Middle Matters: Guiding Gifted Girls Through the Middle School Maze (page 2)
"What in the world has happened to my daughter?" wonder many parents of early adolescent girls. They are puzzled by the rapid and confusing changes in the personality, academic achievement, friendships, school attitudes, and appearance of their female children. Especially dramatic in gifted girls, these changes may be a part of running away from intellectual and artistic pursuits into an identity as "cute," "popular," and "cool."
From a competitive, smart, accomplished, self-assured, "Supergirl"-like fourth grader, the sixth- or seventh-grade preteen girl is often moody and dissatisfied with herself. Conforming and passive at school, middle school girls may relinquish their prowess on the athletic field and in the classroom for membership in the right clique of girls, acceptance by the boys, and quiet mediocrity.
As the parent of a gifted daughter (now 21 years old), as a middle-school teacher for more than 20 years, and after working with gifted students for the last 14, I have realized that the gifted girl's painful transition through middle school may have a terrible cost, both for her personally and for all of us as a society if the potential contributions of these talented young women are lost.
ROOTS OF THE PROBLEMS
There are many reasons why these changes may occur. Gender stereotypes in the electronic and print media offer challenges to the healthy psychological development of gifted girls. We often see 11- and 12-year-olds switch from Ranger Rick and Discover to teen magazines where girls ogle over the few acceptable bodies and fashions the mainstream culture suggests are the feminine ideal. Rarely do articles in these magazines encourage academic excellence and achievement, dedicated artistic pursuits, or athletic determination (unless it's related to diet and weight loss).
Early adolescence seems to be a particularly critical time for gifted girls when the pressures to conform to this societal standard of "beauty" seem to be particularly intense. Some girls may choose to rebel in the opposite direction with body piercing, tattoos, shaved heads, and "grunge" or outlandish clothing.
Girls get mixed messages from our culture and our schools. On the one hand, we encourage them to achieve in programs that emphasize performance, mastery, test scores, and reaching specific academic and vocational goals. On the other hand, female psychological development tends to emphasize the value of relationships, nurturance, collaboration, and caring. Role conflict about being a "Superwoman" results, and girls (as well as women) aren't sure how to establish a healthy and productive balance between achievement and relationships, between collaboration and competition.
When Sheila was 13 she was an outstanding violinist, a talented writer, and a sensitive and perceptive young woman. Because she was also tall, thin, beautiful, and wore high-fashion clothes and make-up, she faced tremendous pressure to date (especially older boys), to look into a modeling career, and to be popular. If schoolwork was difficult or took a lot of time, she frequently remarked of herself that she's "not smart." When she succeeded, Sheila claimed the project was "easy" or that she made "lucky guesses." Between her appearance and her articulate and insightful conversation, many adults commented that she was "a 21-year-old woman in disguise." But she wasn't. She developed intense and problematic stomachaches. Sheila struggled to find what she wanted to do and be on her own. How could she strike a balance between her beauty, her talent, and her brains?
When they are successful, many adolescent girls attribute their accomplishments to outside forces (luck, "the teacher likes me," "it was easy") rather than to their own exceptional abilities or hard work. Girls are often likely to say they are not smart enough for their dream careers, deliberately underestimating their abilities in order to avoid being seen as physically unattractive or lacking in social competence.
A number of recent research studies on adolescent girls seem to agree that home and school experiences affect gifted females differently than gifted males. These studies have generated introspection and controversy in schools, work places, and families. In 1990, an American Association of University Women (AAUW) study described a self-esteem gap between young girls and adolescents. It showed how girls lower their expectations for themselves and have less self-confidence as they move from elementary school and through adolescence.
Sex differences in underachievement also first seem to emerge in middle school, grades 6-8. Many girls may lose interest, achievement, and participation in math and science, areas that are critical to many fast-growing occupational fields and high-prestige careers like engineering, technology, and medicine.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Association for Gifted Children. ©2008 National Association for Gifted Children.
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