• Educating Gender

Let’s Talk About … Girls

Guest Blogger: Tracey Schreier**

My four siblings and myself were born in the 1960s in Welkom, South Africa. Welkom was a dry, dusty and flat place in the conservative Orange Free State. Growing up, Welkom was safe, provincial and unsophisticated. My siblings and I would spend our days racing our bicycles around the dry dusty streets, playing ball games in our large garden with our friends, visiting the Drive-In to watch the latest flick and buying Bata tackies (sneakers) at the OK Bazaar. On our birthdays we would enjoy a special treat at Sno Haven. This was an old fashioned American styled drugstore with a real marble topped soda fountain and vinyl booths. We’d delight in tearing off one end of the paper-wrapped wax paper straws and blowing them in a graceful parabola onto each other’s coke float or banana split.

My parents, typical of parents of the 1960s, parented us in a vague and distracted way, a parenting style called ‘benign neglect’, which they’d perfected. With frightening frequency and predictability, they would carelessly execute so many violations and infractions of the “Keeping Your Children Safe” manual. These included, but were not limited to: allowing asbestos heaters in our bedrooms (which were in such disrepair you couldn’t help but sit for hours peeling the layers apart); being allowed to sit on your mother’s lap in the front seat of a car on really, really, long road trips; allowing us to cycle around the neighbourhood without a helmet (or shoes, or handlebars, or brakes); liberally sprinkle bright yellow MSG on deep fried chips/deep fried fish/deep fried chicken/deep fried everything; and piling five children into the backseat of a car, one forward, one back. 

With frightening frequency and predictability, they would carelessly execute so many violations and infractions of the “Keeping Your Children Safe” manual.

It’s astounding that we all survived our childhood, but we did and nothing went seriously wrong. Those were the good ole’ days. Today you have to wonder, as Bill Bryson, mused in The Lost Continent, on the question of which was worse, “to lead a life so boring that you are easily enchanted (as we were) or a life so full of stimulus that you are easily bored (as our children are).” We surrendered our childhood to ‘hide and seek’, ‘cops and robbers’ and ‘cowboys and indians’. We were left to our own devices to amuse ourselves.  In contrast our children have been left to their own devices too; they have surrendered their childhood to the rapacious greedy attention-seeking smart phones, tablets, computers and the Apps that ambush their lives and tenuous self-esteem.

Between the tsunami of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp our children have never been so connected. Today, for example, our children will log onto one of these sites and post their selfie - and their life - for all to see. They will then wait anxiously to see how many ‘likes’ they get, yoked to their phone, desperately looking at it every minute in the vain hope that their friends will turn out to be just that …friends ... and tap them an insouciant like. Selfies and social media are rife with contradictions and mixed messages: is it a way to take control or a way to be enslaved? Is it a way to be authentic or a way to fake it? 

Our children are bombarded with photoshopped images of carefully curated lives all punctuated with likes, comments and emojis. So they do the same. They filter out parents, school uniforms, homework, tears, pimples and acne. They adopt trite and grammarless language to comment (without realizing the irony: Your an idiot!) They assiduously read these comments, miscommunicated and misinterpreted. They spend endless hours posing, pinging and panicking. 

Selfies and social media are rife with contradictions and mixed messages: is it a way to take control or a way to be enslaved? Is it a way to be authentic or a way to fake it? 

We are seeing a major shift in the development of children (in particular girls) set within a capricious cultural environment and a technological revolution. Hello Kitty, an emblem of infantile feminine charm (plastered on stationery and lunch boxes everywhere) wears an oversized bow on her head. She embodies the Japanese concept of Kawaii: cuteness, vulnerability and helplessness and is incredibly popular. And, here’s the thing… she doesn’t even have a mouth! I find this, and her, appalling. 

So this is why it’s crucial that we educate our children (but especially our girls) much earlier, to ensure that they are getting high quality, age appropriate information about what is happening to them, the forces they are up against and develop the confidence and resilience to pass through life as assertively as possible or has the “assertiveness” movement sold us a male-defined value as ersatz feminism? Perhaps as Ruth Whippman opines, “instead of nagging women to scramble to meet the male standard, we should instead be training men and boys to aspire to women’s cultural norms, and selling those norms to men as both default and desirable. To be more deferential. To reflect and listen and apologize ... to aim for modesty and humility and cooperation rather than blowhard arrogance.” 

So perhaps we need to rethink educating all our children. But for today I would be satisfied with educating our girls to ride the vicissitudes of peer pressure and popularity. To educate them to present a united front, to champion each other and to have the  ‘assertiveness’ to instill the ethics and standards they want. 

My wish is that we teach our girls to continue to be creative yet disciplined, passionate yet prudent, strong yet vulnerable. To see the possibilities and to open them up confidently and compassionately to take on the world.


**Tracey Schreier is an educator from Sydney, Australia who is currently Principal of Hillel Hebrew Academy Middle School in Beverly Hills, CA. Tracey has worked in education for over 30 years and believes that each day has been a joy and privilege. 

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