are socialized that way," and notice that "girls are who they are as much or more because of their hidden nature" on which socialization plays an important, but, surprisingly, not a life-defining role. New sciences (especially neurobiology and biochemistry) that will not be submerged in politics any longer have made it very possible, as Chapters 2 and 3 will reveal, to know our daughters from the inside out. Distinctions like nature vs. nurture become relatively trivial: What comes to matter is the knowledge of how a girl's brain, hormones, and physiological development, within her everyday enviroment, are affecting her life.
As a mother of two girls put it to me after learning about the biology and biochemistry of girlhood: "This is incredible. Now my girls make sense."
WOMEN DO BEST WHEN THEY ARE INDEPENDENT OF MEN.
To be safe and successful as human beings, women must become, for the most part, independent of men. Boys and men are not inherently trustworthy; girls and women must compete with them as needed, become more like them as it is strategic to do so, and seek a social position in which they don't need the other sex.
When I was a boy my mother told me what her life was like in the 1950s. "A woman got married and had children, and her husband got a job and supported her and the children. I was alone in my own house, and I relied on your father so much that for years I just didn't know who I was, or what I could be. I felt so second-class, I came to resent him, myself, and the world."
My mother's sense of loneliness, of utter dependency on a man, and of social inequality was shared by many women of that time. When Betty Friedan cried out, "We want equality! Now!" to a huge crowd gathered at the Washington Monument, a nation listened. The dependency of a wife on a husband's social status had become destructive to women's psychological health, and thus to human society.
Our culture took up the cause of women like my mother, and continues to do so to this day, through one of the best outlets available: the workplace. In order to extract themselves from the loneliness of the wife at home, and the low status they were given (and for other economic reasons) women entered the workforce en masse, and discovered a mainly male-dominant environment. Women saw that they needed to compete with men. And the most efficient female strategy appeared to be for women to become more like men. If they became like men, they would compete and succeed in the male world. And many women have.
Because of feminist theory and strategies, the financial worth and social independence of most women in Western economic cultures is now not primarily controlled by a man's money. "Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle" said Gloria Steinem in the 1970s. Her thinking inspired young women seeking to make it on their own. Feminist theory, and our cultural adjustment to it, has helped create an economic culture in which most women can, should they choose to, create a life separate from intimate dependency on men. In a recent poll, however, reported by the Associated Press, the majority of women who were asked if they were happier than their mothers said no. The number-one item on the list of what they felt they missed? Stable relationships. This was especially true for women raising kids.
While the compelling need for a woman to be independent was a dominant necessity of my mother's generation, what was not clear thirty to forty years ago, but is clarifying for many of us now -- especially when the sciences of neurobiology and sociobiology are applied to the lives of girls and women -- is this natural fact: In most cases, human females and males need to form intimate, long-lasting, and symbiotic relationships in order to feel safe and personally fulfilled and in order to raise the next generation safely. Furthermore, the safety of civilization as a whole depends on the social guidance, protection, and valuing of bonds between males and females who are in the nature-based process of raising children. Couples who are not raising children can often experiment with serial mating, divorce, and social independence without structurally harming a society; but couples, families, and extended families that raise children without valuing the bonds among the caregivers have a higher probability of raising troubled children. The weight of this greater probability falls on not only individual families, but the civilization as a whole.
In the old patriarchal logic of raising girls, females were overly dependent on males and got in return a family arrangement that would give most women the relational stability in which to raise children.
In the feminist logic of raising girls, there is a high emphasis on female independence and social status, but the reward of relational stability is downgraded. Females are constantly embattled by having to make it on their own.
All this might not seem like a crucial issue to you or me were we not raising the next generation of daughters. But because we are, we must firmly establish where we stand, as parents, on how female independence from males will be encouraged in our house. Even if we don't spend time thinking about it, we are either pushing our girls toward competition with males or holding them back; we are either teaching them to trust males, or not. As parents in our era, we are in the thick of matters of female independence.
As we search for new logic for girls' lives, every parent and caregiver may find themselves challenged to develop a womanist vision -- one that is neither predominantly patriarchal nor feminist: one that provides for the equal status of girls and women without robbing them of the natural need for dependency on men. Meeting this challenge will be a major, and very practical, subject of this book. For if we succeed in meeting it, our girls will fully achieve personal identity, relational stability, and social success.
