Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Two Smart Girls

As a mother, I know I'm programmed to find my daughter delightful, talented and wonderful in every way.  And yet even acknowledging the mommy-bias, sometimes the things Rosie can do takes my breath away.  How can she know and do X or Y at this early age? 

We've had a string of those moments recently, so off to the library I went and came home with Barbara Kerr's book Smart Girls, Two: A New Psychology of Girls, Women and Giftedness.  I was compelled by the editorial review on Amazon.

Why do talented, gifted girls so often fail to realize their potential as they reach adolescence and adulthood? This outstanding book explores this question and offers practical advice to parents, teachers, and policy-makers about ways to help gifted girls continue to grow and succeed.

Dr. Kerr also presents current research on gifted girls; summarizes biographies about eminent women, their lives, and achievements; and examines the current educational and family environment.

Kerr was part of the groups of students in St. Louis identified as Leader Of Tomorrow during the post-Sputnik frenzy to catch up with the Soviets in the 1960's. They were bussed off to a special school and given all the best education known at the time.  Ten years after high school graduation, Kerr was cornered by several of her female classmates at their reunion and essentially commanded to figure out why they were nurses, teachers and homemakers.  Instead of the Leader Of Tomorrow they were regular women, living lives no different than their more intellectually common counterparts.  What had happened?

I settled into my comfy chair, ready to learn the best ways to identify my daughter's giftedness and support her in reaching the fullness of her abilities.  By page 8, I had been sucked out of the role of Mommy and was deeply lost in questioning what about ME?  Had I been a gifted girl? Why hadn't I been identified and supported as such?  What about my adult life? What does how I have spent my "professional" days say about me and our culture?  If it turns out I am smart, what sort of responsibility do I have to myself and our community in the use of my brains?

Reading through the first chapters of the book, it became clear to me that I was (and am) indeed a gifted child.  Pushing farther along in the chapters, I reached a much greater understanding of the discounts heaped upon me as I grew.  Cultural, purposeful and accidental dismissal of my abilities and talents came to mind and took my breath away.  There were many times I had to put the book down and go for a walk or scribble madly in my journal. The book evoked anger for how I was minimized as a girl and young woman, but also lots of fear for who I am today and who I will be in the next 20 years.

As I work through all these personal questions Kerr's information elicited, I return to my original purpose: what can I do to fully see and support who Rosie is, can and wants to be?

Here are some of Kerr's main recommendations:
  • Time alone: girls need swaths of time alone to think and dream
  • Mentors: all women (and men) who achieve to the top of their fields have mentors who guide and support them along the way, introducing them into the circles that draw them upwards.  Virtually none of the "average" achieving women followed had mentors during their schooling and early work years. We need to teach our girls the importance of mentors and help them find them!
  • Same sex education, especially high school and college.  As it turns out our "culture of romance" is poison to the smart girls potential.  Messages that turn adolescent girls' focus from capability and achievement to beauty and relationship essentially stop them dead in their intellectual tracks.  Same sex schools not only remove much of the romantic focus from girls' daily routines, but also provide many more opportunities for mentoring and modeling by self-actualized women.
  • Voracious reading of anything and everything
  • Rejection of gender limitations
  • Strong sense of self: My interpretation of this is that we need to grow young women who are deeply healthy and strong emotionally.  They need to know who they are, and who they aren't and take responsibility for themselves.  They need to be practiced at knowing and expressing what they want and need.  Our girls need to be willing to "grow thorns" and say what they mean, not be driven to always be compliant and kind. And they need to be able to hold onto themselves as they enter relationships, not losing their "I" to the "We," both in personal and community situations.
As a mom and a homeschooler, this list seems doable to me.  The community around me seems to understand and support most of these points. 

As an adult woman, I feel my next steps are much more unclear.  While the book helped me resolve some of my questions, it has left me with many ideas to ponder.  Here are a few of the key items I'm currently pondering. 
  • Definitions of successful - Kerr does a lovely job of expressing her concerns about using job status and salary as measures of success.  As a researcher, she does in the end come up against the truth that no has yet figured out a way to measure a woman's level of performance and achievements as mother or homemaker.  I find myself wondering how I define my own success for both of these jobs as well as homeschool teacher.
  • Self-actualization - Kerr uses Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to help her approach the idea of successful people and for defining her terms. In a book that focuses on the high achievement of gifted girls, it makes sense to keep a careful eye on self-actualization as opposed to just outward success.  I really admire how Kerr handled this section of the book, for both her treatments of definition of success and self-actualization.  She concludes that self-actualization (achieving one's highest potential in a given vocation) is not optional for gifted women, carefully opening up the definition of vocation to include essentially any idea a woman could fall in love with and pursue. What really struck me about her point of view is that she sees actualization as essential not just for us as individuals, but for our society as a whole.  
  • The "false" choice - career vs. family.  My mental gears are really churning on this one.  According to the book, "integrators" who have both a career and families rate happiest among all women.  Kerr posits that these women have simultaneously fulfilling and thriving careers and healthy, thriving children.  Steeped in the doctrine of attachment parenting and homeschooling these past 8 years, I'm not sure I see her numbers adding up.  Also, counting among my close friends single career women, integrators and stay at home moms, I'm not sure I can tag just one group as "happy."  But I'm open to the idea...
  • 14 year olds and 40 year olds.  Studies show that self-esteem drops sharply for girls right around the age of 14.  It continues low until women reach 40 and then self-esteem returns to high levels.   Kerr has satisfying explanations for both sides of the equation.  Coming up on my 40th birthday, I'm fascinated by this trend.  Mostly what an improved level of self-esteem and greater drive for self-actualization might look like in my life over the next 10 years. As a missed smart girl, is it still possible for me to self-actualize as I reach mid-life or is it too late?
For centuries highly intelligent and capable girls have, for the most part, been overlooked. Now as the tide is beginning to change, Kerr's Smart Girls encourages us to understand how women have been intellectually minimized and distracted over the years and gives us a list of tools to bring our girls up intact and focused.  If you think you are parenting one of these young women, I encourage you to get the book and read it cover to cover. Then meet me for coffee so we can talk it all over. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Best Thing to do with Your Treadmill

