Tag Archives: girls

Teen girls dumbing down: What parents need to know

Pretty girlTeenage 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.


Never touch a wet butterfly: Dr. JoAnn Deak on girls, self-esteem & intelligence

Butterfly emerging from coccoonWhen a butterfly first pokes through the shell of its chrysalis, its wings are wet. The arduous physical transformation from a caterpillar leaves it temporarily vulnerable to the waiting world, not-quite-a-butterfly until it dries off and flies away. We are warned never to touch this beautiful creature in this most fragile state, for its wings will be permanently ruined, and it will never learn to fly.

Psychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak told this story to a group of parents gathered at a girls’ school here one evening last week. She intended it as a metaphor for nurturing the self-esteem of teenage girls. Our constant praise and compliments do little or nothing to build the self-esteem of our children, she explains, but a few ill-chosen, contemptuous comments can mark them forever: “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why can’t you be like your sister?”


This is especially true if those words come from their dads, according to the research. They seem to have more overall impact on their daughters’ emerging self-confidence than moms. (Ouch again)

And like butterflies, teen girls may build temporary cocoons of their peers around themselves during those tough years, walling themselves off from our input and influence. Parents need to accept that is a normal part of growing up, of identity building. They need some space to try out those wings.

But they are still listening to everything we say. And even when they roll their eyes, they still want us to spend time with them, to listen to their thoughts, to help establish limits and values.

Unlike butterflies, they have a little bit of toughness to them, our teen girls. And while some may read in the butterfly an innate helplessness, purely decorative beauty or innate weakness, they underestimate the jaw-dropping distances they fly on their annual migrations. The stamina and endurance required to keep going on paper-thin wings.

Pretty sure Dr. Deak wouldn’t put up with any of that crap. In the two hours I listened to her speak at ECS last Wednesday, it became pretty clear she is one strong individual. It’s also clear she is a great champion of single sex schooling for girls (though she says co-ed schooling is optimal for boys). Why she believes this is outlined in two of her excellent books: How Girls Thrive (2010) and Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters (2002).

I went in to her presentation a bit skeptical. I walked out amazed. Just wow. I could have sat there for another two hours and listened to everything she had to say.

I should say I have three daughters. Two are identical twins (as far as we can tell). And yet all three have very different personalities and temperaments. Suddenly I understood them so much better. I was so excited by her revelations I could barely sleep that night. I wanted to wake them up and tell them how I got it. I get them. I understand. (Thankfully I exercised a little self-control, but we’ve had some fascinating conversations since.)

Some of her main points from the evening:

Girls and boys are also different from the neck up, not just the neck down. Our brains are different. Years of MRI imaging has proven these differences. In terms of self-esteem, some of these differences are key. She showed a video of baby girls and boys in an experiment designed to test their reactions to minor stress. Most of the boy babies persisted in their task, even when the expected results didn’t occur. Most of the girl babies quickly gave up and cried.

Dr. Deak says this is because of sex-based differences in a brain structure responsible for emotion, called the amygdala. In roughly 80% males, the right side of the amygdala — the side responsible for aggression and anger — is more developed. In about 80% of girls, the left side predominates, predisposing females to fear, anxiety and depression in reaction to stressors. The other 20% of both sexes tends to act more or less counter to the expectations for their sex.

Imagine your kid is 4 years old. Another child hits them. Does your son/daughter react with tears and withdrawal, or do they slug the other kid in response? That gives you a reasonable indication of which side of their amygdala predominates, which establishes a foundation of some kind for their temperament.

Young brains are elastic; old brains are not. Now this is perhaps the most important message Dr. Deak offered: the first 20 years of life are when the brain is most elastic. It can stretch and expand in order to accommodate new ways of doing things. New neural connections are built at an astonishing rate.

Why is this important? Because kids can — and need — to be taught to face their weaknesses and fears and correct them while they are still young enough to do so easily. Little girls who react with fear to stressors need to be taught strategies for facing them. Little boys who react with aggression need to be taught to slow down, control their impulses and think before they act.

Hug your monster. Because of this brain elasticity, children of all kinds need to be encouraged to face their fears and anxieties head on. Dr. Deak calls this “hugging your monster.” A child afraid of swimming? You need to get them in the water. Find increments that suit this child’s temperament (no throwing them straight into the deep end), but make sure they learn to swim. Afraid of public speaking? Get up and speak to groups every chance you get.

