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Daughters on Display

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The wheels had barely stopped rolling before my daughter was out of the car. Consistent with her new after school pattern, my previously energetic and social ten-year old couldn't get to the refuge of her bedroom fast enough. In stark contrast, her little brother took off to find his neighborhood buddies without stepping foot inside the house. I sat my packages down in the kitchen and traced my daughter's steps, pausing to knock on her bedroom door before cracking it open.

"Hey sweetie," I said carefully. "Are you okay?" The routine had become depressingly familiar.

"I'm just tired," she murmured.

"Is something wrong?"

"No, ma'am."

I ignored the exasperated tone and continued to probe, "Did something happen at school?"

"No! You always ask me that, I just want to be alone."

Although this scene played out in my house several years ago, I remember the feelings of helplessness that bombarded me as I watched my little girl become increasingly self-conscious, a completely different person in public than the child she was at home. I missed the uninhibited toddler with the laughing eyes and my heart broke at the new guarded look on my daughter's features.

I remember comparing notes with another mother who voiced similar concerns about her own daughter. My friend and I were bewildered by our daughters' new behavior. We asked each other why our boys were so full of energy and our girls so tired? Why were our sons still wide open and trusting--while their sisters seemed to be withdrawing? Was this something we had to accept?

If you have a little girl you could be asking the same questions. If so, take heart. It wasn't easy, but I eventually took the puzzle pieces and formed my own theory. Then I set out to address my findings and reclaim my daughter--and you can do the same.

My theory began as a nagging suspicion. It took on shape after countless more talks with other mothers and teachers and several weeks of close observation. I became convinced that our daughters are growing up under the bright glare of our culture's spotlight. They haven't asked for center stage, and they're shrinking beneath its harsh beam.

"Action!"

When little girls are growing up, they're on stage at all times. At school and at play, at dance lessons or Sunday school--people watch them. Actually, they assess them. They examine their physical appearance, and judge their personality.

Who does this to our daughters? We all do. Take this simple test: The next time you are at a public function and a couple of young boys walk by, examine your reactions honestly. Chances are you only saw "Jane's son" and "the Smith boy." You didn't really see what either had on, or whether both were smiling, or whether either nodded your way. Now a group of girls walk by. (They usually travel in packs for self-preservation.) Evaluate your reactions to them. Did you think to yourself how pretty the Smith girl is? Did you think what a cute figure the Frith girl has? Did they acknowledge the adults they passed? Did you notice their clothes? Maybe you even felt sorry for the less attractive one with the stringy hair. I bet you could give a vivid description of each one. Guess what? They felt it! That's right, your assessing eye didn't escape their attention.

Now, start over and try not to judge the next girl that walks by. Tough, huh? Well, our daughters have sensed this surveillance all their lives, driving them to constantly strive to present the best image possible. From the moment they leave the house, they're on display--and they know it. Our daughters are tired. Life on stage is hard! Not only must you stay in costume at all times but, you'd better know your lines and hit your cues. Is it any wonder girls need more downtime?

Our little boys don't feel this focus. For the most past they move through their day oblivious to society's pressures. They can be short of handsome and just shy of witty and easily find acceptance in most places. This is wonderful for our sons--and tragic for our daughters. So, what can we do?

1. Admit to ourselves that we're part of the problem. As in any self-help system, we must begin by acknowledging the problem. Yes, we do hold our little girls to a different standard.

2. Value individuality. Approach each little girl in your daughter's circle as an individual. Search for something unique about her. When you find it--comment on it in front of the others, or in a private aside to the little girl herself. She'll treasure it, and gain important self-confidence from your kindness.

3. Help train a new generation. Let your daughter hear you value the strong character traits of your friends-not their hair, or their clothes, or their homes. When she hears you speak highly of your friends' compassion or honesty, she'll be more likely to value these traits in other girls.

4. Look out for each other's daughters. Make an effort to stop measuring one girl's personality against another. If one playmate is quiet, don't feel obligated to "draw her out." The personable, outgoing child is a pleasure to have around; she keeps us all entertained. But remember to value the quiet, reflective child. She brings to the group a soft balance.

5. Encourage your daughter's passions. Be passionate about helping her pursue her passions. So the other girls are taking dance lessons, and she is interested in animals? Take her to the zoo. Some city zoos have junior volunteer programs where young kids can work and learn in a hands-on environment. By encouraging her to follow her passions you will dissuade her from molding herself into what society says she should be. If you value your daughter's individuality, and restrain yourself from helping her "fit in", she will bloom before you.

All together now, let's lower the spotlight. Our culture will always respond to the more talented, and the most beautiful; but as Moms we can balance its message. Not every child is uncomfortable on stage--we all know kids who are born for it. Fine, embrace the entertainer! But celebrate the athlete and the book-lover, too! Think about it. If your little girl seems tired and drained...maybe she's been on display.
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