Is there anyone among us who would mind being thought of as cool? I tend to doubt it. We may not think about being cool as a commodity, but it has definite value in our world. Being cool seems to make one a more desirable friend or partner. Cool even hints at the prospect of fame. In the minds of many kids, being cool is something akin toimpressive notoriety. (Aren’t most famous people cool in some way?) Maybe this is why coveting coolness starts so early in kids’ lives; the average five year-old uses the term “cool” broadly and routinely.
Although being cool is important to both boys and girls, as children get older the freedom to pursue cool is notably constrained for girls. Many otherwise cool girls suddenly go underground, or at least their coolness does. It’s a social scandal – and I know that plenty of you agree! In this newsletter let’s explore the double-standard of cool or, more specifically, why the pursuit of coolness has a limited window of opportunity for girls.
Wait a minute – is the right to be cool really very important? You bet it is – because the freedom to be cool (or at least try to be) is tantamount to the right to pursue a culturally relevant form of distinction that continues to thrive at least through middle-age!
Of course it’s difficult to write about “cool” without clarifying what this elusively compelling term means. Although a definition of cool is hard to pin down, most feel like we know it when we see it. It could include attributes of awesome, smart, tough, different, brave, talented, strong, witty, attractive, unafraid, aloof, or sexy – to name only some associations.
Yet underlying these various ideas is one unifying quality that is at the heart of gender inequity when it comes to cool. Being cool suggests that on whatever terms, a person is free to go his or her own way. Perhaps that is why our concept of cool is so intertwined with rebellion. The key idea is that being cool usually involves a high degree of independent mindedness, a willingness to take chances, and courage to make the judgment of others secondary to what feels right to oneself.
One reason that some girls may choose to associate with “dangerous boys” is the opportunity to be cool by association. “Maybe I can’t be the leader/risk- taker/individualist, but I can date him.” Don’t believe me? Think about our cultural perception of a girl on a Harley-Davidson – when she’s driving, and when she’s the passenger.
The Attraction Economy
Have you ever wondered why so many thirteen year old girls seem to feel downright miserable? This may partly be the hormonal effects of puberty, but the psychological issues go far deeper than that. Girls are being pushed through an identity transformation that requires them to appropriate a new ego-ideal – a new idealization about who they should be. It’s no revelation that the emerging ego-ideal is primarily concerned with attracting the interest of prospective partners. While several years earlier girls might have enjoyed testing a wide range of skills against those of peers (boys included), now, they may sense pressure to suppress the expression of those skills in the interest of attracting male attention. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the primary sanctioned form of cool for many adolescent girls is “sexy cool.”
Since the genetic playing field is inherently unfair with respect to the attainment of this type of cool, it seems certain that many girls will find themselves shortchanged by the attraction economy of adolescence. Do girls get angry at the social and cultural forces that shape this reality? No – too often they get angry at themselves for not being/looking “ideal.” They loathe their bodies for not conforming to perfection, and they obsess about how they compare with other girls. Relentless comparison wears girls down, causing them to think of themselves less as individuals than as an approximation of some sort of girl ideal. I don’t have a daughter, but I can certainly empathize with the frustration and helplessness many parents feel as they watch this process unfold.
(Incidentally, the extraordinary popularity of Hannah Montana, at least in the U.S., reflects how eager girls are to identify with a more attainable ideal. As I understand it, Hannah looks more like a regular kid than most media icons, and she is portrayed as being involved with the normal pursuits of kids her age (along with being a music star). I’m not sure who we should thank for this – the media that “created” her, or the girls who appreciate her.)
A cycle of critical self-obsession extracts a huge toll on the psyche of many girls. The effects are evident in virtually all middle and high schools. Should we be surprised that so many writers have explored the phenomenon of “mean girls?” What if we understood that “meanness” as a sublimation for deep feelings of frustration about having been cast in a competition where the prospects for winning seem bleak? Disenfranchised groups commonly carry out their hostility on one another, rather than directing it at those more responsible for putting them in a one- down position. And why not? When something as diffuse as culture or media is to blame, where exactly is the target?
