A special report on how girls are growing up today -- and what they need from you.
Credit: Monica Skeisvoll

Anyone still clinging to "sugar and spice" notions about girls might be dissuaded by the all-girl Plas household in Round Rock, TX, where Diane and Jim are raising four daughters. At age 4, rambunctious Samantha is "always hogging the upstairs computer," says her older sister Remy, 10. As for sister Sydney, 7: "All she wants to do with me is practice passing the soccer ball," sighs Diane with a smile. And her youngest, 2-year-old Tatum, "wants to do everything her sisters do." Diane had hoped that one of her daughters would express a yen for dance classes as she had as a girl; so far, she's 0 for 4.

It's certainly no accident that the Plas girls defy stereotypes. From early on, their parents worked hard to employ girl-empowering techniques ranging from Jim's ritual of father-daughter bike rides after work to a ban on talk about diets. The latter is especially important to Diane, who suffered from eating disorders as a teen. Although she has been recovered for more than 10 years, she and Jim take no chances with their daughters. "We never talk about size and shape of bodies," she explains. "Instead, we focus on health and nutritious foods."

Cautious Optimism

After nearly a decade of "girl power," many experts say that today's girls, like the Plases, tend to reject limits that hampered previous generations. "Girls say they feel they can do anything," says Whitney Roban, Ph.D., citing a recent study of 1,100 8- to 12-year-old girls conducted by the New York City-based Girl Scout Research Institute, of which she is the senior researcher. "Over 93% of girls we surveyed told us they intended to go to college, and 76% said they're going to have careers."

This is a different picture from the one painted in 1992, when a widely publicized report from the Washington, DC-based American Association of University Women (AAUW) documented plummeting self-esteem among girls as they entered middle school, along with gender inequities in the classroom that ultimately prevented many girls from accomplishing education and career goals. Shortly after, the bestselling book Reviving Ophelia detailed drooping self-confidence among girls who spoke of powerful pressure to be thin, pretty, quiet, and compliant.

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.

This finding has been challenged by other experts, such as Laura K. Bachrach, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, who feel that the research is flawed. But for girls who do mature earlier, there's often a price to pay. "This 'developmental compression' results in unprecedented stress levels because the girls are too young emotionally to deal with issues that used to come during the teen years," says Dr. Roban.

Girls 8 and older are also reporting that supposedly outdated notions about girls are alive and kicking, says Nicholson. "They've told us that they're expected to stay quiet and not be strong, that nontraditional careers for girls are frowned on, that the most important thing for girls is to be pretty and thin, and that smart girls aren't popular," she says of Girls Inc.'s most recent Harris survey. When asked whether girls and boys have the same abilities and strengths, only 47% of the girls among the 2,028 third- to twelfth-graders surveyed responded yes. Just 29% of boys thought girls equal.

The Keys to Confidence

"When I grow up, I'm going to be president," declares Nelle Anderson, 8, of Minneapolis. While Nelle may not achieve that particular goal, her parents, Kristi and Scott, are trying to guarantee that all her options are open, providing Nelle and sister Charlotte, 5, with a wide variety of toys and offering plenty of conversation about female role models.

Child development experts emphasize that parents need to take extra steps to let girls learn firsthand about a range of activities so that their self-confidence remains intact as they grow older. "The biggest influence on what children will do is what the people most important to them do and show them," says Sara Wilford, director of the Early Childhood Center at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY.

In addition, girls who interact more with their fathers -- whether it's through cooking or checking carburetors -- get an extra boost of self-confidence. "Since fathers are powerful in families and society, what they think about their daughter and communicate to her is very influential," says Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. Among the women Dr. Rimm interviewed for her book Jane Win: How 1,000 Girls Became Successful Women, more than 25% named their father as their main role model in girlhood. "Fathers can begin to instill self-esteem in daughters from the start by not treating them like little princesses and instead pointing out how they are strong, smart, and hardworking," she says.

Parents who've aimed to give girls wide experience say it's simple to do: Just let your daughters stay at your side. "We shovel dirt in the garden, rake leaves, even fix things with a screwdriver together," says Terry Gryting of Eagle River, AK, mother of 3-year-old Kelsey. "If she tries something and fails, I don't do it for her -- I have her try again." In the McGee household, Cheyenne, 4, has been allowed to operate equipment such as a CD player, VCR, and TV remote control "since she could walk," says her mother, Karen, whose family now lives in Tokyo. "We ended up with a few scratched CDs, but she's confident about mechanical tasks and can load her own DVDs into the computer." Patricia Campbell, an author of several AAUW equity reports, points up the value of this: "When girls do something as simple as fix their own bicycle, they see how science and technology are useful."

Marly, 7, and Eliza, 3, have been trailing their father Ken Bresler, a Newton, MA, consultant and one-time political candidate, since birth, and it has clearly paid off. "Both of my daughters go with me everywhere, and Marly's even been to political rallies," he says. Last November, she happily accompanied him on door-to-door voter education -- and was delighted to meet and get an autographed picture of New Hampshire's female governor, Jean Shaheen.