GIRLS ARE VICTIMS.
arToday's girls are, first and foremost, victims of a male-dominant society.
For about a year, between 2000 and 2001, I watched the popular nighttime crime drama Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. This program deals very realistically with some of the sickest perpetrators of sexual crime in our culture. In one episode, a fifteen-year-old girl from Romania is manipulated by a pedophile to not only become the au pair of his daughter, but a victim of his violent sexual fantasies. Her developing self is erased by his dominance; he withholds food from her, convinces her to become utterly dependent on him, locks her up, ties her up, constantly rapes her. When she is rescued by the detectives, she is nearly dead, locked in a coffinlike box in which she cannot move and can barely breathe.
This is only one episode of Special Victims Unit, and not even the most frightening.
I stopped watching the show because it was so effectively written, acted, and directed. As a father of daughters, it was constantly like watching my own girls being hurt, and I simply could not stand it anymore.
Like so many television shows, movies, and newspaper stories, Special Victims Unit displays the dangers that girls face, and the sickness, violence, and harassment that males are capable of perpetrating upon them. One in four females will experience rape or sexual abuse at the hands of males during their lifetimes, according to the FBI. Just under one in ten will experience domestic violence at the hands of men. Many will experience sexual harassment at school or in the workplace.
Some girls and women experience victimization, and many live in a kind of fear males do not understand. This undeniable fact was -- like the fact that some women felt second-class in marriage and society -- a foundation of early feminist thinking.
As feminism developed in scope and power, this fact-for-some women became a truth-for-all. Feminist theorists, such as Anne Wilson-Schaef, argued that not only are some girls and women victims of males, but that all girls and women are inherently victims of the male-dominant system. Very quickly the "victim theory" developed, teaching that male identity is linked to victimizing females, and that men, masculinity, male social systems, and "male-dominant society" are inherently hostile to girls and women. It also taught that female identity itself is largely based on girls' victimization by male systems; girls and women are victims or sisters of victims or former victims or potential victims of males or male systems.
As a young feminist, I recall being moved by the victim theory years ago. It filled me with sympathy for the women I cared about, and cautioned me to be the best man I could in their presence. Years later, watching Special Victims Unit, anyone would be prone to agree with the females-are-victims theory.
But mustn't we ask ourselves if victimization by male-dominant society is a predominant factor in the lives of all girls and women? And mustn't we further ask if victim identity is ultimately useful, as a self-image, to our daughters' developing identity? Might there be long-term effects of the girls-are-victims theory on human relationships as a whole, and thus on our civilization?
In the mid 1990s, Christina Crawford, author of Mommie Dearest, told me during a dinner party: "Males destroy, females create. That's just the way it is."
Years ago we might not have noticed that in order for comments like hers to make us more conscious of the abuses of males and the trials faced by girls and women, social thinkers like Crawford made a choice -- to promulgate a universal enemy: destructive masculinity. Thus, the majority of girls and women -- who are not victims of violence, rape, date rape, or harassment -- are nonetheless, in theory, still very much victims, because the enemy does not need to be an individual man; it is "masculinity." As recently as 1998, the feminist Carol Gilligan told me that we could not protect either our girls or our boys until we completely deconstructed masculinity. It is inherently dangerous, in her opinion, and has to go.
In Reviving Ophelia, one of the most effective books to map girls' distresses at the end of the twentieth century, psychologist and author Mary Pipher utilized the female victim/male villain theory. She argued that among the causes of a girl's loss of self during adolescence is that "most fathers received a big dose of misogyny training [training in women-hatred]." In her very powerful and important book, she shows us the many ways that our daughters are potentially victimized by their socialization in this culture: their spirits crushed, their bodies emaciated, their minds manipulated. When I spoke with Mary before a seminar we gave together, she admitted that she thought part of the success of Ophelia was due to its ride on an ideological wave of victim thinking.
She didn't consciously try to exploit this feminist idea, she told me, but it had ended up being very effective.
