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This is the moment when being a girl became my strength. 

Madeline O'Brien


A story from:

Would you help a lost girl? 

The Trouble With Girls 

 Educationalist and author of 21st Century Girls Sue Palmer unravels what makes girls unique, equipping you to work with them more effectively.
The trouble with girls? What trouble? For most people working with children, it’s boys who cause problems. Girls tend to settle down to activities and do as they’re told. They’re much easier to manage... Sadly, in the long term, that’s the trouble with girls.
Due to a complex combination of nature and nurture, the female of the species is more socially aware than the male, and keener to please those around her. She values the approval of others and judges herself by prevailing social norms. So if, as time goes by, a girl feels her life isn’t going well, she tends to assume it’s her own fault.
‘The big difference,’ says child psychiatrist Sammi Timimi, ‘is that boys externalise their problems and it comes out as bad behaviour – girls tend to internalise them, as sadness. Boys’ issues are therefore issues for others, not just themselves.’
As a result, we notice troubled boys immediately, but often we don’t recognise that girls are experiencing difficulties until much later, when they’ve had plenty of time to brood on their personal ‘inadequacies’.

 21st century girlhood

In a screen-based, hyper-competitive consumer culture, there are many sources of stress for young, impressionable human beings. Today’s girls are bombarded from birth with marketing messages about the way they’re supposed to look, dress and behave. They’re constantly exposed to unattainable images of female perfection and – as easy access to internet porn exerts increasing influence on popular culture – many of the messages they hear and see about ‘normal’ female behaviour are extremely sexualised.

So, despite 50 years of gender ‘equality’, 21st century girls are probably encouraged to think of themselves as sexual objects more than any previous generation. But they’re now competing alongside men in the work place, so girls from aspirational families are also expected to excel at school, and in a vast range of extra-curricular activities too. The American writer Courtney Martin puts it neatly:
‘We are the daughters of feminists who said ‘You can be anything’ and we heard ‘You have to be everything’. We must get As. We must make money. We must save the world. We must be thin. We must be unflappable. We must be beautiful.’

Unsurprisingly, the pursuit of perfection on so many fronts can lead to exhaustion or self-loathing, and emotional meltdown. Self-criticism begins early – girls of 5 now frequently express dissatisfaction with their bodies and appearance – so there’s a danger that, by the time they reach their teens, internalising these feelings will lead to depression or other mental health problems like anorexia or self-harm. These are dramatic examples, of course, but the pressures of growing up in a competitive consumer culture are likely to affect all girls. 

It’s now becoming more important than ever that girls reach their teens with a secure value system and a positive self-image. Adolescence is a difficult stage of development in any circumstance, not least because of the onset of sexual awareness. The wide availability of hard-core (and extremely misogynistic) pornography has created new challenges for 21st century girls. Many young males now assume that the sexual behaviour they’ve seen on screen is normal and acceptable, so teenage relationships – always an emotional minefield – are more difficult than ever. Girls need to reach their teens feeling secure in themselves and empowered to resist this cultural drift towards dehumanised sexuality.

Nature, nurture and culture

The social awareness that leads girls to excessive self-consciousness, self-criticism and self-objectification (in addition to, in some cases, self-obsession) appears to arise from a very positive human trait – empathy. This ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes underpins the human capacity for trust, respect, care and collaboration. Some evolutionary psychologists believe that the female of the species is naturally better at empathising than the male because she’s biologically destined for motherhood. The emotional bond between mother and baby is rooted in empathetic engagement.

Indeed, research indicates that in the early months of life, baby girls tend to make more eye contact with their adult carers than baby boys. This may be due to the effects of testosterone in the womb, or because most girls are more mature than boys at birth and thus more able to direct their gaze (or, possibly, both).

This slight – apparently natural – gender difference is rapidly enhanced by nurture. A mother gazing lovingly at her baby naturally feels rewarded when her baby gazes back, so little girls are likely to get a head-start in the smiles, talk, song and other mutually rewarding interactions through which human children have, through the millennia, been introduced to the social world. Developmental psychologists call it ‘the dance of communication’, and girls on the whole make faster social progress than their brothers.

But there’s a downside to a talent for empathy. A child who learns to care too much about what other people think may become a ‘people pleaser’, judging herself by social norms that aren’t always in her best interest. This is less likely to happen when children have opportunities to play, explore and learn under their own steam, without adult interference. Plenty of free play, especially in the early years, allows a girl to develop a mind of her own.

However, in a screen-saturated world, commercial forces waste no time in exploiting the downside of empathy to drive a highly profitable gender gap. They aim endless products at anxious new parents, including many designed to engage their infants with screen-based technology as early as possible. Then, as soon as children are hooked up to screens, marketers begin their own carefully choreographed dance of communication, selling girls' products that deflect them from exploratory play, and develop a premature interest in fashion, shopping and superficial appearances.

