Girls lose their sense of self before their teens, research shows


LOS ANGELES -- At 7 going on 8, Lacy Bird likes baseball and ballet and riding bikes with her best friend, Whitney. School is fun; reading is her best subject.

Boys are barely a blip on the radar screen.

And Lacy knows just what she wants to be when she grows up.

"I think about being a doctor and a waitress and a linguist," she says without hesitation.

The contradictions in the list don't make a difference to the suburban Simi Valley second-grader. It's what she wants and, for now, she believes she can have it.

Hang onto these memories -- life won't always be so sweet, says Emily Hancock, a psychologist whose work at Harvard University led to her book, "The Girl Within" (Fawcett; $10). The clear thought and solid sense of self present in 9-year-old girls often erode at adolescence, her book suggests.

At puberty, the girls swap their blue jeans for a skirt and their independence for a more clearly defined female role, Ms. Hancock says. In fact, the Berkeley resident says she believes a woman's best years may be over by the time she is 11 or 12 years old.

"Girls get buried. The loss of their sense of self doesn't depend on adolescence -- it happens before then," Ms. Hancock says. "As girls get bigger, they get taken out of the tree house and asked to come inside. You lose something essential when you're no longer an adventurer pursuing your own interests."

Ms. Hancock stumbled on her theory while researching grown vTC women's reactions to their own adult development. In studying 20 women, she found each participant's true identity emerged when she remembered who she had been at age 7, 8 or 9.

"By reaching back to the girl within, the women were on their way to reclaiming their independence," Ms. Hancock says. Once that girl is unearthed, Ms. Hancock believes, a woman can recover her true identity.

Independent research backs up the theory. A study by the American Association of University Women, a national organization of college students and graduates that promotes equity in education for women and girls, found girls' self-esteem erodes dramatically between fourth grade, when they are 8 or 9, and the time they enter junior high school.

"AAUW did a study in the fall of 1990 . . . showing that girls' self-esteem drops off two times as much as boys' in adolescence," says Sharon Schuster, president of the organization. "Boys' self-esteem falls off some, but not nearly as much as the girls'."

The information parallels prior findings in the organization's acclaimed study about how girls fare in American classrooms. According to that study, girls receive significantly less attention from classroom teachers than do boys.

Boys in elementary and middle school call out answers eight times more often than girls, the study found. When boys called out answers, teachers listened. When girls did the same, the were told to raise their hands if they wanted to speak.

"It's still happening," Ms. Schuster says. "Not purposely, but even where teachers want to be very fair to boys and girls and are trying to do the right thing, they are still caught in the same traps."

Cindy Tenn, a part-time bilingual education teacher at Camillia Avenue Elementary School in North Hollywood, said she often hears teachers talk about "these darling little girls who come dressed so neatly and want to help clean up and sit quietly and don't talk in class."

Favoring the quiet and passive girl sends all girls the wrong message, Ms. Tenn says. She also remembers seeing a science teacher prepare for a lesson by ranging the boys in a semi-circle around his chair, then placing the girls in a second circle outside the boys.

"He geared the lesson to the boys, and the girls sat outside the circle and completely lost interest," Ms. Tenn says.

Research about the girl within is important, but some sociologists warn that studies must take into account race, ethnicity and class.

The AAUW study about girls in the classroom points out that, while white girls are often ignored in favor of boys, girls of color become nearly invisible. African-American girls in the study had fewer interactions with teachers than white girls, despite the fact they tried to ask questions and enter discussions more often.

In addition, when African-American girls did as well as white boys in school, teachers would admit the girls worked hard, but would also say the boys were not working up to their potential.

Chalmer E. Thompson, assistant professor of counseling and educational psychology at the University of Southern California, agrees race and class issues must take their place next to questions of gender. As an African-American woman, she experienced first-hand the contradictions girls of color feel growing up in a white society.

"One of the pervasive comments about a lot of feminist literature that black women and other women of color have been raising is that the role of sexism is seen as the major breaking point among women and that issues of racism and classism don't seem to enter into the equation," Ms. Thompson said. "These issues all need to be taken into context in order to get an accurate cultural perspective."

The sheer force of television, film, newspaper and magazines, whose images of glamour and beauty center on white culture, make growing up more difficult for women of color, she said.

Once race, class and ethnicity are added into the equation, however, most professionals agree that the emerging evidence that women harbor a strong and positive "girl within" is important.

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