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Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters

By JoAnn Deak

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ISBN 10: 0786886579
ISBN 13: 978-0786886579
304 pages

Girls Will Be Girls offers a comprehensive road map to the many emotional and physical challenges girls ages six to sixteen face in today’s changing world. Author JoAnn Deak looks past the “scare” stories to those that enlighten parents and enable them to empower their daughters.

In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher told us about the problems girls face. Now, in Girls Will Be Girls, JoAnn Deak gives us the solutions. In a work that’s as relevant and important as Raising Cain, Deak offers a comprehensive road map to the many emotional and physical challenges girls ages six to sixteen face in today’s challenging world.

Renowned for her knowledge of what makes girls tick, Dr. Deak brings together stories and lessons from more than 20 years as a school psychologist and principal, and introduces original concepts as a framework to help parents better understand their daughters, such as:

  • The Strudel Theory — building a life with layers of experience
  • Crucible Moments – the accumulating impact of the “little things”
  • Negotiating the Gray — using discussion and action to guide girls through the often chaotic and ambiguous challenges of physical, social, and emotional growth

Deak looks past the “scare” stories to those that enlighten parents and enable them to empower girls. She draws from the latest brain research on girls to illustrate the exciting new ways in which we can help our daughters learn and thrive. Most telling of all, she gives us the voices of girls themselves as they struggle with body image, self-esteem, intellectual growth, peer pressure, and media messages. The result is a masterly book that addresses the key issues for girls growing up; one that fulfills a desperate need for clear guiding principles to help mothers, fathers, and their daughters navigate this chaotic contemporary culture.


“A highly readable, and well worth your time.”

“Offers a wealth of practical advice.”

“Girls Will Be Girls offers parents humor, understanding, parenting philosophy, and well-founded pearls of wisdom. It is a satisfying and delicious read.”
–Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D., coauthor of Raising Cain

“I wish this book had been around back when I was a girl. And I sure wish it had been around when my daughter was a girl. There’s real wisdom between these covers. Do yourself a favor. Buy one copy for yourself (or your mother), and another to save for when your daughter is mother to a daughter.”
–Linda Ellerbee

“As the largest informal education organization for girls in the world, we concur with Dr. Deaks insightful treatise on raising confident and competent girls. I encourage parents, guardians and anyone who works with girls to read this book.”
–Marsha Johnson Evans, National Executive Director, Girls Scouts of the USA

Girls Will Be Girls is a must-read for every parent! It provides thoughtful advice that will enrich your relationship with your daughter and help you enjoy the complex challenge of raising a strong and resilient person — one who can discover for herself the power of the words ‘I can.’ ”
–Frances A. Rubacha, Board Chair, Outward Bound USA

“Full of compelling insights about raising great girls. Parents who buy this book will raise girls who have the strength of character to withstand anything that life throws at them. By focusing on ‘crucible events,’ Deak and Barker give parents an exceptionally useful tool for understanding girls’ development.”
–Dan Kindlon, author of Too Much of A Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age and co-author of Raising Cain

“JoAnn Deak’s Girls Will Be Girls is right on the mark. She celebrates girls, and has a keen understanding of their intellectual, physical, and emotional lives. Cultivating competence, confidence, and connections is the bottom line . . . of ” important new book.”
–Meg Milne Moulton and Whitney Ransome, Executive Directors, national Coalition of Girl’s Schools


Most of us get one childhood to remember. I got two.

There was the picture-perfect one of my family: a mother and father very much in love, very loving parents to my older brother and me. We lived in a little town in the Midwest. My mother never worked outside of the home, but instead spent her days driving a station wagon, taking us, and all the neighborhood kids that could fit, to the public pool, the playground, and town. We even had a collie! That was my first childhood. It lasted fourteen years.

On a beautiful spring evening the Sunday before Easter of my freshman year of high school, my father suffered a fatal heart attack. Thus began my second life as a girl growing up, a life that began with an adolescence transformed literally overnight from a girlhood dream to a nightmare of loss and a new, bittersweet appreciation of life’s nuances. Everything about my life changed, and with those changes came a heightened awareness of the gendered experience of everyday life for girls and women.

