(In the car, a dad talks with his 11-year-old daughter.)
Dad: “You seem down. Didn’t you enjoy the park?”
Daughter: “Yeah, it was fun.”
Dad: “Then why the long face?”
Daughter: “Did you see that family sitting at the other picnic table? They looked homeless.”
Daughter: “Well, I was thinking about how we came to the park to have fun, but they have to spend the night there.”
At 8, our daughters still think like children. The hypothetical circle you might draw around a girl that age to show how much of the world she understands would be small. But the circle you can draw when she is 9 is a little larger, and the circles at 10 or 11 are larger still. This dad just watched his daughter redraw the circle that represents her world, and it included somebody new.
As girls enter adolescence, their thinking becomes increasingly complex. Ask a girl of 10 why a person is homeless, and she will offer one or two reasons. But ask a girl of 14, and prepare to listen for a while. By that age she has learned to hold several ideas, even contradictory ones, in her mind at once. This higher-level thinking allows a girl to perceive the complex connections between herself and others. The girl in our example has realized that at some level, she has a connection to the homeless family in the park—a leap that’s cognitive and compassionate, too.
An Ethic of Care
Researchers who examine the way adolescents make moral decisions find that girls tend to base their thinking on relationships and responsibility (what researchers call an “ethic of care”), whereas boys are more likely to make moral decisions based on concepts of fairness or justice. This difference disappears later on, but as teens, our daughters often feel personally connected to or responsible for those in need. Little wonder, then, if your daughter feels passionate about environmental causes or spends a lot of time arguing with you about the mess adults have made the world and how she’d remake society if she could.
If you’re a mom, you may be able to recall how profound those connections felt when you first woke to them as a teen. After all, they expanded who you perceived yourself to be. If you’re a dad, you may have to understand that it’s O.K. if your daughter’s ideas about social justice aren’t always logical. She’s on track developmentally if they’re heartfelt and personal.
Different Life Stages
What if her social activism seems naïve or unrealistic to you? What if she accuses you of being complacent? To some degree, this is normal. We and our daughters are at very different stages in our lives. When you and I became parents, we redefined our scope of responsibility. Protecting and providing for our daughters became our central focus, and the needs of outside world may have had to take second place to the needs of family. Now 13, my eldest has never reached out to touch the baby in the car seat after a near-miss accident as I have, or come home exhausted after a day of working for a paycheck she really needs. Unencumbered by those kinds of responsibilities, she can’t yet see how my tight focus on her needs has made possible her idealism today. And here’s a double grief—sometimes I see in her my long-gone 13-year-old self. At her age I wanted to change the world, too.
Yet, even if I am world-weary, I have experience. Over the years, I’ve taken part in efforts that improved people’s lives. That’s why we and our daughters have so much to give each other. Girls can prompt us to renewed idealism, and we can model for them the skills that foster change. It is a promising partnership.
Feeling Proud of Each Other
A girl has to have a social conscience if she’s to grow up to be the purposeful young adult we want her to become. Each time she feels she can make a positive difference, she walks the path to connection, health, and hope. In fact, if you worry that your daughter is falling prey to the pressures of adolescence, social action may help her regain a sense of worth. It works even better if you join her efforts.
That’s what Margaret learned when she and her 13-year-old daughter, Kathleen, became part of a summer mission team that builds homes for Appalachian families. “I was concerned,” Margaret recalls. “Kathleen spent so much time worrying about her hair and her clothes. I thought her world had narrowed. But that trip showed me something about Kathleen—that she has a strong social sense. I enjoyed watching her talk with the families whose houses we were building.
“The days were hot, and the work was hard. We got blisters and sore muscles. Yet, I found myself admiring Kathleen’s sacrifice. I remember in particular one day when our work was done. She and I had worked on different houses that day, and we arrived at the same time back at the gym where we were staying. I pulled my pack out of the van and turned around to see her doing the same thing. Our eyes met. There we were, both of us dirty and exhausted, and I felt this wonderful moment between us. There was an understanding, a recognition of each other. I was incredibly proud of her, and I knew she felt the same about me. And I thought, this is it. This is how it ought to be.
Can they change the world? Here’s what girls told us:
“We’re killing off all the other species on the planet. Yet my mother got mad at me when I refused to use shampoo tested on animals. Why can’t she see the suffering this causes?
Diane, age 14
“Girls my age are more active than parents think. We’re much more aware. We do small things that matter, like giving change to homeless people.”
Lauren, age 15
“I think about being a vegetarian because I don’t like to see animals die. This could make the world better.”
Anna, age 10
“Girls have power, definitely. We change the world. But sometimes adults don’t realize we’re mature enough to think about big problems.”
Jean, age 12
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