Raising Daughters: The Cultural War On Their Innocence
"The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." -Old Proverb
My parents have 6 daughters. I don't know how they did it. I have 4 nieces. I fear for them. No time in my entire life has ever made me feel more inadequate than being a mother of a daughter growing up in this culture. I felt more equipped about my duties when my daughter was a newborn: wake up, change, (feed, clean, nap) x3, bathe, sing to, read to, sleep. Repeat. I often wish I could go back to those days. I don't mean to trivialize that stage of child-rearing for those of you who have infants. Trust me. I can remember the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion like it was yesterday. Mothers of newborns out there: I hear you. I see you.
I WAS YOU.
I remember being approached one Sunday morning at church by a young, frazzled mother who held her tantrum-filled 18-month old daughter in her arms. The toddler wailed incessantly and flailed her elbows around, often hitting this mother in the face, squirming to get out of the clutches that held her. "Hi!" the young mother said, as if none of that was happening. I could tell she was trying her best to hide the desperation and fatigue so obvious in her voice. I can spot that kind of voice from a mile away. I used to have That Voice. It only comes out riding on the coattails of Feelings Of Inadequacy when one doesn't want to betray the truth of what they're actually feeling. But this woman sensed I could see right through her (my facial expressions always give me away). So she dropped the facade and asked: "Guada, does it get easier as they get older?"
This sweet, young mother looked at Sophia, who was then 4 years old, well-behaved, standing patiently and quietly by my side holding my hand, and I honestly debated how to answer her question. Should I lie to her and say that tantrums actually disappear the older they get? Or do I give her a glimpse of what my morning was like several hours prior when Sophia threatened to trade me in for a nicer mommy because I wouldn't allow her to wear her Cinderella-glass-high-heeled slippers to Sunday school?
I thought about it for a second and decided to respond as truthfully, but as vaguely, as I could because the margin for error is so vast when it comes to parenting. "No. It doesn't get 'easier', I say. "Every day is a different kind of hard." Hope left her face, and then I felt bad.
But it's true. The journey of parenthood (and step parenthood as Ross is now beginning to understand) is a road fraught with so much fear and anxiety. When Sophia was a newborn, I had to feed her every 3 hours on ZERO sleep. There is a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture in war! Every time she coughed, I thought it was a life-threatening illness. Every time she had an itch, I thought it was from a flesh-eating bacteria. The anxiety physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted me. But as much as parenthood is filled with all of that, I can honestly say that it is also filled with just as much, if not more, of joy, happiness, laughter, and a boat load of really, really proud moments.
Well, Sophia is no longer in diapers, and although she still eats every 3 hours, she raids the pantry and feeds herself, and is extremely independent. Always has been. But what are some of the issues she has to face at her age and beyond, in this modern world we live in? What do I have to worry about today as a parent?
Well, how about peer pressure? Eating disorders? Poor self-image? What is she exposed to when I'm not around? What images does she see? In this day and age of photoshopped Instagram posts, we are fooling ourselves if we think that what our daughters see on social media doesn't affect them. These issues are also among a few reasons why I don't go to the gym anymore.
During the years I did regularly go to the gym, I found myself slowly, but surely, becoming obsessed with the number on the body-fat-percentage-scale more than I was concerned about the fact that my health was suffering because by body fat was as low as it was. Working out became about what I looked like, not how healthy I wanted to become. It took countless therapy hours to reverse the damage the fitness environment did to my psyche and self-worth.
To this day, I have difficulty forgiving myself for that period of my life when I tied so much of my joy and identity to a stupid percentage. Shame still peeks out of me once in a while. I don't have a history of eating disorders and I don't have an addictive personality, but no sooner did I realize that I was becoming addicted to lifting and how vascular I wanted to look that I implemented unsustainable diet restrictions and did two-a-days at the gym just to see more veins in my arms and legs and another ab pop out. I came to a point where 10% wasn't good enough because women--- WOMEN??!!---around me were complaining they hadn't reached 7%! Food became my enemy, my family worried about me, and I no longer found it pleasurable to go to family functions because I was afraid that what I ate there would be a step back from all of my progress. Is health and fitness something I want Sophia to pursue? Of course! She is an active, hands-on participant in our family endeavor for health. She accompanies me to the grocery store; she helps Ross or I cook good, clean foods; we let her juice our fruits and vegetables in the Vitamix; and we take long walks to the park and play basketball together in an effort to continually stay active. No mirrors included and no need for heart rate monitors.
Think about it: I grew up in a loving, attentive, stable, 2-parent nuclear home, with a very strong Father figure, a great role model in my Mother, a very active spiritual life, all in an era where Instagram and Facebook didn't even exist, I was exposed to the gym culture as an adult and yet, I temporarily succumbed to struggling with my self-worth and almost lost my identity in the process. How much more resolve will Sophia need to live counter-culturally in today's world??? I ask myself sometimes if putting in the effort would even be worth it if Sophia at some point is going to make her own choices anyway no matter how normal, stable, and attentive Ross and I are. The answer is a resounding YES. It IS worth it. Because even though we can't help a lot of things, we should help the things we can when we can.
And then there's that issue about sex. Let us not deny the fact that the age of experimentation, according to many reputable reports, keeps getting younger and younger. I've read that sometimes it's as young as 7 years old. I'm trying to keep it real for you here. I had an anxiety attack just writing that sentence, and just so I can keep from having another one, I won't begin listing off the statistics I read in Bringing Up Girls, by James Dobson. They're shocking, but they're real.