Mary's book is effective, because, like no other, it tells the story of girls in distress with beauty and grace; it has had a profoundly important impact and is very useful to those people raising daughters who have been hurt and are hurting. At the same time, it participates, like so many other girls' books, in propagating the myth that girls' lives are dominated by distresses predominantly caused by female socialization in a misogynistic male-dominant society.
For my daughters' sake I must ask: What happens to a culture that promotes the idea that males are inherently defective, violent, or women-hating, and females are inherently victims? How will my daughters make the compassionate alliances they need when they are adults if they are trained to believe boys and men are predominantly destructive to them?
Since most boys and men are good people -- according to the FBI, 1 percent of men commit our crimes -- and most girls and women are not born victims of bad men, isn't it my responsibility to help my daughters live, as much as possible, in trust of males? How am I to do this if the voices of female culture condemn men so constantly?
Gail and I, and many like us, strive to protect our daughters' abilities to love, trust, and be compassionate. We hope they trust not only men, but also the highest moral standards of masculinity as well, without acceding to the bad boys and men out there. The Wonder of Girls is written in that spirit of trust. I hope it challenges you to explore where you stand as a parent of daughters, on issues of victimization and masculinity. I hope it challenges you to ask and answer these questions: Do I choose to like boys and men, or not? Do I choose to fear masculinity or do I take the time to guide my daughters through it? Our daughters are making these choices all the time. How will we guide them in our own thinking and living?
Throughout this book, and especially in Chapter 8, I note how vigilant a girl must be about boys, men, and the masculine; but also, how equally vigilantly those of us who care about girls must focus on seeing human love for what it is: an adaptable, but also an established, dance between a flawed but essential feminine way of being and a flawed but essential masculine way of being.
When we explore girls' lives from a broader perspective than a set of feminist theories, when we listen to girls and boys -- and women and men -- with tender ears and eyes, we discover that most girls' lives are not dominated by their victimization and by misogyny; most males are not trained to hate women; and that all girls experience normal developmental crises which, by understanding female nature, we can best help without attacking and distancing males, but instead by noticing how they are ready to be our allies.
GIRLS' LIVES ARE DOMINATED BY GENDER STEREOTYPES THAT LEAVE GIRLS ONE-DOWN AND POWERLESS.
Most of our girls' social problems, especially as adolescents, grow from the gender stereotypes females are forced into by our culture. These gender types -- Barbies, images of thin women, and female gender roles in the workplace and home -- are the primary causes of the low self-esteem we see in young women.
Kristen, fourteen, came into Gail's office with her mother, who confessed to being unable to help her daughter. "Kristen suffers from low self-esteem," she explained. "I think she's being stereotyped by everyone, not just boys but the girls too. She's pretty. It can be a problem." Kristen agreed that kids picked on for her large breasts, and even her model-like looks.
Kristen was tall for her age, and very developed physically. She had long brownish-blond hair that was cut high above her right eye but hung below her left. She wore a lot of makeup, in that way adolescent girls do, that makes us think they are trying to look adult. Within a half hour of talking with her, Gail ascertained that she felt anything but grown-up. She felt overwhelmed by life. Two years before, her parents had divorced. Her grandmother, with whom she'd been close, had died a year before. In school, she'd discovered she had to study harder now than before, but no longer had motivation.
"And my mother's on me all the time," she complained. "She wants me to be more like this or like that. It's always something." At some level she knew her mother was "on her" because she worried for her daughter; nonetheless, Kristen felt more inadequate in the face of her mother's love, rather than more safe and more accomplished.
Margeaux, twelve, a straight-A student, was just beginning puberty, talkative, self-aware -- yet seemed to be moving toward anorexia.
"I just hate food," she told me. "I hate everything about it. I'm sorry I make trouble for my parents. But I just don't want to eat." This had been going on for about four months, since just after her menses began. Her mother told me, "The problem is, she reads all the magazines about thin girls and wants to be like them." Many adolescent girls who struggle with eating disorders will not admit their compulsion. Margeaux admitted it, but couldn't change it, so she would eat for a few days, even a week, then starve herself for a few days.