Along the same lines, what if we interpreted the rancorous contempt many adolescent girls voice toward their mothers as an expression of anxious rage that “you don’t remember just how much is at stake.” On some tragic level, maybe these kids are right – we don’t remember, or at least we don’t want to believe the attraction economy is real. We don’t want to believe that the entire landscape of a girl’s esteem may feel as though it is tethered to making themselves “ideal.” If so, a reality check is in order – the current #1 New York Times Advice Bestseller is Skinny Bitch. I guess some habits – like envy, obsessive comparison, and self-loathing – die hard!
Media: Influence, Reflection, or Both?
The essence of the double-standard of cool is that boys have more opportunity to pursue cool status on their own terms. They can be more autonomous, deciding for themselves which dimension of cool is the best fit for their identity. Girls, on the other hand, face a much more dependent road to cool – the approval of others. This is exactly why girls learn to look carefully at how other girls are seen at a very young age. Magazines discuss and illustrate exactly how to go about this self- analysis; such articles often include checklists. As a result, girls invest themselves at becoming experts at scrutinizing every detail of personal appearance, searching hard to detect the subtle nuances of the attraction economy. The obvious subtext – pay attention to what helikes, it will make you feel better, more confident. Talk about a headgame – whew! Unfortunately, becoming expert at emulating the code of the attraction economy only moves a girl into a deeper state of dependence, where her value grows from the assessment of others rather than from more assertive acts of self-definition.
I get as upset about the powerful influence of media as anybody else, but recognize that reality should be the beginning, rather than an end, to discussing the plight of girls. Excuse my irritation but in my view, the American Psychological Association has really come up short in analyzing this issue. A major Task Force report released in February, 2007, concluded that the sexualization of girls (in advertising, merchandising, and the media) is linked with mental health problems in girls and women (eating disorders, low self- esteem, and depression). Did we need a task force to confirm this? I assumed that was the one part of the equation that was already clear. It’s not my intention to sound glib, it’s just that I’m impatient for the next step – suggestions?
If we have any hope of containing or shaping the extraordinary power of media I think we have to first consider where it gets its power. Overall, the media is a relatively amoral entity with a singular interest – profit. Could it be that the media is less interested in shaping the minds and values of girls than reflecting them? After all, advertisers want to date consumers, and they’ll do whatever they have to do to get asked out. If the scenario I’m suggesting bears any resemblance to reality, then the change we hope for must come from girls themselves – asserting a different set of values – which the media will inevitably assimilate in the interest of sustaining profits.
Ultimately, girls are the primary shareholders in the attraction economy.
One observation that makes me feel hopeful is that some girls remain intent on expressing their individual strengths despite the social dynamics of adolescence. For example, girls who get involved in sports obviously enjoy competition that tests their speed, strength, and agility. And they definitely want us to notice their investment in these activities. Have you noticed the pride many kids feel when they wear a conspicuous cast or brace due to a sports injury? Maybe I have this wrong, but my instincts as a psychologist tell me that in addition to the medical benefits of such gear, it provides girls with a visible symbol of their grit. Could braces and casts be the badges of girls’ gladiatorial pursuits? At the very least, such therapeutic aids serve as personal symbols associated with bravado and risk-taking.
Sports are, in general, a valuable opportunity for girls because they represent one of the few socially sanctioned opportunities for girls to feel and act aggressively. In this way, sports feed a healthy degree of narcissism. We may be accustomed to thinking of narcissism as negative, but where adolescents are concerned, a degree of it is an essential ingredient in building confidence and finding oneself in the world. To an extent, narcissism can also be a protective buffer from the slings and arrows that pervade adolescent interaction. We adults like to think our kids will resist negative peer pressure by thinking about what we have taught them. But another necessary ingredient in standing up to peer pressure is a strong, confident sense of oneself as an individual – the very attribute that is the common denominator of cool.
If, as I’m suggesting, the attraction economy underlies the double standard of cool, then we as adults will need to meet that conflict head-on; not by moralizing, but by empathizing. This is tough because, truth be told, most of us are at least a little intimidated by the emotional turbulence of teens. We back away at precisely the moment we should pursue closeness. If we really want to offer girls viable alternatives, then we first have to acknowledge the omnipotence of the attraction economy. Our success will likely have less to do with conquering that value system than helping girls understand that a full life can include more than one plot line. I hope we’ll never stop trying to help girls write the stories of their own lives. Now that would be cool.