So, what do I do as a parent to help Sophia keep her innocence for as long as she can? It is inevitable that she will grow up...but how can I prevent her from prematurely growing up before she is ready? How can I influence her towards dressing modestly when this current culture attributes strength, empowerment, attention, and beauty to those who barely wear any clothes? "Strong is the new sexy," says the yogi who uploads an Instagram-worthy video of herself doing difficult poses in a G-string bikini. Hey, don't dog me for saying that. I'm looking at this from a Mother's point of view, NOT from someone in the fitness industry. I want to teach my daughter that although strong can be sexy, "sexy" can also come in the form of intelligence, kindness, self-control, patience, listening well, empathy, love, and modesty----none of which requires the involvement of a G-string bikini nor a fitness facility, thank you very much.
I am mindful of the fact that when Sophia gets older and is more aware of cyber dangers and is well-educated on learning how to use the internet responsibly, she will eventually have social media accounts. And when she does, I wouldn't be surprised if she comes across pictures and articles that I have posted. I hope she sees strength...not skin. Children will seldom listen to what you say. But they will always listen to what you do.
I won't list the shocking stats in the book, but I will list some practical "To-Do's" that Dobson says may help foster strength, health, and confidence in young girls so that they turn into strong, healthy, and confident women. My biggest struggle now is that I only have Sophia half the time. Half the time means half the influence. Ross and I understand that we have to be that much more diligent. Some items on the list we have been doing naturally already. Others are new ideas for us to implement. Although I realize this list doesn't guarantee that Sophia will find it easy to navigate this crazy world that so covertly wages war against her self-image and innocence (though I pray that they help), I will rest on these truths: that God is in control, that I have a faith that helps to sustain me through the difficult stages of parenthood, I have help in Ross who is serious about his role as the spiritual leader of our soon-to-be household, and I have hope. And hope, sometimes, can make all the difference.
Parents, it is not our responsibility to stop others from doing what they want to do on their own social media platforms. Accept the fact that social media exists and people either use them well, or they use them poorly. We cannot police them. We also know we can't keep our daughters locked in a tower away from the world for fear of exposure. What we CAN do, however, starts around the dining table. Sure, I didn't grow up in a world that is driven by social media the way Sophia is----but the world I grew up in still exposed me to things that countered what my parents taught me. Doesn't every generation? My parents handed me a sense of responsibility and duty to not be like everybody else, to stand out in different ways. Yeah, sometimes I got funny looks, but Mom always said it was ok to be weird. Weird is good. I look back and realize that what my parents did for me was invaluable to my development as a young girl, as an adolescent, and as a woman. They were not afraid to challenge me, and any time they could sense that I was veering too close to the crowd and further away from the straight and narrow, they'd reel me back in, and they had every right to, because I was a kid! Through them, I learned that the harder thing to do is almost always probably the right thing to do.
So, suit up, parents. There is a covert war on our daughters and whether we like it or not, we are on that battlefield. You can either let the war take your child as prisoner, or you can arm yourselves and push back against it. Here are a few practical ways you can: (Chapter 10, Bringing Up Girls):
- Never, ever, make fun of her.
- Read to her often.
- Don't tolerate her temper tantrums. Not now. Not when she's 15. Your home will be more peaceful for this (Aside: sorry to the actor whose picture of his daughter throwing a tantrum in Whole Foods while he and his Dad looked on, laughing and "letting" her experience her emotions, went viral. I don't agree with you---and that's a blog post for another time).
- Keep her secrets. This way she will begin to trust.
- Praise her often. Let her know you love her the way she is. If you tell her this often enough she might remember it throughout adolescence.
- Make up stories to tell each other at night. Stretch her imagination.
- Surprise her by showing up at her school for lunch, bearing Happy Meals and Pizza.
- Dads/Stepdads: Never argue with her mom in front of her. As hard as it may be, walk away (the same is true the other way around. And that includes your Facebook posts. Don't trash your spouse or ex on social media platforms. It says a lot more about you than it does about them).
- Remember, society is teaching her its values 24/7. You need to be more determined to teach her yours.
- Never permit her to talk back rudely---or to anybody else, for that matter.
- Never laugh at her dreams.
- Don't miss a recital, concert, play or any other performance of hers. Not now. Not until she graduates.
- Encourage her to be kind. Even to the girl nobody likes.
- Make sure she can reach you 24 hours a day.
- Get to know her friends. Middle school marks the zenith of peer influence.
- Drive the carpool. You'll learn firsthand what she's doing each day.
- Talk to her often about decision-making and sex. About her peer pressure, about love, about romance, about God. You never know when it will be just the thing she needs to hear.
- When she's particularly angry, sit down with her and have her try to describe what's going on. Remember, the longer you listen, the more you'll learn.
- Remember---many girls look back on middle school as the worst time in their lives. Stay tuned; stay involved.
- Teach her how to be moral in an age that bombards her with sexual imagery and innuendo.
- Teach her to pray for her enemies. This could possibly include a rotating cast of classmates and ex-boyfriends.
- Teach her to treat each day as holy.
- Teach her that sometimes God has other plans.
- Teach her how to look a boy in the eye and say "NO"
- Do not tease her about boyfriends. She may not have one, and you might make her feel like she's supposed to.
- Teach her that if she acts stupid to attract boys, she'll attract stupid boys.
- Explain to her that there are dangerous boys as well as honorable ones, and how to tell the difference.
- If a boy pulls up and honks for her, go out and have words with him. Explain that your daughter answers to a doorbell.
- Be firm about maintaining family traditions.
- Take long walks with her.
- Teach her to respect herself.
- Tell her the three keys to wisdom: not believing all you hear, not spending all you have, not sleeping all you want.