In the cases of Kristen and Margeaux, Gail and I were both faced with adolescent girls about whom the conventional idea that gender stereotyping in school, in magazines, and in the culture was destroying self-esteem could have been easily applied. In this fourth feminist theory -- promulgated mainly during the 1990s through studies put out by the American Association of University Women, Carol Gilligan's research at the Harvard School of Education, David and Myra Sadker, and then spreading throughout the news media -- those who care for girls, whether parents or professionals, are warned of the destructive power of gender stereotypes on adolescent girls' self-esteem. In some cases, the work behind these theories is called "the self-esteem research."
Gail and I, as therapists, have enjoyed the fruits of that research -- learning more about how images of thin women can affect girls' self-image, how boys are sometimes called on in class more than girls, how girls are judged on their looks and boys on their achievement. However, for us, the cases of Kristen and Margeaux helped us to notice something we had suspected, as professionals and as parents of girls, for some time: While the feminist idea that girls experience stereotypes and lose self-esteem is irrefutable, in most cases, gender stereotypes are not the primary cause of a girl's developmental issues. To focus on them, while worthwhile, is often destructive, because it distracts parents, schools, and the culture from the deeper issues facing our girls.
In working with Kristen, Gail was aware immediately of having to help her family push through their ideas about "low self-esteem" and "gender stereotypes" in order to get to the real cause of a girl's problems. While Kristen was ostracized at school by girls because she was beautiful and hit on by boys for the same reasons, and while these did affect her growth, her developing self was at risk from a different root cause: She was terrified by the consequences of her parents' divorce, and the broken family bonds. The gender stereotypes issue was, in large part, a smokescreen. The whole family had bought into the smokescreen with the best of intentions; however, Kristen's healing, and the family's, began when the smokescreen was pulled away.
As I worked intensely with Margeaux's family, I discovered that her eating issues mimicked complexities (to be dealt with further in Chapters 3 and 6) in her hormonal cycle -- her hormones and neurology were out of balance. When I referred her to an appropriate physician, treatment for biological, hormone-cycle issues were the most instrumental in dealing with her anorexia. Stereotypes regarding thin women -- while a factor -- were not the causal factor that the family initially perceived.
Like all therapists working with girls, Gail and I have counseled girls in trouble: girls with low self-esteem, girls who are depressed, girls who have been abused, girls whose core selves are being trampled, girls who are anorexic, and girls on anabolic steroids. Many girls have become anorexic while looking at magazine pictures of very thin women. Many girls have experienced drops of self-esteem in sport or classroom situations where they were not treated with as much respect as boys were. Girls do feel immense pressures to fit in, to be popular, to become a Barbie, a sex object, a voiceless object of a young man's quick, then flagging desires.
However, we have come to understand a deeper reason than "stereotypes" for the disintegration of these girls' lives. While Gail and I respect the research on the impact of cultural imagery on girls, in The Wonder of Girls, you'll find me downplaying its importance on female adolescence. Gail and I protect our daughters as much as possible from destructive gender stereotyping, and help empower them to be who they are in the face of cultural typing; we also teach methods of doing this to clients, and many will appear in this book. But after years of noticing the Kristens, the Margeauxs, and the smokescreens, we have come to understand that Theory 4 is just that, one theory. So often other things weigh heavier on our girls and yours: issues of attachment, of family bonds, of grief, of lack of self-knowledge during traumatic adolescence, of physiological change, of brain development, of hormone cycles. These are far larger causes of self-esteem drops than we have realized in our late twentieth-century focus on gender stereotypes.
Furthermore, Gail and I have also come to understand -- and the biological research in the next two chapters will reveal this in depth -- that a large cultural issue hides behind the gender stereotypes theory, an issue all parents of daughters must, in some inspiring way, come to terms with in our fast-paced society, so often unfriendly to family stability: Our early adolescent girls do not get enough attachment, bonding, and information from the family and extended family into which they've been born.