Lengths of Happiness

I have many flavors of clothing angst.  One of them is tights.   

I love to wear skirts.  I hate to be cold.  And I hate to be uncomfortable.

Now, if you live in the Pacific Northwest and you like skirts and you hate to be cold, wearing tights is a great solution.  However, if you have very long legs and hate to be uncomfortable, wearing tights is a deplorable thing.  Because most tights are made, as far as I can tell, for women 5' 5" and shorter. I don't know how you feel walking around with the crotch of your tights twisting around your knees, but I despise it. Really.

Once, in college, I found some tights that fit me.  I think I wore them 250 days a year for 3 years.  Then they died.  I've been in mourning ever since.  Come September each year, I spend weeks searching for heave weight tights in tall sizes.

Last week, the feet gods smiled upon me and I learned that Hue makes super opaque tights, up to size 4 (which is the size after 5'5").  Then they cruelly laughed and sold out the entire year's production run before I could make it home to my internet browser.  Fie!

Through some truly last gasp random google search, I learned that super opaque tights should measure at least 90 denier.  (Wikipedia tells me that denier is a unit of measurement of linear density of textile fiber mass.  I'm assuming you knitters were keeping this information from the rest of us?)  Suddenly, I'm able to sift the WWW for quality tights and along comes  

If you love beautiful socks and tights and long for quality upon your feet, you have to check it out.  If you have long legs, you doubly have to check it out.  I almost had a crisis trying to choose between the cotton-lined wool Danish lovelies and the EG Smith "world's most comfortable cotton suplex" wonders.

Now, if I could just find the right boots to go with my skirt....

Monday, September 1, 2008

Marching Orders from The Opposed

I am often looking for succinct and clear statements of my goals.  Today, I found one from a surprising source.

Ebony Magazine has a monthly column called "Two Sides" in which two experts debate opposing sides of an issue. The September 2008 issue's topic is "Should Black children only be adopted by Black parents?" After a week of avoidance, I finally read it.  Gloria Batiste-Roberts, president of the National Association of Black Social Workers, spoke for the opposing side. Historically, the NABSW has been deeply opposed to transracial adoption. Thus, I was guarded as I began reading her essay, mostly feeling afraid that her argument would shake my own faith in my ability to parent my daughter.

Being ambivalent about the overall merits of transracial adoption, I found myself agreeing with her point of view.  Her concerns were carefully enumerated and clearly put, they echoed everything I've read and heard from adult adoptees.  About 3 paragraphs in, I found myself vigorously nodding in agreement with her.  

Partway through the essay, she quotes former NABSW president, Dr. Morris FX Jeff Jr.
Love is not enough to give a child a sense of belonging, to hold him safe against the experiences of isolation and alienation, of feeling adrift without a sense of anchor in the world.  Love is necessary, but it is not sufficient.  Children must be equipped, empowered with the arsenal of their cultural traditions and heritage to protect and shield them  so that the seeds of love will have a chance to survive and flourish in self-esteem, self-respect, racial identity and self-protection without denial of the gifts of race and color God has so purposefully bestowed upon them.
This a statement that is so powerful and clear for me, I'd like to hold it as my mission statement for my parenting.

Almost equally surprising to me was my response to the supportive argument for transracial adoption.  Written by Gordon Johnson, founder of a Florida based foster care agency, I found his essay unconvincing.  His main idea, that "above all else, a child needs a loving, permanent home" did not address the issues of transracial parenting or problems of bias and white privilege in the adoption/foster care system.  At some point, the essay seemed to veer from the topic at hand becoming a sales pitch for how successful his "One Church One Child" adoptive parent recruitment had become.

His essay that essentially supports the make-up of our family left me feeling concerned that once again, those who are supposed to be looking out for the welfare of our youngest ones, are so focused on creating well-known programs that they completely lose sight of the needs that must be met for true success to occur.  

Raising children is a perilous endeavor, with another being's sense of self and belonging hanging in the brink based on our choices as parents. Race adds an additional weight to the failure side of the scale for parents of color - how can those of us barely aware of the effects of race in our daily lives give our children the tools they need to navigate the day?  I find myself thanking outspoken critics such as Batiste-Roberts for being my greatest allies, helping me become the best I can be, with hope that their honest words and clear thinking point me in the direction of health and happiness for my child.