When Gender Lines Blur

Not all parents realize the need for this kind of exposure, however, and some may even push both girls and boys toward traditional toys and activities. This may be because they're not comfortable crossing gender lines or because they're concerned that their child may be teased for nontraditional behavior. "It seems as though some parents are still stuck in that 'pink is for girls and blue is for boys' mode," says Tom McGee, vice president of Doyle Research Associates, a Chicago children's-product marketing firm.

These unsubtle directions are a clear road map for children, particularly if they know that an important person in their life considers "cross-gender" playing a no-no, says Tarja Raag, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Colby College in Waterville, ME. In her recent studies with 4- and 5-year-olds, Dr. Raag noted that girls more often shrank from playing with toy tool sets and boys from playing with toy dishes when they believed that important adults -- such as parents -- would disapprove. Overall, girls were more likely to play with either, but those boys who believed their fathers would disapprove of their choice were least likely to even touch the dishes.

In the meantime, media messages reinforce many of society's gender expectations. Commercials for 'girl toys' feature lulling voices and songs, while 'boy toy' ads blast loud, strident music and gravel-voiced male announcers. And it doesn't help that there are fewer role models for girls than there are for boys. "Boys generally won't watch programs or ads with strong females, but girls will watch shows with either strong males or females," says McGee. "So producers are more likely to go with what captures the most viewers." Of course, there is some girl-friendly programming on TV. Blue's Clues stars a preppy girl puppy, and the hit show Dora the Explor showcases an adventurous girl; Powerpuff Girls features three fearless 5-year-old crimefighters. But, McGee notes, female-friendly shows are still a minority.

While girls do find more positive role models in books, the same trends persist. Mary Trepanier-Street, professor of early childhood education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, learned the effect this has on children when she studied the creative writing of Detroit elementary students. Both boys and girls overwhelmingly gave leading roles to boys and men in their stories. "Female characters were mostly princesses and teachers," she notes.

When she studied preschoolers' attitudes about "appropriate" occupations for men and women, she found little difference from her research in the 1980s -- but discovered that their minds could be changed without much effort: After preschoolers were read a series of books featuring females and males in nontraditional roles, the children were more willing to accept those roles, says Trepanier-Street: "Exposure to different options is crucial."

Appearance Is Not Everything

"Girls are preoccupied at younger ages with their size and shape," says Jennifer Biely, who brings life-size puppet shows on healthy body images to kindergartens and elementary schools as executive director of the National Eating Disorders Association, an education program in Seattle. By fourth grade, 40% of girls have dieted, the organization has found. Younger girls also complain that their naturally rounded tummies don't curve in as models' stomachs do. "Girls are learning bad messages at home, where there may be a lot of negative comments among moms about their own size, and from the unrealistic images of girls and women they see in the media," says Biely.

This is one way fathers can get involved. "Many dads tell me what their daughters discuss with them -- from questions about whether they're pretty to comments about not eating foods like peanut butter anymore because it makes them fat -- and how they assured them that they are much more than how they look," says Joe Kelly, executive director of Dads and Daughters (www.dadsanddaughters.org) a Duluth, MN-based national organization that aims, in part, to strengthen the relationship between fathers and daughters and protest girl-unfriendly media images.

The Talking Cure

Parents of preschool and early elementary school girls may find themselves in a peculiar place: Their daughter may seem strong and happy, yet evidence shows that many girls will struggle with self-esteem problems by third grade. Taking a proactive stance makes sense, experts say. "When girls are unhappy about their looks, we have them list what they think friends most like about them," says Lisa Sjostrom, director of the Boston-based "Full of Ourselves" self-esteem program for fourth- to seventh-grade girls. "The list rarely includes anything to do with looks."

"It may seem hard to talk with your little girl about adult, complicated topics," says Dr. Roban, "but making time to talk about things is the best preventive strategy of all." Because most girls under 6 are unable to articulate concerns or issues, you can use things your daughter comments on as a springboard to further discussion, she says. If her role model is Britney Spears, for example (as is the case with 50% of 9- to 11-year-old girls, according to a recent survey from Sesame Workshop in New York City), ask what about Britney attracts her and why. If she mentions boys, don't tell her she's too young to think about them. "Girls must know that they can bring up anything with their parents," she says. "The best news in all of this is that in our last survey, girls -- particularly younger ones -- told us that their mother is the top person they turn to for guidance, and plenty turn to their father too."

"Actions speak louder than words" is never truer than for kids, and the process begins at birth. "The key to raising strong, happy girls -- or boys -- is letting them see diverse role models in everyday life," says Nicholson. "When kids grow up thinking they're people first, not just girls or boys, they'll be better able to realize all their goals."