After my father’s death, I watched my mother go to work in a factory; she was one of the few women there in the early 1960s. Since my brother was at college, I needed to get my driver’s license as soon as possible because my mother worked the afternoon shift and was no longer there to drive me anywhere. An adolescent girl who drove herself to school, appointments, high school football games? I was not the only one, but — like my mother — I was one of just a few. What surprised and intrigued me the most was the way the rest of the world responded to the changes in our lives. My mother’s best friend would become jealous when her husband came over to help my mother start the lawn mower. I proved quite able in my new life, yet without my father’s enthusiastic endorsement, I felt smart but uncertain, more sensitive to what others thought, what others suggested, and what others assumed about me.

This second childhood was to become a particularly defining one for me for reasons that I would fully understand only later through my work as a child psychologist with girls. My father’s death was for me a crucible event, a moment in which everything I knew and felt and was was put to a test. It was a trial by fire, and one through which I might emerge more fragile or more strong, or perhaps both. But whatever the outcome, I was changed. Without thinking consciously about it at the time, I’ve always separated my life into two parts: before and after my father died.

Subsequently, in my work with children and adults my sense of crucible events as the catalyst for emotional growth and development became a useful tool in helping others see the effects of life events on their own emotional development and their relationships with others. Through this lens of crucible events it is possible to get a better view of the inner life of girls. This I know from my work, and from my own personal experiences of moving from my family home out into the world. I would forever feel a particular empathy toward girls’ emotional experience, and a strong desire to make sense of it for parents, educators, and girls themselves. But first I had to navigate those waters for myself, and it was a slow, deliberate journey.

My love of science and people drew me first to pursue an education in nursing, but I soon shifted my focus to teaching, earned my degree, and got the job. By my second year of teaching, when I couldn’t figure out how to reach and teach some of my students, I took a day off to visit the nearest university, Kent State, to see which graduate courses were available to help me understand how the human brain worked. A serendipitous meeting and the discovery of an exciting doctoral program in preventive psychology prompted me to resign from teaching to resume my own education. With my Ph.D., I established a private practice and started a company with three other colleagues developing preventive psychological programs for schools. Soon one of our clients, the director of Laurel School, recruited me to serve as the staff school psychologist, a position I agreed to take for one year while we assessed their needs.

The next year Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, and her Harvard crew wanted to do a landmark study at the school. I had taken a course from her at Harvard; she now asked me to be an in-house interviewer for the next six years. How could I pass up the opportunity? I stayed on.

After the Laurel/Harvard study was completed, someone had to go to other schools and conferences to share what we had learned. Carol Gilligan was moving on to other studies and was too busy. Thus began my life as a gender expert. Laurel School graciously allowed me to take several days each year to do this. By now I was also experiencing the joys of being an administrator, having become director of the middle, primary, and early childhood divisions through another instance of serendipity. The previous director resigned in April one year, and the school was in chaos. What better person than the school psychologist to fill in the gap? It would only be temporary, the head of the school assured me. Well, it wasn’t, exactly. Five years later, because of my speaking engagements around the country, and a growing list of requests for me to present gender equity workshops for parents, teachers, administrators, and students (girls and boys), I was asked by the National Association of Independent Schools to be on a national committee for women in independent schools. My already crowded calendar of speaking engagements and the growing demand for my gender equity workshops made my next career step clear: I became a full-time consultant, working year-round with schools, parent and teacher organizations, and students themselves in the United States and abroad.

Early in my career as a psychologist, after teaching for several years and then interning in a variety of settings, and with a variety of clients, from the very young to the very old, it was clear to me that for many clients, treatment was long, expensive, painful, and often ineffective. Being the idealist that I am, my core philosophy fit with the philosophy of prevention, and that is where I turned my attention as a specialist.

Preventive psychology is at the other end of the spectrum from the kind of private practice work most people envision when they think of a psychologist or therapist. I do counsel individual children and their families privately, but most of my time is devoted to what we call primary prevention. I evaluate factors in schools or families that cause mental health or learning issues and work to fix them, eliminate them, or modify an environment so those factors don’t exist. As a public speaker and a consultant, I work with schools and communities around the country, conducting workshops for parents and teachers who want to create schools and families where children can thrive, and speaking with students about their concerns or issues of the day. My life and career have thrived in ways I would never have imagined in earlier years. I have made my way as many women do: on the winds of my intuition, a perfect model of affiliation motivation, influenced by people, connections, and gut feelings.

Wherever I go, I generally find thoughtful, caring, determined parents and school staff with a lot in common. They typically have high ideals, a desire for clarity, and a willingness to work at making their schools and homes places that support healthy development for girls. Parents always want to know in general how to be a good parent. Teachers want to be the one a student remembers fondly thirty years later.

