During my sixteen-year tenure as head of an all-girls boarding and day school, I wrote monthly columns on parenting, on teaching, and most of all, on the challenging issues facing girls as they grow from adolescence toward adulthood. I have collected the essays in this book because of the many times families told me that they put my comments on their refrigerator doors, shared them with relatives, or left them behind in a dentist’s waiting room. As a result, I became convinced that the essays had struck a chord not only with parents in my school but also with others who have an interest in the growth and development of adolescent girls.
The essays include short anecdotes about my own growing up in Joplin, Missouri; reflections on ideas I found in news stories or books that I thought would be helpful to parents; my interpretation, as an educator and a parent, of the problems girls face with the onslaught of limiting messages in American media and popular culture; and considerations of the factors that contribute to the most effective learning environment for girls. In the end, though, what I imagine to be the greatest need that I have intuitively sought to fill is the need girls have for patient and wise parents and the need parents have for support and encouragement as they strive to deliver confident and clear responses to their daughters.
These needs, I believe, are rooted both in the deep desire girls have to be authentic and to have agency in their lives and in the aspirations parents have for their daughters to be self-reliant and fulfilled. Our hopes develop in earnest as we see our daughters begin to move beyond the family: I hope she does well in school. I hope others will like her. I hope she has athletic or artistic talent so that she has a way to shine. And along with those hopes come the anxieties: Will she experience success? Will she adjust to the larger world? Will she be accepted? Am I up to the task of supporting my daughter as she begins to navigate the white waters of adolescence?
As an educator in all-girls schools for over thirty years, I have had the time to refine my thinking, in collaboration with other professionals, about what girls need most from the adults in their lives. I have come to understand that they need us to listen to them, to take them seriously, and to support their hopes and dreams. As a result, girls often hear from me that they have important work to do in the world. I encourage them to aspire to have influence, to prepare themselves for their future leadership roles, and to learn how to maintain a stable and authentic center of meaning in their lives. All of this, of course, has to be learned while they are doing algebra, playing soccer, writing English essays, figuring out relationships, and cleaning their rooms. Their work is daunting, to say the least, but girls’ position in our culture, as future leaders in every sector and, for many of them, as future parents of the next generation, demands that they develop the self-knowledge that will keep them from being blown off course.
As the faculty in my school developed ways of cultivating confidence and integrity in our students, we began to turn our attention to thinking expansively about what it means to educate girls for lives of purpose. We challenged each girl academically while also teaching her to listen to her inner voice, avoid the influence of limiting messages in the culture, speak her own truth instead of what she perceived others wanted to hear, deal directly with conflict, assume responsibility for solving problems, recover from setbacks, learn from missteps, and formulate life goals. That these initiatives were necessary was undeniable. That we needed to involve parents was also undeniable.
When I was a girl growing up in the fifties and sixties, my parents were surrounded by a community of like-minded adults who supported each other in parenting. These adults shared basic values, and my friends and I heard consistent messages whether we were at home, at church, or at school. Times have changed. Today, parenting can be a lonely endeavor, as families are isolated geographically and beleaguered with demanding schedules that consume every waking moment. In reaching out to parents by sharing the ideas and approaches used here at the school, I also share my philosophy that we are all in this together, all helping girls resist the negative tendencies in the culture, and all in need of working in community to encourage girls’ growth and success.
As I reflect on sixteen years of preparing essays for parents, I can see that underlying my thinking is a basic optimism. I believe that if we focus, remember who we are and what we are about as parents, and cultivate the courage of our convictions, we can support our daughters in the most profound ways. It turns out that they want us to be clear and strong, to share what we have learned in life, and to point them in the right direction. They may have formed a habit of not listening and may even be hostile at first to what we have to say, but deep down they need us to fulfill our responsibilities. In short, we don’t have to feel helpless as teens teeter and spin. There are things we can do.
The essays that follow describe an array of circumstances that ask for our active participation. Following each essay I have included suggestions for what parents might do. These tips usually take the form of ways we can guide our daughters to think more clearly and deeply about the challenges they confront. We really can stand our ground when they are in meltdown. We really can avoid joining them in their panic and instead coach them in ways to solve problems that will establish lifetime patterns. We really can instill confidence in our daughters and teach them the skills they will need to live lives of purpose and to have influence in what matters most to them. We really can be the competent and courageous parents of our own great girls.
— Jeannie Norris
From Parenting Great Girls: Giving Our Daughters the Courage to Live Authentic and Confident Lives