Raising Confident Girls

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Concern about girls sparked an array of programs, ranging from experiments with all-girl math and science classes to an emphasis on athletics. "Girl Power" and "You Go, Girl!" slogans popped up everywhere, including on girls' backpacks and makeup compacts.

The emphasis on empowerment has even prompted a recent backlash. Critics such as Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the Washington, DC, think tank American Enterprise Institute, who wrote The War Against Boys in 1999, demanded affirmative action for boys rather than girls because of problems such as boys' overall lower school grades and the pressures they feel to be macho.

But many parents, teachers, researchers, and girls' club leaders feel the news about girls is not all rosy. And, they emphasize, the key to getting and keeping girls on a positive track is reaching them as early as possible. "We need to start at least by the preschool age to ensure that girls develop their self-esteem," says Dr. Roban. Girls can absorb self-confidence lessons, even in toddlerhood, through consistent messages that downplay looks and emphasize actions. "The good news is that we can make a difference when we give girls good messages early on and continue to do so," adds Heather Johnston Nicholson, research director for Girls Incorporated, a New York City-based nonprofit organization with programs for girls 6 to 18 in more than 1,500 locations. "Our research tells us that the girls who succeed are the ones who have a loving, secure home environment and adults they can talk to."

Growing Up Faster

Many girls' advocates are alarmed by the findings of two recent large-scale studies that affect parents of girls under 8. "Girls tell us that they are under overwhelming pressure to act older than they are," says Dr. Roban, referring to last year's Girl Scout study. Taking cues from incessant media images, third-graders want to look and act like, say, Britney Spears; the outcome is an increase in elementary school dieting as well as a growing preoccupation with male attraction.

At the same time, studies like the report issued last fall by the Pediatric Endocrine Society show that girls seem to be physically maturing earlier than ever, with budding breasts and pubic hair showing up by age 6 or 7 in some girls. "The age has likely come down since earlier studies, which showed that girls matured on average at age 11," notes study coauthor Paul Kaplowitz, M.D., pediatric endocrinologist at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond.

Parents Are Talking

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