Talking about girls and boys in education is fraught with danger. You are almost sure to offend someone. Sadly, many of these discussions are politically charged and highly polarized. While I welcome civil debate and dialogue, I'm not in the mood for an argument. So, if you want to disagree, you are most welcome. But if you leave a charged, accusatory comment, just know I'll probably delete it. It's sad that we have to throw out so many qualifiers and caveats, but here we go. I want my students of both genders to live happy, fulfilling lives. I think that right now in our culture, boys and girls both face a lot of challenges that could keep them from this goal. Some challenges are general to their age group, while some seem specific to their gender. I think being a parent and a teacher means that you need to be aware of these challenges and act accordingly. I hate the idea that if you try to help your girls, you are anti-boy, or that if you are worried about boys, you are anti-girl. Hogwash. Good teachers and parents care about all of their students equally and are concerned about anything that might rob them of happy lives.
But being equally concerned does not mean that you are concerned about the same things. In large measure, my girl students face one set of challenges, my boy students another. If we are to help them, we have to be honest about this and understand that different cultural phenomena have disparate impacts. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule and anything I write about girls could we usefully applied to some boys. And vice versa. But at some point, you can get so tied up in knots that you end up not saying anything. And I think this is important.
There is an old cliche about the military--that they always want to fight the last war. I think that to some extent, teachers and parents do the same thing. During the 90s there was a lot of concern about various issues with girls. These issues were discussed and an on-going effort was made to address them. I'm not saying we're done. But at the same time, I think that we're still focused on fighting some of the battles from 20 years ago and are oblivious to some newer threats.
There is one threat that concerns me a great deal because I worry it will rob the girls I teach of the ability to live a happy, successful life. In fact, there are a few things that sometimes keep me up late at night worrying about my students. And this is probably the biggest fear I have for my female students. But I don't hear it spoken about much. I should also note that some boys struggle with this as well, but I don't see it with them nearly as often. I did 20 years ago, but now not so much. Instead, I see this with nearly all my girls.
Let me start by saying that I define success as living a happy life, engaging in productive activity of some kind, helping others, and fulfilling the goals you set for yourself. To me, success is dying someday thinking, "I had a good life."
Imagine a hypothetical middle-class girl coming of age in today's world. Statistics suggest that if she simply follows the cultural mainstream and there are no interventions of any kind, she is likely to do well in school, go on to college, probably advanced degrees, get a job, and will most likely achieve some degree professional success depending on her level of ambition.
The reality today is that a girl who simply floats in the cultural mainstream will most likely be taught in many ways that she should be ambitious, that her ambitions are good, and that she should focus on fulfilling her dreams and goals.
However, this is where things begin to get tricky. There seems to be a lot of attention paid to achieving goals and following dreams, but less so to prioritizing and deciding which of those goals and dreams are worth the effort. Assessing whether it's healthy to do everything. In other words, we are saying very loudly, "You go, girl!" But we are not providing very good roadmaps or direction on exactly where to go or what to do along the way.
I recently read an article about a new phenomenon being observed more frequently: young women in the corporate world, mostly-unmarried and childless, are burning out by the age of 35 or 40. These were women with bright career futures, women who were not generally dividing their efforts between home and work. Experts were at a loss to explain it (although many tried).
I don't pretend to know all the factors, and I'm sure there are many I don't understand. But I have an educated guess at one of the factors.
Many of my female students have difficulty participating in an activity and simply enjoying the intrinsic benefits. Instead, there is an almost frantic focus on achievement and success, as signified through external metrics. For example, every year, I encounter a growing number of students for whom being in the play is not simply an artistic and/or social experience. Rather, it is an important stepping stone. It is a box to check on the resume, and it is important to quantify it. Therefore, having a lead is important, or having an official title.
People have always wanted leads. That is not new. People wanted them for various reasons in the past: personal glory, the excitement of a challenge, personal growth, etc. But now, I feel that students want them because it is important to excel, to achieve and this is one way to denote that. I feel that this is especially true with young women.
In recent years, titles, awards, and other markers of success have been increasingly important. I perceive that students are participating in many activities, not because they are inherently rewarding, but because there is a drive for girls to achieve and excel and to have that measured and quantified in some way.
This is driven, I think by many things. I have noticed that there is a very steady and consistent pressure on young women as early as elementary school. Some of that is parental pressure and I think that comes from three sources. First, I see parents who are justly proud of their daughter's maturity and competence. In celebrating these traits, however, they unwittingly create a situation where their child to prove this over and over. A steady pressure builds, with each success not being celebrated as much as creating a ratcheting effect where the pressure mounts for the next big thing to be equally or more successful. Secondly, some parents are very focused on having their daughters have a resume filled out for college. Thirdly, some parents seem to feel driven that their daughter will compete with any possible boy in any possible endeavor--which means she must excel in every possible activity and endeavor.
