Memo to Parents : Girls Into Women
Peer pressure, eating disorders, poor self-image—welcome to the world of the teenage girl, right? Wrong, say experts, who offer up tools and ideas for families.
Sometime between Talmud class and fifth-period Advanced Hebrew Leora Tanenbaum got a bad reputation. She had gone on a date with a boy—someone Leora knew her friend had a crush on—and when this Don Juanowitz returned home he called Leora’s friend to dish about their date. Enraged by the betrayal, her friend retaliated the next day by unleashing rumors around their yeshiva high school that Leora was a “slut.” Word spread like arson, particulars were exaggerated and within a matter of hours Leora’s reputation had morphed from nice Jewish girl to sordid.
Eyes rolled when she participated in class, whispers shadowed her every step and she retreated to the library rather than eat lunch in the cafeteria with other students. Though she acknowledged her disloyalty to a friend, the punishment in no way fit the crime. Today, two decades later and speaking at the Hadassah Foundation-sponsored symposium “Growing Great Jewish Girls,” Tanenbaum said that the emotional scars still run deep. She wrote about the phenomenon in her book Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation (HarperCollins).
Whether it is nastiness from peers, pressure from parents or a poor self-image, the issues that can arise during adolescence are much more than teenage angst. Neither public schools nor yeshivas are immune. Rumor mills, pointing fingers and general ostracism are as old as the Bible, and judging from the success of books such as Queen Bees & Wannabes (Crown) and Odd Girl Out (Harvest) as well as teen movies like Mean Girls (whose tag line is “Watch Your Back”), they’re still going strong. At a time when bodies are developing at staggering rates and competition over boys, grades and clothing size sets in, the question is not how to make these problems disappear but how to create confidence. The symposium (see sidebar, page 10) was convened to address these topics, offering parents and community leaders tools to help foster in teens a strong sense of self so they will emerge from these years as assured young women.
According to experts, confidence often has its roots in a parent’s interpretation of “success.” Jewish parents need to pay particular attention to this essential.
“Jewish families have done a mind-blowing phenomenal job of assimilating and succeeding, so culturally and ethnically it’s in our DNA to figure out what the cultural definitions of success are,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and a researcher of girls development, who spoke at the event. “But sometimes the definitions can get pretty narrow—Harvard, Yale, doctor, lawyer—and there is nothing wrong with helping your child become focused…if it’s what the child wants. But where I think Jews can get stuck is in not really assessing their child’s real strengths and accepting their children for who they are.”
What a parent may view as helpful advice a child may see as a demand. And while the underlying origins usually have to do with parental fears regarding security and prosperity, the failure of their children to live up to those expectations can have damaging consequences.
Couple strict definitions of personal and professional success with our cultural emphasis on food and what you get is a need for girls to master some domain of their life. The thinking goes like this: I may not be able to get the guy or succeed at school but I can control what I eat. This pressure, say experts, is in part the reason Jewish girls make up 13 percent of the eating-disorder population in hospitals (and that doesn’t include outpatients or the undiagnosed). “She may not get into Harvard,” says Steiner-Adair, “but she can be thin.”
When it comes to body image there are some things parents need to keep in mind: Girls put on an average of 40 pounds between the ages of 8 and 14; more than half of 14-year-olds say they feel better about themselves if they are on a diet. Parents should try not to say anything derogatory about their own bodies, how they look or tease their daughters about weight. If you are concerned, talk to her doctor, see a nutritionist, consider exercising as a family or try to arrange for a synagogue, community center or your child’s school to host NoBody’s Perfect™, an education workshop created by FEGS Health and Human Services System of New York that promotes positive self-esteem and body image.
That’s not to say, though, that you shouldn’t share some of your insecurities. Because children tend to see their parents as all-knowing, it’s helpful to hear stories of parents’ moments of self-doubt. It’s particularly useful for girls to hear their dads talk about times when they didn’t know what to do and asked for help. Likewise, it’s important for daughters to hear stories of how Mom stood up for herself at home, work or even during the mad rush at the bakery on Friday afternoon before Shabbat.
