Teach our boys well and girls will take care of themselves

April 11, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

Author and mother Judy Mann believes that if we did a better job raising our sons, we would do a better job raising our daughters. That our girls grow up to feel inconsequential, or ornamental or servile, and it is because our boys grow up treating them that way.

"Girls start school with more enthusiasm, more aptitude and more maturity than boys," says Mann, author of "The Difference: Growing Up Female in America."

"Before long, they feel muted, invisible. Sidelined in schools, they are vilified in popular culture: music, Hollywood, TV, videos.

"They grow up to measure their self-esteem by their popularity and their ability to please boys, not their grades or their ability to live independently."

We want our daughters to see that they have more options than we had, more choices. But surveys of high school girls consistently show these girls believe they have fewer options.

That's because whatever messages we give are undermined by the world around them -- and especially by the boys around them.

"And we will never change this outcome for girls," says Mann, "if we don't change the way we raise boys."

Mann is a columnist for the Washington Post whose reporting on feminist and gender issues has broken new ground for many years. She began the research that became "The Difference" four years ago, when her youngest child, Katherine, was 11.

Mann wanted to know how to help Katherine navigate the riptides and shoals of adolescence and young womanhood. She did not want her daughter stuck on the merry-go-round of predatory boys and dependent girls, entitled boys, submissive girls.

As a veteran in what was, when she started, a non-traditional field for women -- and as the mother of two older sons -- Mann knew the world would be different for Katherine. Not, unfortunately, different than it had been for her mother. It would be different than it is for any boy.

"We raise our daughters to be happy and we raise our sons to be successful," said Mann at a recent conference on gender biases in education held at the Park School in Baltimore.

"Happiness is a much more elusive goal than we give our sons."

Do not dismiss "The Difference" as a feminist tract. Mann traces the issues that fuel our current angry debate -- welfare dependence, out-of-wedlock births, school dropout rates, and the resulting unemployment, crime and violence -- to girls who grow into young womanhood with no more vision for their own future than to please a boy.

"So many of the problems we face now go back to how we raise our children," says Mann.

How do we change the future for these girls? By changing the present for the boys we are raising. And the guidelines Mann offers are not institutional in scope. You can do this at your dinner table.

* Teach boys to take turns and cooperate. Have boys do things for girls and let her know she is entitled to ask him.

* When you see sexism in cartoons or real life, point it out. Talk about it. And don't let your son use girls as a negative reference point. ("He's a sissy." "He throws like a girl.")

* Encourage boys and girls to be friends and do things together. Talk to your son about the nature of relationships, not just about sex.

* Encourage girls to talk and boys to listen. Don't let him interrupt her. Studies show that girls, once pushed out of a conversation, will not enter it again, but boys will. Meanwhile, encourage him to express his feelings in words. Boys who never learn to do this often grow up to be troubled or violent men.

* Treat their sports equally. But never let your son physically abuse or intimidate a girl. No hitting. No threatening. And since her verbal skills may be the only thing that stands between her and intimidation by a boy, teach her to be verbally combative without being disrespectful.

* Since we often praise him for his talent and her for her hard work and attention to task, let him see you praise her for her talents, too.

When you have done all these things with your son, turn to your daughter. Teach her that she must expect to support herself and to make all her own life choices.

"And," says Mann, "give her a sense of the enormous range of possibilities."

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