Where the girls are

A look at what our daughters need now

/p> I’d always longed for a daughter. Here was the dream: From the moment my pink bundle arrived, she’d be all things girl — Barbie’s playmate, number one sous-chef, fellow mall rat. A mini-me! (Only she’d turn out wiser, of course, and stronger. And taller.)

Now that I’ve got my wish, though, I’m learning that raising girls is not all sugar and spice. In fact, it’s getting kind of tricky. While the male half of our household is busy tearing up the place, my daughter seems to be growing up in a brand new world. She may be only nine, but between school, sports and budding sexuality, she sure has a lot going on. And her experience is not unique: Girls today face much more pressure to grow up than we did. So how can you help your daughter enjoy her walk into womanhood? Here’s an inside look at the changing times for today’s girls.

Making the grade

Back when I was a kid, I often kept my hand down in class. Sure, I knew the answer, but I also knew the facts: Boys were hooked on Three’s Company for babe Chrissy, not brainy Janet. Now, in these days of girls-can-do-anything, the dumb blond has been replaced by a new girl in town, and regardless of her hair colour, she’s proud of her smarts. With more women going to university than ever before (they even outnumber men attending), your daughter will have her pick of career. She’s set on becoming an architect? Marine biologist? Prime minister? No problem. Just look at Hillary Clinton and imagine the possibilities.

But wait. While workplace opportunities abound, there are systemic hurdles your daughter has to leap. Yes, girls consistently top boys in reading and writing, but in the end, more men still nab those coveted upper-echelon roles — from the cabinet to the boardroom. And they get better treatment on the way up. Not only are males promoted faster than their female competitors, they’re also paid more for exactly the same work.

The more pressing question while our daughters are young, however, is whether they are actually thriving in the classroom. In his book Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, Maryland psychologist Leonard Sax says that girls will reach their academic potential only if we understand their unique learning style. And it’s not as simple as girls being collaborative and boys, competitive. Rather, science proves that female brains are actually hard-wired differently. While in girls, the language areas develop first, in boys, it’s the areas used for spatial relations and geometry. If we don’t get this basic difference, then girls can end up feeling dumb in math, which can crush their confidence and impede their ability to learn.

According to University of Alberta professor of education Heather Blair, who has spent the past 15 years tracking the gender literacy gap, girls may have a harder time voicing their thoughts in class. “Boys tend to be louder, more vocal,” she says, “whereas girls often retreat to a more private place for self-expression — chatting among themselves, or in their written essays or journals.” So how can we help our girls stand up and stand out?

While some experts advocate single-sex classrooms, others, like Laurentian University research team Serge Demers and Carole Bennett, suggest that if teachers diversify their lessons, both sexes will successfully absorb the material — albeit in different ways. One strategy, Demers says, is to group girls to work on some projects together, perhaps with separate rules or guidelines. Teachers can also nudge girls to take advantage of extracurricular leadership opportunities — running for student council, for instance, or class rep. Blair agrees: “Equality — teaching everyone in the same way — used to be the standard method. Now the focus has to be on equity, which is equality of outcome, not treatment.”

On the home front, you can do your part to boost your daughter’s grades by helping her organize her time and priorities. While all that Facebooking may be helping her connect with her pals, you want to make sure it’s not cutting into homework, piano practice or even just curl-up-with-a-book-alone time.

The classroom is not the only place where girls today are flexing their muscles. While my friends and I got our workouts cartwheeling or tap dancing across the floor, my daughter is often flying across the soccer field, which — like the hockey rink, basketball court and the wrestling ring — is no longer the exclusive domain of boys.

“Girls have stopped just cheering from the sidelines,” says Karin Lofstrom, executive director of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS) in Ottawa. Now that they have so many role models, they’re downright eager to get in the game themselves, and go for gold. “Amazingly, at the 2006 winter Olympics, two-thirds of the Canadian medals were won by women,” Lofstrom says. “So these days, we’re starting to see more and more girls pointing and saying: ‘Hey! I want to be like her!’”

In fact, all across Canada, girls are joining their schools’ teams that run the gamut from field hockey to synchronized swimming. And there are even wider initiatives such as On the Move, which develops programs aimed at making sports more popular with girls, and FitSpirit, where national female athletes — like hockey great Jennifer Botterill and rowing champ Alison Korn — make appearances at schools in Quebec and Ontario.

