The beauty of strong girls

When self-expression gives way to self-doubt, a little support can help.

Youth soccer players watched a Women’s World Cup soccer game in July.

A little girl's style can be something to behold: hair gloriously awry, a tutu over pajama pants tucked into rain boots. Rumpled jacket. Light-up ring. Maybe some butterfly wings from an old costume, brushing the soup cans in the grocery store aisle. It's a cockeyed couture hatched by a happily confident being.

She might smile from beneath this get-up – or she might storm around, a furious pixie (a piece of advice in that case: Do not chuckle at the incongruity).

She owns her look. And it reflects the purest of attitudes: a fierce expressionism.

Then come the tween and early teen years. Self-doubt creeps in. Brands begin to matter – a lot. Even a quick run to CVS means first getting the look just right. The time before the school bus arrives can seem like the prep session before the prom, like being backstage at a Broadway show. Where are my new jeans!? The ponytail swings like a whip.

It may all seem like an ambush; what can a good parent do? Find one set of tips in 'Rethinking Your Approach to Girls'. Experience also teaches that it's a pretty nuanced play: Don't react. Calmly offer perspective. Accommodate, without letting yourself be run over or demeaned, because that's really not her intent.

Above all, remind yourself that what she's up against should not be taken lightly. As Stephanie Hanes reports this week, a very fast, adultcentric society is in some ways at war with today's kids.

Boys should not be ignored – and they sometimes are, on the shaky grounds that some inherent toughness will see them through. Good thinkers – notably Michael Thompson in his co-written 1999 book "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" – have set out to quash that outdated view.

Girls need some help, though it's dangerous to classify them as lambs in an increasingly sexualized culture who only need shielding – or to be too glib in identifying the root causes of imperiled girlhood.

Stephanie describes the running debate, for example, over whether Barbie dolls and Disney princesses stand at the gateway to self-objectification. Much bigger triggers exist. They're as ubiquitous as the tech tools and toys we carry. Never before has a capacity for sorting out amplified influences been more essential.

Consider: If you're in your late 40s you can probably recall the advent of the fax machine. The first computer you touched, while tapping out some simple code in BASIC in a lonely corner of the high school, was the size of a refrigerator. The cordless phone seemed smart. You got to ride that evolution right through to the Motorola StarTAC, the mid-'90s clamshell every dad wore on his belt, and on to the iPhone.

You had time, in other words, to assimilate with each wrinkle.

Try to imagine being 13 today, working to manage an expanding universe on Facebook. Or wrestling with whether (or how) to answer a friend who's a persistent late-night texter. Or browsing the Web on which you know porn lurks a click away. Or hanging out with girls who seem intent on living out plotlines from television's "Pretty Little Liars."

One parental approach: Sideline kids from the start. As Stephanie's story points out, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time of any kind for the under-2 set, and only one or two hours a day for older children.

But stepping out of the media morass doesn't remove a girl from that ecosystem. It might even make her an outsider.

So other parents push for a diet rich in real-life engagement. Honors-level courses can help. Respites are key. Spiritual seeking. Just talking. My daughter finds solace in a girls' summer camp where electronics are locked out. A girl can find her old ferocity in the tough middle meters of a cross-country course, find her wings again, a reason not to care about her hair, a way to express her natural power. A way to be a girl.

Clayton Collins is the editor of the weekly edition. Monitor editor John Yemma returns to this space next week.

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