A recent New York Times piece, Cultural Studies: The Playground Gets Even Tougher, examines an increasing trend toward bullying among very young girls: kindergarteners and first-graders. The article looks at, among other examples, “Erin Munroe, a school guidance counselor in Boston… [who] sees first-graders pulling their hair out, throwing up before school and complaining of constant stomachaches” all because “It’s not cool to not have a cell phone anymore or to not wear exactly the right thing….The poor girls who have Strawberry Shortcake shirts on, forget it.”
Of course, the experts interviewed pointed the effect of media culture in shaping the attitudes of children, and linked the act of bullying to the pervasive materialism that characterizes Western consumer culture. And, no doubt, these are important factors in forming “mean girls.” But it is the closing remark by Debbie Rosenman, who has been teaching in a Midwestern suburban school for 31 years, that I found particularly disturbing. She observes, “The girls who are the victims tend to be raised by parents who encourage them to be more age appropriate….The mean girls are 8 but want to be 14, and their parents play along.”
Ironically, this New York Times article came at the same time the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article entitled “Cloistered Kids Make Terrible Adults,” which exults in the former freedoms of childhood to walk the dog and go to the shops without fear. It seems that as we lock our children away from the potential bogey men lurking in the neighborhood park or at the shops, we encourage our daughters to devour each other within their schools. As this juxtaposition implies, the bullying in the NYT article has a particularly sinister side. In it, Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton are both referenced as some of the aggressive women that young girls are viewing and emulating in the early years of primary school. Such “role models” imply that the age-inappropriate behavior that parents play along with is characterized by materialism and an assertion of one’s sexuality, rather than the freedom to take the dog to the park without an adult chaperon. While the innocent adventures of childhood and the responsibilities and privileges of growing-up are deemed too dangerous, the self-centered materialism and early sexuality of teenage and young adult pop-divas and television stars is encouraged. The sexualized gaze that is dangerous in the stranger becomes a thing to flaunt, as it is unwittingly appropriated and internalized by the child.
To look on―or worse, to encourage―our daughters to demean themselves and others with them, we truly must be a society determined to destroy its women while they are still very little girls. Such a society needs a different vision of what it means to be human, one that encourages girls to see themselves as more than the things they possess or their sexual potential. The biblical narrative offers just such an alternative view, affirming that each person is created in the image of God with a particular and redemptive role to play in the world.
Sadly, though, it is not enough for individuals―and individual parents―to recognize the divine image in and purpose for their daughters, to and encourage them to live differently than their friends, since this will apparently make them likeable targets for bullying. Recognizing this, many parents commenting the NYT article express their plans to home school their children or send them to small private institutions. Yet such a step away does not solve the problem; it only encapsulates girls to face it a few years ahead. And the schools we could affect for the better are left uninfluenced.
So instead of isolating ourselves to complain about the evils of society, even of little kindergarten girls, those of us who embrace a biblical understanding of human identity must instead live that out in community, so that we and our daughters can, as a group, offer an alternative vision, one that sees innocent little girls growing into confident and graceful women.
hey jess, there’s a website founded by a social researcher called Melinda Tankard Reist you may find interesting called collectiveshout.com.au…she also has a facebook page and blog. She’s also written a book called Getting Real…http://melindatankardreist.com/products-page.
I am a single mom and live on an acreage with four children. Three of them are boys. I let them roam on their own (sometimes just to save my sanity) and when some parents wonder if I am worried that they might get hurt, I respond, “I think it’s better for them to break an arm than to look at porn on the computer.” Really, I do not want either of these things to happen, and my kids DO use the computer and have internet access. But I believe that we parents are often afraid of the wrong things, as this article suggests. Thanks Jessica.
Thank you for your article. It highlights a real problem with very young girls in our culture. I do disagree with with your notion that homeschool or private institututions isolate children and families. Most homeschooled families are still very much involved in their community in various capacities and interact regularly with others. Five and 6 year old girls can not be expected to be salt and light in their school. They are young and still maturing in their knowledge and experience of their identity in Christ. They need all the nurturing, loving and growing in faith they can get and that more often than not happens in the home and church and not at public school. I am not advocating homeschooling for everyone and especially as a means to isolate your child. It is not a method for protection from culture by any means. But nor should a family not homeschool because they want their little ones to serve as a mission to their school. A grade one student may arrive in a pinafore, dressed by their parent as an example but they will NOT be able to stand up tall and confident that the sneers and jeers are for the sake of the Gospel and their identity is found in Christ and not the acceptance and friendship of the wee Miley Cyrus’ in their class. I recommend “Hold On To Your Kids” by Gordon Neufeld. He brings light to the stronghold peer pressure is on our kids.
Andrea, it seems that the larger issue where you and I may disagree is the question of what is the relationship of the Kingdom of God to life here and now. Church tradition is certainly divided on whether the role of the Christian community is to actively engage the world and try to change it or to live somewhat separately as a true counter-culture, manifesting a different way of life. I currently live very near a few Amish communities where this latter approach is embraced to the full, although they are still very involved with “the English” both commercially and personally. Such communities are helpful to consider because they so clearly model the idea of the Christian counter-culture in an uncompromising way. The Amish way of doing life certainly attracts the attention of bus-loads of tourists each year who are all very enamored with what they see as a quaint and purer lifestyle than is normal in North America. But, it is the Amish quilts, handmade furniture, baked good and jams that most people take home with then rather than charity toward their neighbors. While I’m very attracted to the counter-culture model, I fear that it can easily become a tourist-attraction or novelty to the world rather than a redemptive example.