Pressure is also exerted by a culture which increasingly tells women they can and should have it all. Many girls seem to have absorbed this cultural message, without ever receiving any guidance that might balance, channel, focus, or help them contextualize it.
So, I see bright, wonderful girls achieving, achieving, achieving at younger ages. At first glance, it's exciting to watch. It's gratifying for parents and teachers and I'm not arguing that we should impose artificial restraints or discourage achievement.
But I do think we need to teach wisdom and balance, provide guidance and context.
Eventually, life teaches us that you can't always be the best. You can't do more and more and still give everything 110%. You can't be valedictorian and the lead in the play and feed the homeless every night and be a champion kick-boxer. At some point, you will wear out and burn out. Energy is a renewable resource only when used carefully. Time, while renewable, is finite and limited.
It used to be that we recognized that some children were good at math. Some were good at art. Some were great at reading. And so on. Now, we seem to want every child (especially girls) to be academic superstars, stand-outs in every subject. While playing travel soccer, doing Tae Kwon Do and saving sea turtles. That sounds exhausting to me.
Not every goal is going to be of value to every life path. I am constantly amazed and delighted by how much young women can do. They have tremendous capacity. But that needs to be carefully watched. Stewardship and judgment are called for. They have long lives ahead. Their childhoods and adolescence should be times of preparation and growth, developing the intellectual, emotional, and physical resources for a long and happy life. Middle and high school should not be the culmination.
Achievement in the early years, should be, I think, a by-product of pursuing joyful activities, and not so much an end in and of itself.
It sounds exhausting to me to begin at a young age and start worrying about achieving and defining success almost solely by external measures. Instead of having a childhood, many female students seem to be having an intense, extended internship. So, yes, if you start being a super-achiever at 10, or younger, then I can see why you would start to burn out at 40. That seems very predictable to me.
I'm all for kids achieving amazing things. I directed my first full-length musical (91 kids) at the age of 15. It set me on my current path and continues to be a point of satisfaction. But I didn't do much else, including homework. And I did it because I wanted to. It grew organically out of my interests. It wasn't about creating a resume (although that was a happy side benefit).
I think that we should help them any child learn to ask some basic questions. 1) Do I really want this? 2) Is this worth the inevitable sacrifices and trade-offs? 3) What are those trade-offs and sacrifices (in my experience, neither girls nor boys at this age have much concept of what these are likely to be). 3) Is this something that is going to bring me joy or am I simply doing it because I to achieve something? 4) Does this move me towards the goal of living a balanced, happy, life? 5) Do I want to do this, or am I trying to please someone else, or prove something? 6) Are my reasons for doing this fundamentally intrinsic or extrinsic? Again, all of this is true for boys as well--I just don't see such a push for them to always be stand-outs in everything.
I think one of the best things that a parent can do to help a daughter prepare for long-term success (and by that, I mean the ability to live happily in the life she chooses) is to help her relax a bit. Parents might want to relax a bit, too. Life is more than a college application. Remind yourself that your daughter is a child. She doesn't have to be CEO yet. Yes, she may have tremendous capacity. But as an adolescent, she is, by definition, young and immature. She needs to develop perspective, balance, and emotional maturity. I wish more people understood that being mature in one domain (being organized, for example, or responsible) does not mean that the child is equally mature in all other domains and facets. Some very organized students might not have a lot of emotional resilience, for example.
That fact that she gets good grades and is mature in many ways for her age does not mean that she's done growing and ready for the adult world yet. The fact that a red wagon can carry some loads successfully does not mean it is ready to be used as a moving van. If you keep heaping more weight on it, it will collapse one day. I think children (both boys and girls) need longer, more protected childhoods, and that childhood is the best preparation for happy, productive, adulthood.
Help her realize that not every test and assignment is make-or-break. Help her realize that there are, and always will be, trade-offs. Help her learn to pursue activities for their inherent value, not because one must always be "successful" as defined by very external, narrow markers. One does not need a formal title to enjoy an activity or to feed one's soul. Being goal-oriented can be a good thing, but not everything can or should be measured in goals. At a minimum, goals should be carefully chosen to focus on personal growth as opposed to fairly limited notions of achievement.
It seems to me that this approach is far healthier, and far more likely to lead to a satisfying and joyful life lived on one's own terms, instead of a a joyless life of box-checking, resume building, and eventual burn-out.