Now this is important not just because it teaches kids to face and overcome their fears. That’s cool, but it’s not the only or even the most important reason. The need to do it because their brains are elastic enough to build new neural pathways to accommodate these changes in behaviour: it literally makes them more intelligent over time.

Make mistakes. Lots of them. Another sex-based difference in brain structure involves another organ called the anterior cingulate cortex, which Dr. Deak helpfully nicknames the “mistake filter.” Turns out this bit is significantly bigger in girls, which is why girls are often afraid of making mistakes. Afraid enough that they sometimes don’t even try. Don’t even put up their hands in class (Dr. Deak suggests girls’ schools shouldn’t rely on girls to raise their hands in class; they should simply call on the students for answers).

Not too surprisingly, the “mistake filter” works with the amygdala. So girls’  reluctance to make mistakes is combined with fear, anxiety and depression. The solution? Make sure they push themselves to try as much as possible, and habituate themselves to the experience of making mistakes. They are literally building brain material as they do this.

In confronting their fears (at least the meaningful ones), they make themselves stronger and smarter. It enhances learning. It builds competence and confidence (2 critical factors in building resilience). This connection between the “mistake filter” (anterior cingulate cortex) and the amygdala is extremely important for building self-esteem in girls. Failing to make mistakes, avoiding that which causes stress or fear in childhood, can be a big blockage in the development of self-esteem. This is particularly true in the first 10 years of life.

If you’ve been following along, you won’t be too surprised by her next argument: risk-taking is highly correlated with self-esteem. If you aren’t afraid of making mistakes, and your emotional reaction to stress is anger or aggression (which in their positive forms are responses that urge one forward instead of signaling caution and retreat), then you are also inclined to take risks.

Hopefully, those risks are well-chosen and thought out. Reasonable, you might even say. (Ahem.)

Good judgment develops last. The final brain structure Dr. Deak talked about was the pre-frontal cortex, the seat of good judgment, impulse control and problem-solving. The bit that only finishes developing around the age of 24 or 25, long after your friends stop offering you cigarettes when your parents aren’t looking. However, she says that even before this neurological seat of executive functions is fully formed, we can teach kids to make good choices by guiding them through the consequences of their actions.

And finally, the bit about hormones. As you probably suspected, hormones also play a part in all this. When boys face a sudden stress, their brain has to make the primitive decision to fight, flee or freeze. A shot of testosterone gets released by their brains, and the vast majority of boys will choose to fight. When girls face this same decision in the face of stress, their bodies release a hormone called oxytocin (the same one released after birthing a child or during breastfeeding).

Evolutionary impulses mean a woman with a baby (or several) had a better chance of surviving a run-in with an aggressor if she fled. But if she couldn’t run, then this same hormone would turn her into a raging, angry mama. Watch out.

What does this mean for your 13-year-old daughter, who is less likely to face a wild boar than an obnoxious classmate? It means that girls can often be prompted to face their fears when someone else is involved. A best friend. A team she doesn’t want to let down.

Dr. Deak says that contrary to anecdotal reports, girls in all-girls schools are actually less likely to engage in serious bullying or exclusionary behaviour. The oxytocin levels in a group encourage collaborative or team-building behaviour. And heterosexual girls in co-ed schooling sitting next to that cute boy in math class may have trouble focusing on their school work when their limbic system is in overdrive.

Sounds complicated, but we’ve all been there.

Overall, what I’ve offered you is a serious oversimplification of her 2 hours of animated and dynamic discussion last week, not to mention her 30+ years of research. But it offers a snapshot of a very compelling argument for gently but firmly pushing our kids out of their comfort zone.

If you are interested in learning more, I recommend you check out her books (see the top of this post) and also her book for kids, Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. You can also go to her website to seek out additional resources. She has information on the idea of the “mean girl,” on girls and sports, on the importance of dads for their daughters (with some great quizzes). She also has material on boys and risk.

Worth a read. This was one of the few presentations I’ve been to that significantly changed the way I understand my role as a parent of three girls.

Interested in more about Dr. JoAnn Deak’s lecture? Check out this post on how we tried to apply her teachings at home: “Practical challenge: How we put JoAnn Deak’s wisdom to work for our family.”