A hundred years ago, the famous educator Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote that "the progressive education of a child should be, as far as possible, unconscious. From his first eager interest in almost everything, up along the gradually narrowing lines of personal specialization, each child should be led with the least possible waste of time and nervous energy."
Yet as I speak with groups of parents around the country, attend school events in my own community, and collaborate with colleagues, I often see that families intent upon raising accomplished children are doing exactly the opposite--and as a result find themselves in perpetual states of nervous energy. At PTA meetings, athletic events, and even on grocery lines, I hear mothers and fathers worrying about their daughters' grades in school, status with friends, progress in extracurricular activities, and chances of getting into first-rate colleges. Driving much of these parents' preoccupations are understandable fears that (1) their girls may not be doing well enough, and (2) there is something else they should be doing to help them succeed.
Adolescent girls express these same concerns. It does not matter whether I am speaking with middle school or high school students, either from urban areas or privileged suburban neighborhoods, or whether I am meeting with teens in focus groups or consulting privately with them in my office. Almost without exception they tell me that they feel stressed by pressures to excel.
Although most look forward to seeing their friends in school, and many enjoy a particular teacher or subject, teen girls universally dread seemingly insurmountable piles of homework and never-ending tests. They worry about completing their assignments well enough to maintain their grades--and also finishing them fast enough to keep up with their friendships and hobbies, practice their musical instruments, play sports, participate in school clubs, and look good.
And yet, despite feeling "totally stressed out," "overwhelmed," and "completely exhausted," many girls today think even doing all this is not enough. They believe they should also be doing everything perfectly. Responding to one of many harmful messages of this culture, they equate being successful with being extraordinary. These teens think that besides acing every subject, they must also star in their school plays, shine in music, excel athletically, be popular, and win awards. Like many parents, these teen girls consider weakness in any area unacceptable. But such goals are unrealistic, if not impossible, to achieve.
Emily, my friend's delightful, spunky twelve-year-old daughter, puts it this way: "I feel like I have to have great grades, be in good shape, eat right, do lots of activities, and have a million friends. It's hard for me, but some people are just able to do all this." With this mind-set, many girls develop the mantra, "I just need to work harder," driving a relentless, unsatisfying, and ultimately self-defeating quest for perfection.
It's a Girl Thing
Although parents often describe their daughters' experiences in middle school and high school as worlds apart from those of their sons', the extent of gender differences is rarely recognized. Boys are not immune to stress, but teen girls are far more prone to taking on intense pressures to succeed academically and socially. Girls also perceive that despite what boys may or may not accomplish during adolescence, males usually get higher paying and more prestigious jobs later on. How they process this information affects their views of themselves as well as their possibilities for the future. In general, these four factors distinguish teen girls from their male classmates.