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. 


Kathwick said...

Hi Sara. I saw this post while looking at your gingerbread house and had to respond. It's an issue I've thought a lot about and I hesitate to agree with much of the cultural conspiracy theories out there.

I was one of those children identified as intellectually gifted at a young age, and much was made of me throughout my academic career up until college - the label, the special classes, the leadership training camps, etc. I went to a prestigous liberal arts college. There, I became average.

It takes more than intellectual giftedness to be successful. It takes drive. It takes the ability to make one choice among the nearly limitless choices out there and singlemindedly pursuing that goal. It takes self discipline. I do not have those qualities to the same degree as I have intellect.

My goal in teaching my intellectually gifted daughter is teaching her how to make choices. Perhaps women have a harder time making choices than men do, pehaps we haven't had as much practice since only a generation ago our mothers saw their choices limited to teaching, nursing and parenting. And it's also true that there is contentment without material success. Perhaps that is a gift women have that men do not, that ability to find contentment in our lives as they are now.

Kathy Wickward

Sara said...

Thanks Kathy for reading my long post! And commenting!

Your comments echo what I learned in the book. That as girls, we need encouragement to fall in love with an idea and pursue it. And mentoring to support us in bringing our passion and knowledge into the professional world in a way that empowers us to bring our beloved ideas and ourselves to fulfillment.

I'd love to talk with you more about contentment. One of the things Kerr found gifted girls excelled at is adaptability. We quickly understand people and situations and adjust easily to them. She suggested that at times this skill undermined our ability/need to ride through discomfort and eventually reach our full potential.

As a very content homeschooling mom, I want to make sure I have a good grasp of what this means as I teach my girl. How do I know she is happy AND stretching forward into herself? How do I know I'm stretching forward in myself?


Katie & Max's Homeschool Blog said...

Hey Sara, I'm going to come back and make a list of all the amazing books you read and mentioned in your blog during the last two months. I just wanted to let you know that I was feeling a bit discouraged about homeschooling today and reading back through your NaNoBloMo posts has inspired and invigorated me. Thank you!

Melissa K.