Kristen, Margeaux, and millions of other adolescent girls are moving through three to five years of internal transformation to womanhood while feeling abandoned, in differing ways, by family members and community. For hormonal, neurological, and psychological reasons, a girl of this age group is now desperate for love. Adolescence is, after infancy, the most vulnerable time in a child's developing life. As we will explore in Chapters 2 and 3, our culture as a whole has forgotten how normal it is for children to experience a series of self-esteem drops in early to middle adolescence: the changing brain and hormones require these. The mistake our culture has primarily made in nurturing its daughters is the pull-away that occurs among the generations when a girl enters puberty.
How often have you yourself seen it in your community? By the time a girl discovers puberty, the family has moved on to the business of parents back in the workforce, of kids left alone, of parental divorce, all of which may in some way be necessary for the adults in the family system, but all of which also affect the attachments and bonds the girl feels during this most tumultuous time in her development.
Gail and I have found ourselves using two primary strategies to help parents look behind the smokescreen of "gender stereotypes" and into the attachment needs of girls. The first is to educate parents fully in female adolescent development. Usually, when parents fully "get" their daughters, they know how to make life better. The second is to help families make choices that keep and build three or more very close family attachments for the growing girl. Often these three are mother, father, and grandparent, but there can be many different sets of this adolescent triad, as we will explore in later chapters.
Guiding Kristen's and Margeaux's parents, as well as the girls themselves, through deepened knowledge of themselves and their broken attachments was life-changing for them. Anorexia began to make etiological and biological sense to a girl and a family that had earlier defined itself by the idea that "girl diseases" were not biological or chemical but caused by cultural imagery and stereotypes a mother and father had not protected a daughter from. Margeaux's "I can't get my mother to understand me" hid a deeper pain. Her mother, who had worked part-time during Margeaux's early childhood, had gone back to work full-time when Margeaux was in fourth grade, and her father was not around every other week because of his work schedule -- a high-tech sales rep, he traveled a great deal. With both mother and father working, Margeaux, the eldest of three, entered adolescence among fading attachments. Her family was pulling away from her (and she from them), but it hurt, and she suffered unnecessarily.
During counseling the trauma of divorce was dealt with honestly in Kristen's family. Kristen explored with her parents how the broken attachments had altered her ability to live. The family learned to heal its daughter by becoming closer -- not in remarriage, but in post-divorce restructuring of family time, rituals, and bonds.
A THEORY FOR SOME, NOT FOR ALL
In providing what I hope is useful insight into four of the defining theories of our last half century of feminist thought, I have tried to stay focused on what is most important to parents, teachers, and other intimate caregivers of girls. When offering an analysis such as I have in these last few pages, there is the risk of overstating one's case -- of saying, "Well, there, you see, that feminist theory is all bunk, and we should throw it out." That kind of overstating regarding our patriarchal history has led to excesses of feminism. I am not offering an extremist response to feminist theory. Feminist theory is crucial for the lives of many girls.
What might interest us most now, in the new millennium, is which girls.
Based on a review of statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, as well as the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, and a number of independent data collectors, it appears that around 10 to 20 percent of our girls are in some form of crisis -- an ongoing physical, emotional, or mental circumstance that increases their cortisol (stress hormone) levels to a degree which interferes with normal, healthy female development.
These are many of the girls Gail and I might see in our family practice. These are the girls who are most written about in the media. No one knows for sure, but between girls in personal crisis and girls and women in dangerous, demeaning relationships, the figure is probably just under one quarter of our population.
For abused, disturbed, or systemically disrespected girls, feminist theory is very helpful. In some ways, feminist theory is most useful to these girls because it is a crisis-response theory. It has forced our culture to make remarkable gains for girls suffering domestic violence, exploitation, sexual abuse, and eating disorders. Were my daughter beaten by her boyfriend, the services that feminist agendas now provide to her would be a miracle in her life. Feminist theory and services have acted as miracles in the lives of many.
Herein lies the hardest truth for me and for Gail, as parents of daughters -- the truth that shakes us to the bones. Feminist theory is the right model for that minority of girls who are in crisis. Yet, for us, given the myths it labors under, it is not the right model for the majority of girls, who are not at this time in crisis, including our daughters.
