Some daughters try to do everything at once. They scatter their energy without finding a focus. Other girls retreat from extra activities and have trouble identifying things they really want to do. Charlotte Milholland addresses both types of girls in Girl Pages: A Handbook of the Best Resources for Strong, Confident, Creative Girls (Hyperion, 1998), a comprehensive listing of activities and resources for teenage girls. Throughout, Milholland reminds us that discovering who we are and what we love to do is a lifelong process, and a skill we can foster in our daughters.
Holding On to Self-Esteem
“One day when she was a girl, writer Annie Dillard looked through a microscope and saw an amoeba for the first time. Bursting with excitement, she ran to tell her parents. They were pleased for her, but they didn’t drop everything to look at her amoeba. At that moment, Dillard says, she understood for the first time the nature of private passion, the importance of doing something on your own, for no reason except that you love it. There is no better ground for a girl’s self-esteem than that kind of passion.
“Adolescent girls often feel self-conscious or uncertain. If a girl who is 13 or 14 has a cause or an activity she cares about intensely, she’s much more likely to feel confident. One of the women I interviewed for Girl Pages began rock climbing when she was 15. While her friends were worried about pimples and dates, she was dreaming of greater cliffs to conquer.
“A girl’s passion might be something like a softball. Or it might be political activism or Celtic dancing. She might love plants or painting. Any interest like this will connect a girl to what’s beautiful in the culture and inside herself. Any of them can help her feel strong.”
“Some girls want to try everything. If that’s the case with your daughter, let her know you appreciate her enthusiasm, but then act as referee. A girl who studies piano and takes acting classes while she’s keeping up her grades and playing team soccer can become enormously stressed. She ends up doing a lot but not engaging deeply with anything. This is a girl who needs you to sit down with her and make a list of priorities. Have her list her interests. Then say, ‘Which five, or which three, are most important to you right now?’ That’s a great life exercise. It teaches your daughter that we all have to prioritize all the time.
“Finally, ask a do-everything girl to commit to a particular amount of time—to say ‘I’ll study this instrument for a semester’ or ‘I’ll try marine science for the length of summer camp.’ If she agrees to explore an interest in depth for an allotted time, you commit to provide transportation or support she’ll need.”
“Some girls don’t seem to have any driving interests of compelling passions. In this case, gentle encouragement works best. Be alert for little flickers of interest. Your daughter might be watching Ally McBeal and say, ‘That’s cool how she stands up for herself in the courtroom and tells them what she thinks.’ This is a good opening. Look for a way to affirm it. You might give her a book about a woman lawyer, introduce her to an attorney you know, or take her to visit a courtroom while it’s in session.
“Typically, about half the things you suggest will fall flat, and you have to accept that. But I guarantee that if you persist, somewhere you’ll strike a spark. Most hesitancy in girls comes from lack of confidence. And confidence comes from success. Playing a sport is a great example. If she can say, ‘I got out there and played hard today. I got kicked, but I kept going,’ the strength she feels will spill over into other areas of her life.”
Not Failing, but Learning
“I interviewed lots of successful women for Girl Pages, and what I found behind their accomplishments was about 5% natural talent and 95% work. These women loved what
they were doing. As a result, they were willing to do the work.
“Many of these women had taken wrong turns and said, ‘Oops, that’s not the way to go.’ Margaret Bourke-White is a photographer, but she was sure when she started college that she wanted to study reptiles. She took one photography course and changed her mind. Another woman whose store is in the Girl Pages was the slowest member of her swim team when she was 11. One day, just before a meet, her coach urged her to try diving. That day she discovered something she loved. There’s an important lesson for girls in stories like this. They need to know it’s O.K. to try something but then move in an entirely different direction.
“Most of all, we need to let girls know that trying counts. If something doesn’t go well for your daughter, say, ‘There’s no failing, only learning. You learned more than you knew before.’
“Each time a girl tries something new, she expands boundaries of her self and becomes
somebody different right before our eyes. This is a process that continues all our lives, but girls do it consciously for the first time when they are teenagers. It is an amazing thing to witness. With the courage to explore, a girl not only finds out that the world is much bigger than she knew. She also finds out that she herself is bigger than she ever dreamed.”
Interview by Madeena Spray Nolan
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