More specifically, I agree that a lone student sent into a school by her parents to be an example of the Kingdom of God among her peers (whether dressed in a pinafore or not) will have a difficult time on her own, which I state in my next-to-last paragraph. My concluding point is that Christian families―and families of other faith traditions and of no faith tradition that are appalled by the early sexualization of girls and the bullying of those not embracing a sexual identity―need to work together to change these sorts of behaviors and attitudes by creating a different ethos within the public sphere. Peer pressure can be a very positive thing when it pressures us (at any age) to be kind and gracious toward others rather than rude, selfish and belittling of others. My call at the end is for Christian families to work together with others to create just this sort of peer-pressure among both parents and children.
What a wonderful article, Jessica. I thoroughly appreciate the way you call attention to the predicament that faces our girls in today’s society, and more specifically, I love the way you suggest that this is in fact a symptom of a wider decay in our ability to be human beings. I found the idea that we can be inspired by a greater vision of the kingdom of God a thoroughly invigorating one; imagine a world where our girls are not afraid to go to public school, and rather than being cowed by what they see around them, are clever, articulate, funny, beautiful, compassionate, and tender in their response to those around them. I want that for my daughter and I will pray daily for the strength to raise her like that (Andrea, I share your fears that she may not be strong enough), and for the community around me to support me in the process.
I found this wonderful article in the Sydney Morning Herald the other day, written by Canadian-Australian Samantha Selinger-Morris. it’s about how our little boys are becoming sexualised, just like our little girls. The article responds, in particular, to an appalling range of clothing for baby boys that sported the slogan “I’m a tits man” across the front. Apart from the egregious portrayal of breast-feeding as sexual, the clothing line was indeed portraying baby boys as hipster predators. Appalling. Selinger-Morris, without wanting to spoil the article, goes on to describe the way Australian groups – Christian and non-Christian alike – forced the clothing line to pull the t-shirt. Perhaps the kingdom of God might look a bit like this; refusing to let our tiny people get sucked into the machine, and rather than pulling back in horror, pushing back in resistance.
Thanks Jessica for such a reflective, thoughtful article! I thoroughly enjoyed the way you pinpointed what is a disturbing trend in our society at the moment and yet developed a way that Christians can think about this quandary with faith and courage. Andrea, I share your reservations that a single girl can be strong enough to withstand such an overwhelming system, but I was thoroughly heartened by Jessica’s suggestion that it is in fact robust Christian communities and not individuals, called to pray for, build and usher in the kingdom of God, that might make the way for a Christian resistance to such an appalling trend. As Jessica’s article closed, I could imagine my daughter growing into a person who might respond to a little Miley Cyrus with wit, beauty, compassion, and tenderness.
I was also reminded, as I read through the article, of an article I found on the Sydney Morning Herald by Canadian-Australian Samantha Selinger-Morris. In it, she details the way our little boys are becoming as sexualised as our little girls. She describes the way our little boys are being portrayed as hipster predators, little “lady-killers” on the hunt. Without wanting to spoil the whole article for those who might be interested, I was particularly heartened by a story she tells about an Australian chain store who released a t-shirt for baby boys, sporting the reprehensible phrase: “I’m a tits man.” I was horrified on two counts: the egregious idea that breast-feeding a baby boy is somehow a sexual act; and second, that a tiny baby boy is solely characterised by a (debased) sexual potential. But Selinger-Morris goes on to recount how the brand was forced to pull the t-shirts from the racks, under pressure from a coalition of consumer groups that refused to see their baby boys from being sexualised in such a fashion. Perhaps this is the kind of resistance that Christians can engage in? Rather than recoiling in horror (as I find myself wanting to do) perhaps we could push back in Christian resistance and articulate a fuller, more human world not only for our children, but for all the children around us.
I appreciate your thoughtful response. Thankfully we do agree that the Kingdom of God has come. God has a purpose for Christians living in this world as we participate in the redemption of the new heaven and earth. I don’t take that lightly. We are absolutely to go out and reflect God’s image to the world. I guess my point is that it is just too much for little ones to be put in the position of figuring out what is beautiful, pure and good and what is not. My 6 yr. old has no clue that inappropriate dress and body language is inappropriate yet. She is so excited about all the new “culture” she is learning. It is very difficult to be so immersed in a secular world at school and find God in it. In her class there is no other churched student that together they could be positive peer pressure. And I would love her to know that her education, beauty, sense of fashion, friendships have everything to do with God. At some point she will be mature enough to be in the culture without being eaten alive by it. “Let all the children come to me” Jesus says and I struggle with this— that by sending her to school I hinder her from doing that. There are precious and few years to lay the foundation, nurture and prepare children for their earthly ministry. But I feel very convicted to remain in relationships we already have in the neighbourhood/community if we were to homeschool. It’s a huge issue that Christians face. Thank you for inspiring me to deeply think about it.