If you are the parent of a girl, there is much for you to celebrate. Because of the nature of the subjects I teach (music and theatre) the reality is that most of my students are girls (with some notable, wonderful exceptions) and working with them is a wonderful joy. They are organized and mature, and full of something I can only describe as life and light. When I think of my female students as parents and teachers (which I think of as the highest callings as they are what I do) and leaders of companies or governments, I rejoice. Their intelligence, competence, energy, and deep goodness will be assets to the future and I believe they will change the world in many good ways.
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.
As part of my job, I meet frequently with prospective Kindergarten parents in an admissions setting. With great pride, many of these parents tell me that their pre-schooler is reading. They look at me with obvious excitement and await my equally enthusiastic response.
This is always a bit awkward. While there may be some exceptions, pre-school children generally do not read--if you define reading to mean the ability to look at unfamiliar words and decode their meaning. Rather, they have quick memories and keen minds, so with some teaching, and a bit of practice they often learn some words. But the ability to recite a favorite book, or even recognize some common words by rote does not make them readers as most of us would understand that term.
But that's okay! Pre-schoolers aren't supposed to read. They aren't ready to read. Cognitively, they just aren't at that stage yet. They can learn and recognize letters and write their names and all kinds of great things. But they aren't reading--and they aren't meant to.
Here's why it matters. If you accept the premise that they are reading and don't teach them the basics in Kindergarten and First Grade, they will generally encounter problems as they get older and the material gets harder.
I bring this up in order to frame a similar phenomenon I see with middle school parents. They frequently think, with a great deal of pride and affection that their child is mature. When I hear this, I worry a bit. I know it's sincere and I know it's based on love. But the reality is that most middle school kids (there can always be exceptions) are not mature any more than the pre-schooler who memorized Green Eggs and Ham can read.
I'm not trying to be snarky here and I'm not making fun of these parents. It's a very easy mistake to make. Middle school kids can look mature. They can talk maturely. They can even act maturely at times. I love them. Individually and collectively. Dearly and deeply. But they aren't mature and it's important to remember that.
Kids today are pretty savvy and sophisticated. They know a lot more than we did back in the day and it's easy to be fooled into thinking that they are mature. But they aren't. You simply can't treat them like small adults. To do so is as incorrect and, I would argue, potentially damaging to them. Just as three year olds weren't meant to really read, adolescents aren't meant to be adults.
I like to think of them as skilled adult impersonators--they have learned some ways to appear mature without actually being mature--they've got the externals down, but not the internals. .
They don't do this to be sneaky or malicious. It's just what they do. Just as a bright three year old will go through the motions of reading, adolescents will go through the motions of being adults. Sometimes very convincingly.
As a parent, it's wonderful to think this because it makes your job easier. And if you are fortunate to have an adult impersonator, then enjoy the fact that they do some things maturely. However, maturity in one domain--doing their homework, for example--doesn't mean they are mature in other domains.
I once had a student who is quite mature in many ways. Extremely dependable, reliable, and so forth. But I asked her to reach out emotionally to a student who was having some social problems. My student was simply unable to do this--she just didn't have the maturity to conceptualize what needed to be done, let alone make it happen.
The danger I see in a false sense of maturity is that some parents, convinced of their child's maturity, will then let them start making decisions and controlling their own lives in ways that requires more maturity than the student has, and sometimes these decisions have serious consequences. Don't get me wrong. Responsibility is a great thing--but it has to be given in carefully measured doses, calibrated with what they are realistically capable of.
Here are some ways that middle school students are generally NOT mature no matter how they seem on the outside.
Most adolescents I see are not ready to make major decisions in a thoughtful way, and even if they are ahead of the curve, they have to be carefully supported in the decision making process. They generally are not able to truly think in the long-term. Intellectually, they understand the concept of long-term thinking, but they don't really get it on a visceral level and they often lack the self-discipline to fully implement it.
I see this every year in a theatrical context with even my most experience and mature performers. They know that the play is coming up, but they just can't give it their complete focus and energy until the audience is almost there. They go through rehearsal mostly going through the motions. Until the audience is there. Once that happens, they do brilliantly, but they have to have an external event to sort of compel them to focus. Long-term, abstract thinking is simply beyond most adolescents.They can conceptualize abstract thinking like I can conceptualize math. I know it's there, I know that you can use it for various things. I know some people can do it. But I still have to really work hard at even very simple problems. I use my fingers and a calculator.
Some do better than others, some can be a little more self-motivated, but none of them really can generate this on their own. At least that I've seen in doing this for 25 years.
Another element of maturity that adolescents, even sweet, wonderful kids lack is empathy. Adolescents are generally very egocentric. Not bad, not egotistical, but egocentric. Their worlds revolve around themselves. This isn't a put-down. It's the way they are. They see everything through the lens of their own feelings/needs/wants. Even very sweet children are quite self-focused and narcissistic.
Adolescents tend not to have a very clear sense of their limits. They feel invincible and often will overestimate their abilities and underestimate the difficulty of a given challenge or task.
They tend not to be able to think through details very well. They think in broad terms. I can't tell you the number of times I've talked with very bright students who are struggling slightly in school about what they are going to do to improve in a class. "I'm going to do better," is usually their idea of a plan. Pressed for details, they really have to think and be coached into sitting by someone who won't distract them, turning in their homework consistently, turning off their phone while they study and so forth.
Finally, adolescents are not very adept at recognizing the consequences of actions, nor are they very good at anticipating those consequences. They will do the same thing over and over and then be genuinely surprised when they get the same undesirable result. It can be almost comedic to watch this.
There may be some other areas, but these are some major places where I don't believe most adolescents are mature--no matter how poised or socially at ease or fluent or reliable they are.
So, if you buy into the premise that they are mature, then you start treating them like they are small adults. You give them all kinds of responsibility (which is great) and let them make decisions (which can be good). However, they are not ready for this responsibility past a certain point and if you let them go too fast and too far in this regard, you are putting them in a position where they might make a decision where the stakes are high enough to really do some damage--but they aren't really able to understand that at the time. If nothing else, you risk burn-out. If they become adults too soon, then they will become overwhelmed and unhappy. They need time to be children before growing up and having the responsibilities attendant on adults.
This is why I am so against fashions in dress or behavior that emulate adult fashions. It blurs the lines and it leads both parents and children to mistakenly believe that the children are mature. Even if they manage to avoid serious consequences from bad decisions, I am convinced that a lot of the emotional problems we see comes because kids are being treated too maturely too quickly.
If you sing an aria when you are a child, you can damage your vocal cords. If you try to powerlift weights, you could damage your muscles and bones. If you try to assume the responsibility of an adult when you are still a child, you are going to burn out. You're going to become stress and anxious and depressed.
Now, this is not to say that some kinds of responsibilities in measured doses are not good--they are very good. But I believe you have to be careful with this. It's one thing to let an adolescent have a chance to learn and grow in a carefully structured environment. It's another to treat them as an adult in most ways. I'll talk about some of the differences as I see them, next week.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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