But often, it is problems, issues, and concerns that motivate many of us to seek help, listen, and try to do something different. Sometimes it takes a problem to get everyone’s attention, and then the task is twofold: Find a way to solve the problem and find a way to change conditions so it doesn’t happen again. In these circumstances, I often encounter an undercurrent of fear, sometimes a kind of siege mentality, that prompts adults to respond to unwanted challenge by clamping down, nipping it in the bud. The prevailing attitude in that setting is that challenge or change are threatening and have to be quashed. It never works. Not for long, anyway. Not in families and not in schools. Not in politics or government. Not in nature. Growth requires change; how we fare with it depends on how we respond to it.

Girls face an extraordinary challenge in our changing world. They are dealing with more sophisticated issues than ever before, and they are doing so with less adult contact and guidance than ever before. Statistics tell the story of a population at risk both physically and emotionally: One in four girls shows signs of depression. Compared to males, twice as many females attempt suicide, and there is a sharp rise in actual suicides for females beginning at age ten and peaking at age twenty-four. One in four girls has been in an abusive relationship. When asked about their role models, girls only list one third of what boys list. Girls are five times less likely to receive attention from a teacher. Girls ages twelve through fifteen have the worst nutrition of any age group, followed by girls ages sixteen through nineteen. By age thirteen, 53 percent of girls are unhappy with their bodies; by age eighteen, 78 percent are dissatisfied with their bodies. Eighty percent of ten-year-old girls are on a diet, and the number one wish of teenage girls and adult women is to lose weight. Eight million American women suffer from eating disorders, and 90 percent of them are adolescents.

For parents, every day presents fresh challenges to tradition, and the future is unpredictable, shaped as it is by newly emerging influences from media, technology, peer culture, and a society in flux. Contrary to the days when mainstream society supported parents’ efforts to protect, nurture, and guide their growing girls, today society itself is the high-pressure, high-risk realm where girls are more vulnerable than ever to the pressures for perfection and casual exploitation and experimentation, which can carry serious consequences. Parents often lack the information or insight to feel competent. It’s easy to lose confidence in our intuitive wisdom, uncertain at times how much our judgment is clouded by ignorance or our own discomfort with social change.

Whether we feel ready or not, we are beyond the days of one-line answers to life’s questions, or cookbook-style recipes for building self-esteem and smarts in girls. All of us — girls, parents, and teachers — share the same need for information, insight, and a perspective that enables us to make sense of the landscape and make reasonable day-to-day decisions that protect and promote a life of possibility.

A friend of mine says that as a parent, she often feels like the hapless character in the folktale of a bumbling farm boy, who repeatedly goes to town on an errand, and each time returns home carrying his purchase in such a way that it is ruined. He looks foolish. The first time, his mother scolds him and tells him the correct way to carry the thing, and the next time he goes to town, he follows her instructions to a T, but the circumstances have changed, the item is different, and he screws it up again! Dragging butter on a leash, carrying a donkey over his shoulder; each time, he’s doing what he was told from the time before, but it isn’t the right thing to do now. His intentions are good, but he is always one step behind in his ability to think and act effectively.

Parenting feels like that at times, and tidy lists of do’s and don’ts fall short of helping us “think like a grown-up,” as my friend says.

All of us want our girls to thrive. We want them to live lives in which they feet competent, confident, and connected to others, and to the grand scheme of life. That’s not something we can give girls, or do for them. However, as parents and teachers and other adults who care, we can cultivate opportunities for girls to experience themselves this way. To do so, we need to understand girls better, develop our capacity to think like grown-ups, and expand our repertoire of responses to be effective in the moment and for the long-term, in the lives of girls.

One of the most gratifying aspects of bringing this book into being has been the opportunity to share the science of girls with parents and teachers who live in the laboratory of real life with them every day. Advances in neuroscience — the study of how the brain grows and works — are just beginning to shed light on fascinating differences between female and male brains. Research is also advancing dramatically in the study of hormones and other physiological and psychological aspects of growing up female. Every new scientific finding not only informs us about the true nature of girls — forget the underscores the need for parents, teachers, schools, and communities to see girls in a new light, and move more deliberately toward gender equity in all these realms.

In Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters, I share this science and my guiding principles for understanding girls, understanding their hopes and dreams as well as their struggle and pain, and understanding what we can do, as adults, to create family and school environments in which they can find their best selves and live their best lives.

Copyright © 2002 JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.

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