 Taking on the market

How then, can children’s workers help girls resist the blandishments of media and marketers, develop a value system based on respect (for others and themselves) and grow up to be confident, resilient young women? The simple and obvious answer is: keep up the good work!

Today’s children need as many positive, caring role-models as possible. Genuine empathetic engagement enhances human life, and counteracts the influence of those unempathetic adults who peddle impossible dreams and degrading images of human behaviour to line their own pockets. Current research into child development suggests that caring adults have much more influence over the children in their care than unethical money-grubbers. Screen-based images may be powerful but genuine human role models trump them every time.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the immense power of techno-consumerism, but it’s merely the latest manifestation of the age-old battle between God and Mammon. As a writer and researcher on the subject of modern childhood, I’ve spent much of the last ten years giving talks to parents, teachers, social workers and other ‘caring professionals’, and have learned first-hand that there are countless people out there who care passionately about the next generation.

So Gandhi’s suggestion to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ is particularly powerful for anyone who works with children. In terms of 21st century girls, it’s particularly relevant for women. Girls need strong female role models – of all shapes and sizes! – who stand up for what they believe in and demonstrate that personal fulfilment isn’t something you buy in the shops and that there are many ways of being a successful, well-rounded human being.

Confronting 21st century problems
It’s also important to be aware of the cultural influences affecting modern girls, and to be prepared to challenge them – not only in conversations with girls, but also with parents, grandparents and other members of the local community. During my talks on childhood, I’ve discovered that one of the biggest problems is lack of communication between responsible adults. Children under the influence of commercial forces naturally exploit this, claiming that if they don’t get the latest must-have gadget or fashion item, they’ll be the odd one out among their friends.

The old adage that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ still holds true, and today’s parents need an adult alliance to help them maintain an authoritative stance in the face of commercially induced pester power. But the incredible pace of technological change over recent decades has left many adults feeling deskilled in terms of child-rearing. And widespread acceptance of consumerist values makes them reluctant to speak out, for fear of appearing out of touch.

In fact, despite social and cultural changes, research shows that the input children need from the adults in their lives – such as love, care, time, attention and sensible boundaries for behaviour – hasn’t changed at all. These are the ingredients that nourish self-confidence and emotional resilience, and I suspect the most important step in improving a child’s chance of long-term well-being would be to break down the wall of silence, constantly reiterate this ancient wisdom, and help parents support each other.

Children’s workers are also well-placed to chat informally to children, demonstrating genuine, personal interest in their lives and opinions. Conversations about the latest cool tween trend provide opportunities for girls to take on the role of the expert – they’ll relish having an interested listener and you’ll gain insights into the current state of childhood culture. If they trust you, they’ll soon mention anything that’s bothering them, and if you’re respectful and economical in offering advice, they’ll probably take it to heart.

Opportunities to forge this sort of relationship while girls are young may also have long-term implications. If you keep in touch as the years go by – stopping for a chat with them or their parents when you meet in the community – you may be able to help when they need someone to talk to during the turbulent adolescent years. Teenage girls often value advice from a trusted female mentor from outside the family.

 The power of play

But while support from the caring adults in their lives is vital, girls must also be able to think for themselves. True self-confidence comes from learning to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their own actions. This is why children’s own self-directed play is so important – it’s where a girl develops her unique sense of identity, and learns to relate to her peers on her own terms, rather than complying meekly with social norms.

It’s therefore a terrible irony that sexual equality coincided with the hijacking of children’s play by commercial forces. While well-meaning adults adopted a gender-neutral approach when working with children, with the aim of furthering equality, marketers constantly undermined their efforts. There’s ultimately much more money to be made by driving a gender gap.

So it’s essential that today’s girls have opportunities for ‘real play’ – the sort of experiences through which lucky children have developed their sense of identity through the millennia. Open-ended, exploratory, active play is vital in the early years, and as girls grow older they still need plenty of playful activities that allow them to explore and experiment, without too much adult direction.

It’s easier to provide ‘real play’ opportunities if you can take children outdoors into a natural environment, where there’s space to move around, and natural materials with which to make dens, create mixtures and generally mess about. But indoor activities can be open-ended too. We have to encourage girls to think outside the box, take intellectual risks and try out their ideas without worrying about ‘getting it wrong’.

From self-objectification to self-esteem
Girls who learn to value their own inborn human talents are far better equipped to make sensible choices in the future than those who grow up pursuing some impossible dream of female ‘perfection’. And if the adults they meet constantly model their human talent for empathetic engagement, they’ll also appreciate the value of respect, trust, kindness and collaboration. They’ll learn how to love their neighbours, and themselves.

Sue Palmer’s books on child development in the modern world include Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Boys . Her most recent is 21st Century Girls: how female minds develop, how to raise bright balanced girls, and why today’s world needs them more than ever (Orion, 2013, £12.99)