A message for girls

August 06, 1998|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MY DAUGHTER is trying to cross a river of goo.

That is, she's on the computer next to me, playing a game that's designed to enhance her educational skills. Crossing the river, for instance, will require her to work out a numbers problem.

Middle of the summer and her brothers are whiling away the days watching television and playing basketball. But my little girl -- my straight-A 7-year-old -- is likely as not to be found here in my office, glued to the computer, learning.

Pardon me while I swell with pride.

After which, I'll cringe with fear.

If you've ever raised a girl, you might understand. If not, just know that there comes an age -- early adolescence, usually -- when it's no longer easy for girls to be smart. An age when knowing the answers and participating in class become almost acts of defiance. When the validation of boys becomes crucial and a girl learns that she must defer to male ego and vanity or else become an outcast.

I don't know how that feels, but I can tell you how it looks because I've seen it.

It looks like a light going out.

And my daughter is filled with light.

Still skips from one destination to another. Still thinks "girls rule, boys drool" is just about the coolest rhyme ever. Most of all, still sees no reason why she can't be just as smart as -- or smarter than -- some boy.

She is still luminescent as the sun. And I, having seen too many FTC girls go dark with the need to look good and seem simple, having seen too many women still sit dully in the shadows cast by men, buzz around her with but one mission in mind: To protect the light.

That's why I avoid spending a lot of time telling her how pretty she is. Not that she isn't the cutest little thing you ever saw, but I try instead to praise her for her ability to figure out a problem; I want her to value that more than she does her looks.

I've warned her that there's going to come a time when people will want to judge her solely on that superficial aspect. A time when being smart won't be as easy as it is now. And, silly as it sounds, I've extracted from her a promise against that day: "The first time somebody tells you that you can't be smart because you're a girl, tell them too bad. Tough. Deal with it."

Worried father

A few months ago, I was talking with a dad I met in Atlanta about his girls. Phil's worried about his 15-year-old daughter, he said, because she's so focused on "trying to keep this reputation as this cool girl who older guys will call."

Phil's oldest daughter, 17 years old, doesn't trouble him as much. He says she tends to be tough, "and I like that, because I know she can handle the aggression of boys."

And it seems, on first blush, a heck of a thing to have to wish upon a girl, this toughness, this tensile strength. But the truth is, a girl coming of age at the millennium had better have some toughness in her because the world she's going to enter certainly does. That world is hell on wimps and weaklings, sweeps away flowers and wisps.

Worse, it sends girls signals that often conflict and always confuse. Be deferential. Be aggressive. Be smart. Be simple. Be thin. Be big-chested. Be sweet. Be tough. Be a flirt. Be a lady.

Never, just be yourself. That's what a girl should hear. That should be enough. But it never is. Even women as accomplished as Barbara Walters and Janet Reno still struggle against double standards, restrictive perceptions and confining expectations.

So I wonder what waits for my daughter in the years ahead. I watch her cross a river of goo and ask myself what she'll find on the other side.

She's a little girl filled with radiance. And I'm just struggling to hold back the dark.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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