New Research on ADHD
Many of you may have seen reports of the study, completed jointly by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and McGill University, about the effects of ADHD on children’s brain development and learning. Many newspapers covered the study, which essentially found that children diagnosed with ADHD have brains that develop more slowly (in some respects) than peers, but which eventually catch up. According to the study’s authors, this explains why kids grow out of the need for psychostimulant medication as they reach adolescence.
These findings are consistent with UCLA’s neuroimaging research, and I would venture to say they are also consistent with the clinical observations of doctors and therapists. This is also precisely the point I try to make in No Mind Left Behind when I discuss “Who Locked the Wiggle Room?” For decades, children and families counted on “wiggle room” for kids whose prefrontal cortices needed a little more time to develop. Performance mandates like No Child Left Behind in the U.S. have made such wiggle room increasingly hard to accommodate – but no less necessary.
My greatest concern about this study, however, is that some of us may be lulled into complacency. Although a child’s brain will do some catching up on its own, there is so much that educators and parents can do to take advantage of what is most certainly a limited window of opportunity. I have written extensively on this issue, including what we can do to behaviorally immunize kids for what is erroneously called ADHD, rather than what it really is – executive dysfunction.
(On a related note, I am offering a new program called“The Executive Teacher” which addresses the process of building executive thinking skills in great depth. This program was developed in response to requests for additional training from schools where I presented “Building the Eight Pillars of Capable Young Minds.” Detailed program content for “The Executive Teacher” will be posted on this website in the near future.)
Q. My seven year-old son has a great vocabulary that makes us very proud of him. Unfortunately, no one but my husband and I know it. He refuses to speak up at family gatherings, and we hear he only says the bare minimum at school. Do you think he’s just shy, or is there something else we should be concerned about. Thank you very much. Melanie M., Leominster, MA
Your instinct that your son is shy feels right to me. Many kids, especially boys your sons age, can be a little embarrassed by the sound of their own voices. The comfort that he seems to feel at home is hard to duplicate in more public settings. As school progresses, you should get reports that he is more willing to communicate. If that doesn’t happen, I wouldn’t hesitate to consult with his teacher, and possibly a professional. If the problem is affecting his academic performance or peer relations, it might also be useful to work on some rehearsal strategies with your son, giving him a chance to practice what he will say in school or at family gatherings. Also, counterintuitive as it may seem, an acting class could be quite useful if it is facilitated in a supportive way.
Q. This my sound like a crazy question but how do you determine if an 11 year old boy (5th grade) has ADHD? When he was 6 months old I nicknamed him dangerboy and it has proven true, time and time again. In third grade I noticed a shift from the physical insanity to a mental (school & homework) disorganization. He can’t seem to focus or finish anything without my intervention. I have let him deal with the consequences at school many times, but this does not phase him. I filled out an Connors scale and his teachers are doing so right now. I guess my question is; am I on the right track or am I over reacting? Thanks for your time. Lori C., East Greenville, PA
First, to meet the criteria for diagnosis of ADHD, relevant symptoms have to be present by age seven. It sounds as though that is the case for your son. I think you are on the right track by seeking rating scales from people who have observed your son in different settings. Still, that’s only a first step. Note the recent findings described above in What’s News – it may be the case that your son’s brain needs some additional time to mature. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do whatever you can now to help him along.
The single most significant risk for boys your son’s age is that they will develop a poor academic self-concept (basically, they lose faith in themselves as students, becoming less and less interested in school). This may be what you are observing in your own son when you say that consequences don’t phase him. However, you might also have a boy with a highly kinesthetic learning style – he learns through his hands much more easily than through his eyes or ears. Many kinesthetically-oriented boys get labeled with ADHD. Although they might meet the diagnostic criteria, the diagnosis misses the mark with respect to the core problem. It would probably be well worth your time to pursue a comprehensive, formal evaluation for your son. This should include a more objective test of attention and impulse control – my favorite is TOVA. Your son has many years of schooling to go, and it will be important for his teachers to better understand his learning strengths and challenges.