FROM SELECTIVE FEMINISM TO WOMANISM
Gail and I and many others in our personal and family community have practiced what our daughters' godmother, the counselor Pam Brown, once called "selective feminism." This selective feminism is supportive of some aspects of "girl power" but disheartened by others; supportive of "female risk-taking" but disheartened by the pressure on girls to judge themselves inadequate if they can't best boys; supportive of girl-assistance programs in schools but disheartened by lawsuits against schools that attempt to help boys; supportive of sports programs for our daughters, but disheartened by erasure of sports programs for boys who also, desperately, need them; supportive of providing help to women and girls who have been abused, but disheartened by constant attacks on males in agencies charged with helping females in crisis.
Over the last decade, our selective feminism has been whittled down in our minds, mainly because we have discovered that feminist theory is able to take into account neither the hard sciences, like neurobiology, nor the sheer variety of emotional, moral, and spiritual needs girls have. Girls' lives are far more about the four-million-year human history than they are about the few decades, or even centuries, of social life feminism helps us understand.
A NEW THEORY: THE JOURNEY AHEAD
The foundation for the language and ideas of womanism, which I hope will be useful to you in the rest of this book, does not mainly lie in the four theoretical imperatives we've explored in this chapter but, rather, in an intimacy imperative, to be fully introduced at the end of Chapter 2: the hidden yearning in every girl's and woman's life to live in a safe web of intimate relationships. In following this imperative in girls' lives, The Wonder of Girls seeks to protect what is most beautiful and inspiring in our daughters even while protecting her social rights to equality and physical right to safety. By noticing, first, how female biology seeks the magnetism of intimacy and attachment, we will then provide a clear vision of how to rethink our society toward greater attachment and stability for girls and for women, not just with boys and with men, but with their families, communities, and other girls.
The next two chapters, and the practical application of their material throughout the rest of this book, utilize nature-based theory and nature-based parenting. This is an interdisciplinary approach to neurobiology, biochemistry, psychology, anthropology, moral theory, and sociology. In preparing to provide you with this new approach, I have studied thirty cultures' (listed in the Notes and References section at the end of this book) approaches to parenting girls, and included studies conducted in six school districts in Missouri; I have also relied on my own family practice, and on the daily journey of raising daughters. In all walks of life, I focus on the base, in human nature, for a child's actions. As you read Chapters 2 and 3 especially, you'll find new sciences of female biology on display which are groundbreaking and provide one of our best, natural allies in raising our girls.
You'll discover that many of your daughters' interests, moods, attitudes, self-esteem drops, desires, and ways of relating, once thought to be caused by culture are products of her neurobiology, and as you find her mind and heart clarified, you'll be able to alter the way you relate to her, especially during her adolescence, between ten and twenty years old. You'll discover how large a part biology plays in girls' distresses -- from depression and anorexia to self-esteem crises -- and what you can do, from the inside-out, to help girls in trouble.
You'll discover the ways in which girls' biology differs significantly from boys' biology. Because of structural and functional differences in the female and male brain, girls sense, remember, enjoy, and experience personal needs and desires differently than boys. They use their bodies differently, and their words. They even experience God, religion, and spirituality in neurologically differing ways.
As you explore this book, I hope you'll experience the degree to which femininity (being female) is an immensely complex neurobiological process that takes place, even more than masculinity, in separate stages, which each have discernable needs. This staged female development process is not suitable for the kinds of theoretical simplifications we've based social policy on over the last decades. It can only stand for so long the attempt to limit itself to one stereotype of what a woman is or should be: financially independent and able to compete successfully in the workplace with males. This "different stages/different needs" femininity is a process, a way of being, which we have neglected for decades -- but one on which human civilization has always been grounded.
As you gain support in these pages for your daughter's journey through life, I hope most of all that you will enjoy a deep sense of peace for yourself and your girls, the kind of peace that comes, almost like a whisper, late at night, when we know we are living out to the best of our ability our fragile parent-daughter relationship.
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Gurian
Meet the Author
Michael Gurian is a marriage and family counselor in private practice, and the New York Times bestselling author of twenty-seven books. Michael cofounded the Gurian Institute, a training and research organization, in 1996 and frequently speaks at and consults with corporations, physicians, hospitals, schools, and other professionals. He has been called “the people’s philosopher” for his ability to combine cutting-edge science with people’s everyday lives.
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