“I think girls are aware at a young age that they live in a society that doesn’t always honor who they are, their perspectives and their experiences,” says Katie Wheeler, Ed.D., who also participated in the symposium. She is executive director of the Girls’ Coalition of Greater Boston, a consortium of Boston-area organizations committed to empowering girls. “[Early on] boys are allowed to do certain things girls are not. Girls are always encouraged to think about other people, be careful of other people’s feelings and boys are given more leeway to do things that are more self-centered and self-serving and that gives them more of a sense of entitlement and power…and I say that as a parent of a girl and a boy.”
To level the playing field, Girls’ Coalition is working to provide peer leadership programs and mentor training, a course to engage girls in math and science, sports, sex education instruction for teachers of girls with special needs, networking opportunities and a variety of advocacy and research projects.
Creating after-school programs that provide girls with leadership roles is crucial. Young women benefit from having a meaningful voice in decision-making, space to focus on their strengths and passions, as well as opportunities to mentor each other—something that is clearly needed given that 75 percent of participants in after-school programs are boys.
“Informal education gives us the freedom to speak to girls’ strengths in different ways,” says Mindy Shapiro, director of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! “We try to teach analytical thinking and critical decision making so girls can really challenge and question what they come up against.”
Founded under the auspices of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rosh Hodesh is a cross- and nondenominational after-school program for girls in grades 6 through 12 that addresses body image, friendship, assertiveness and family as well as other topics in a Jewish context. Girls meet on or near the beginning of every Hebrew month and use art projects, skits or creative writing to discuss traditional rituals and modern-day problems.
For instance, in the Jewish month of Nisan a group will discuss risk-taking because, historically, Miriam took a risk when she placed her baby brother, Moses, in a basket in the water. Using the story as a springboard, the leader (usually a teacher or social worker) will ask the girls to share a time when they took a risk. They will then act out a play highlighting different parts of Miriam’s life.
So what can parents do to raise confident girls?
- Parents should play with their children when they are young. Do the things they like to do; that is how kids feel loved and accepted for who they are, says Steiner-Adair. Also, remember that creativity as an adult comes from following your curiosity as a child, so let them explore and lead the way.
- Don’t emphasize material things. When you attend events like a Seder or Thanksgiving dinner, try not to greet others by how they look but instead by how they are doing. Engage them by asking about their hobbies, their job or recent books they have read. Expressing interest in what makes another person tick shows kids you care about what is on the inside, not the outside.
- This one might be a challenge, but try to ease up on the nudging. You might fantasize that your child is a musical prodigy, but if your daughter resists piano lessons, realize that she is capable of being a happy, successful person without learning to play Minuet in G at age 7. You can encourage, but don’t force.
- Support your kids and communicate confidence in their abilities but don’t become overly effusive and too invested in their accomplishments. There is nothing wrong with encouragement and calling your daughter a tennis star or your little ballerina, but the danger of overdosing on kudos is two-fold: First, if they hear that everything they do is outstanding they will be crushed when they don’t receive accolades; that can make a kid insecure. Instead, tell them you like the art project they brought home from school but the one they did last week you liked even better. Second, just because your child excels at an activity doesn’t mean they want to do it all the time. If she enjoys being on the all-state soccer team that’s great, but some children end up feeling that they have to stick with an activity to make Mom or Dad proud. Let them be the authors of their own experience, says Steiner-Adair.
- Listen to your children and try not to talk over or interrupt them. Also, it is important to realize that for some kids talking is not the best way to relate. Sometimes an activity is needed to act as a conduit for discussion. Meet them on their level.
Above all, says Steiner-Adair, remember that both girls and boys who have strong relationships with their families fare best. Families that can talk honestly and where children feel their opinions are respected know that their parents mean it when they say they are there for them.
Programs That Work: A Guide
Information on how to replicate the “Growing Great Jewish Girls” symposium is available by contacting Linda Altshuler, director of the Hadassah Foundation (212-303-7479; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! (Deborah Meyer, 215-643-4511; www.roshhodesh.org)
Girls’ Coalition of Greater Boston (617-536-8543; www.girlscoalition.org)
The FEGS NoBody’s Perfect™ workshop (Kathy Rosenthal, 516-496-7550; www.fegs.org)
Leora Tanenbaum (www.leoratanenbaum.com; email@example.com)
CHECK IT OUT ® Health Awareness For Teens (firstname.lastname@example.org)