Teenage girls do it; teenage boys don’t. It’s the phenomenon called “dumbing down” — the one that transforms your bright, curious, thoughtful daughter into the flaky teenager wearing too short shorts and obsessing over her hair.
You worry about the oversexualized way she dresses, the self-conscious misspellings on her Facebook page (from a kid who may have aced every spelling test she ever took) and the flaky way she’s begun to express herself around her friends. The word “like” becomes omnipresent in her speech (qualifying her every statement as tentative and unsure) and she may trade in her novels and chemistry set for nail polish and see-through blouses.
According to an Oxygen Media survey famously quoted by author Lisa Bloom: “Twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Twenty-three percent would rather lose their ability to read than their figures.”
It drives me crazy, as a parent, a woman and an educator. And yet I well remember girls my age doing this when I was a teenager. Though I may have occasionally tried it out myself once in a while back in the day, I also remember being annoyed by girls who tried to stupid their way through conversations and into social acceptance. It’s a performance of a certain kind of femininity that costs us all.
People have been quick to point fingers at the over-simplified “causes” of this well-documented adolescent trend: It’s because of Facebook. Or texting. Or cutbacks in education. Or drugs. Or television. Or rock and roll.
The truth is more complicated (isn’t it always?). Yes, celebrity culture celebrates air-brushed beauty and stupidity (like these infamous Diesel ads). But most male celebrities are not known for their eloquence and intelligence either. And the classic image of submissive female beauty, the side-turned head and downcast eyes, has been tacitly modelling femininity over the past 500 years of classic Western art (see this YouTube video for a brilliant overview).
We know that girls who dumb down are more at risk for binge drinking, illegal drug use, smoking and unhealthy sexual activity. Ironically, some of these activities (especially the drugs and alcohol) really can impact brain function. It won’t be just a pretense anymore – they really will be less smart.
The truth is that girls score higher than boys across the board throughout primary schools. They enter the school system with a developmental edge when it comes to sitting and learning, focusing on the teacher, language acquisition, handwriting and reading. And this female advantage persists until puberty, when girls’ math, science and computing scores begin to fall unless they are in single sex schooling (see for example, this research piece by Gillibrand, E. or this one by Logan, K.).
According to psychologist JoAnn Deak, there are a whole host of reasons why girls are likely to do better in single sex schooling (for a detailed explanation, see this post) and boys to thrive in co-ed schooling. The presence of boys during the tumultuous years of puberty pits hormones and emotion against the longer term, frankly more boring goals of intellectual achievement. Our culture nudges them quite clearly towards the former.
But even in girls’ only schools, girls tend to dumb down in their self-presentation. It’s easy to dismiss this as a harmless stage they are going through, or a normal part of development. I don’t believe it’s harmless or normal. I think that when we ignore our daughters’ efforts to hide their intelligence behind their looks, we are tacitly telling them it’s OK. And our culture is full of too many examples of girls who made poor choices for themselves from this position of insecurity and low self-esteem. Poor choices that could affect the people they date, the friends they choose, the schooling and career choices they make for themselves. Choices that can have long-term consequences.
So what can parents do, short of open conflict? There are plenty of options.
Love your daughter for who she is, underneath all that hair product and lip gloss. Save your most effusive compliments and encouragement for the things she does with her mind and her good nature, not for her beauty. The little girls who grow up being told they were pretty princesses quickly learn what society appreciates. It’s not too late to change the kind of feedback you give her every day.
Be clear about your values — and then stick to them. In our house, I don’t believe in tight, super short shorts, lots of makeup or see-through shirts on tweens and young teens. I know it’s fun for them to dress up like women, but I have two main concerns: on the one hand, they are not capable of handling the response they may get from others when they dress in overtly sexual ways; on the other, I believe that when parents let it slide, they are communicating tacit approval, which encourages and perpetuates this dumbing down. They can still enjoy dressing up to look good — who doesn’t enjoy that? — but not at the expense of their self-esteem.
Gently encourage non-traditional activities. Take your daughter cycling. Let her help you fix the dishwasher. Watch a TV show about something scientific or historical or cultural. Challenge her to learn something new and different. Girls. Inc and Spark Summit have got some excellent ideas. This is a really nice way for girls to spend time with their dads (which we also know is strongly correlated with higher self-esteem in girls). Moms should be careful to balance time with their daughters to include things other than shopping or manicures. Talk about what you do at work. Keep exposing them to new ideas and activities, even when the eyes roll. They will appreciate this.
Seek out opportunities for her to be with other girls (or girls and boys) in communities and activities where she can do what she likes. There are lots of teams, clubs, community service initiatives and spaces where she can reinvent herself with a different social group.
Keep talking to each other. Discuss gender stereotypes on her favourite TV show. Start a conversation (not a rant) about the lyrics of a song on the radio. these should be dialogues, not lectures, but they should open the door to critical thinking about the ways women and girls are represented. The goal isn’t to teach a lesson or come to an agreement every time, but to open the door to other ways of seeing things.
Challenge her to reclaim her brain. Don’t giggle or smile indulgently at her flakiness. Don’t let her get away with saying “I don’t know” or ignoring her homework or choosing the easier math class because it fits into her schedule better. Don’t cancel that National Geographic subscription in favour of People Magazine. In order to raise an intelligent critical thinker, you must never let her think it’s charming or attractive to pretend to be otherwise. There’s a middle ground of course – you don’t need to turn your house into the Smithsonian and pretend you aren’t watching Grey’s Anatomy — but you should be vigilant not to let the smart stuff drift away.