All the same, a study conducted by the Canadian Fitness Lifestyle Research Institute uncovered these startling stats: A whopping 64 percent of Canadian girls and young women are still physically inactive compared with 48 percent of boys. Specifically, studies show that when girls hit adolescence, they tend to drop out of physical activity. “It’s happening earlier,” says Lofstrom, who is trying to combat this trend by getting girls into sports young. “To foster a lifelong commitment to fitness, we have to work to get them interested as tweens, not teens.”

While boys are out to beat the other guy, girls may feel conflicted about going head-to-head with their friends. Other common fears: getting yelled at by the coach, being shunned if they don’t make the goal, disappointing their teammates and even worrying that gym shorts are, well, unfashionable. To motivate girls to shake off their fears and get moving, Lofstrom urges them to try any physical activity at all. “You want to belly dance or rock climb? I say go for it!” she says. At the same time, she points out what should be obvious: Kids are most inspired by the people closest to them. That means you, Mom! We need to get out there and show girls how it’s done.

According to the CAAWS, we can also do more at home to get those hearts pumping, starting with busting the old gender stereotypes. There’s no reason not to buy a ball instead of a doll when your daughter is young, for example. Or to proudly snap her photo when she’s riding a horse or her bike. Or even to flick on female golf or tennis when you’re looking for something to watch.

Besides the physical benefits of fitness, there are social pluses, such as building confidence, improving body image and learning the value of teamwork. For parents, there’s an added perk: Activity will likely keep your little girl out of trouble. “If your daughter connects with the sporty crowd young,” Lofstrom says, “she’s much less likely to drift toward the cool crowd that inevitably spends its free time smoking and drinking. Especially as they near adolescence, girls are looking to belong somewhere.”

Adolescence has always been a trying time for parents of girls, but these days, many of us are blindsided by it. There’s a reason. Puberty seems to be starting earlier than ever. Although there are contradictory stories out there, one recent study documented signs of “precocious puberty” in kindergartners (see Growing Up Too Fast). To complicate matters, sexualized media images are everywhere (think skinny Hannah Montana and your daughter’s tarty Bratz dolls). There’s just no getting around it: It’s become way cool to grow up way fast. But isn’t it OK to look forward to womanhood?

Maybe, but with young girls replicating little women, there are serious dangers. The caked-on eyeliner and chic belly tops aren’t so cute when they attract teasing or unwanted attention from boys or men. Even more alarming is the fact that your daughter may wind up engaging in sexual activity much earlier than you ever considered. “These days, girls may get hot and heavy in grade five,” says Robyn Hochglaube, founder of the Toronto sorority D-Phi, where girls aged eight to 15 bond through programs like kick-boxing, jewellery making and book clubs. If your daughter is among the sexually accelerated, she may end up in dire straits — pregnancy, STDs — or with a tarnished reputation and self-directed anger and guilt.

Still, when it comes to your daughter’s emotional health, the most important issue is neither puberty nor the media, but rather how your daughter internalizes it all. Research reveals that only two percent of women around the world describe themselves as beautiful, while 92 percent say they want to change some aspect of their physical appearance. “Because your daughter is constantly being hit with unrealistic, unattainable images of beauty, she faces unbelievable pressure to look a different way,” says Alison Leung, marketing manager for Dove Canada who oversees the company’s Self-Esteem Fund. Coupled with the heightened self-consciousness that strikes at puberty, that pressure can spiral into emotional problems, such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, says Leung.

However, before you race to the drugstore for hormone suppressants or trash every TV in the house, have a look in the mirror. Research also shows that the greatest influence on your daughter’s self-esteem is you. “We’ve learned that mothers actually shape their daughters’ self-image much more than the media,” Leung says. If you call yourself fat, spend hours on your beauty regimen and criticize your daughter’s clothing choices, she hears a deeper message: We gals are not comfortable with who we are.

Hochglaube can relate. She grew up a little tomboy who, to her mother’s dismay, shunned dresses and ballet. “I found it so hard to be me,” she says. So she created an environment where, instead of judging and competing with their peers, girls support one another’s strengths. Here, no one comments that your hair’s too short or your artwork won’t make the cut. And yet, there are still realities out there, like the obesity crisis and the fact that many boys are attracted to conventionally pretty girls.

“By all means you should encourage your daughter to be healthy,” Hochglaube says. But the key is to focus her on why. It’s so she’ll feel fit — not to please you, attract a boy or squeeze into size-two jeans. “No one says you can’t rock at a swim meet, then get out of the pool and put on lipstick, or not,” Hochglaube says. “There are no rules. What you have to do is be true to who you are. And then love that girl with all your heart.”