Friday, June 11, 1999
Children's Forum speaker challenges parents to counteract culture
The billboard slogan for the anti-smoking campaign, "Get outraged!" could easily stand for what parents should feel about American society's pressures on children, judging from the keynote speaker at the third annual Concord-Carlisle Stand for Children Forum held on June 4. Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and nationally recognized scholar in the fields of gender equity and eating disorders, told parents and child advocates that they must constantly counter the messages boys and girls receive from the culture to help children develop into well-adjusted adults.
The biggest cultural challenge for boys, which Steiner-Adair said begins at age three and is usually mastered by third grade, has been to learn not to show their feelings. But within the last ten years, the media and computer games popular with boys have begun to give the message that all feelings are expected to be shown through violence. "The role model that when you're sad get mad has skyrocketed exponentially in the last ten years," said Steiner-Adair.
Steiner-Adair pointed to the epidemic of attention deficit disorder (ADD) as evidence that boys are not getting enough emotional support, are over-stimulated by television and electronic games, and do not have adults around who can meet their emotional needs.
How fathers connect to their sons is crucial in meeting the boys' emotional needs, said Steiner-Adair. "Boys who do best have a deep emotional connection with their fathers and feel their fathers reveal to them their full emotional range." Steiner-Adair further observed that if children see powerful adults and perceive them to be in control all of the time, the children will actually lower their aspirations, believing that they could never have such control. "Kids need to hear from their parents when they make mistakes, how they have felt wobbly or weren't sure how to act,"advised Steiner-Adair.
Also, surveys of successful young adults show that the most common element in their upbringing is family dinnertime conversation in which the children's opinions were pursued and validated, giving the children a sense of being monitored, loved and pursued. "The challenge is to protect boys when they are young and to make family the place they are valued for their feelings."
"The burden absolutely has to be carried by men,"said Steiner-Adair, noting that if women only take up the banner, they may be perceived as adversaries to men. Men must talk about the importance of relationships and must challenge the anti-male stereotypes that boys with feelings are somehow less masculine. Steiner-Adair acknowledged that challenging the stereotype will take a lot of work because it runs against the basis of our country. "As a culture, we value independence above everything else," Steiner-Adair asserted. Explaining the connection, she said that when asked, boys respond that the opposite of dependence is independence. Girls, on the other hand, see dependence as an interpersonal connection and say the opposite is isolation or loneliness.
The culture must support parents who try to raise boys to stay connected. Taking the global perspective, Steiner-Adair noted that many of American society's ills stem from a lack of connection to other people. Said Steiner-Adair, "Poverty, hunger, homelessnessthese are major disconnects politically."
If the primary cultural message to boys is to hide their feelings or to express their feelings through violence, the main message girls receive is that the culture's image of physical beauty is important. "By the time girls are five or six years old, they know that what they look like matters," said Steiner-Adair. "Statistics show that what girls look like determines their grades, how often they are called on, their level of professional development, how they are treated in the check-out line at Star Market and which houses they are shown by a realtor. This is more true in 1999 than it was in 1969."
In the 1960s, said Steiner-Adair, the message was be yourself. "It's the absolute opposite now. Now, there is an unattainable image of beauty for women, and girls are judged early on how they match that image."
Part of that image is being thin. By first grade, said Steiner-Adair, girls equate being fat with being stupid, lazy and poor. What is worse, she continued, is that the message from the culture is that it is okay to be mean to people in a large body. It is common for girls as young as six years old to come home from school and ask, "Am I too fat?" What that really means, said Steiner-Adair, is that the girl's feelings were hurt at school because girls beginning at this age equate personal hurt with weight.
Moreover, to feel better or to get ready for a big event, the culture tells girls there are two things they can do: go on a diet or go shopping. In other words, girls are taught to deal with life situations by changing the way they look. "Dieting and shopping are not real skills for life,"said Steiner-Adair.
With these messages, it is no wonder that eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in girls in America. Steiner-Adair gave the following statistics. Thirty to fifty percent of girls between the ages of ten and 12 say that their greatest fear is being fat. Fifty percent of girls between the ages of 12 and 14 say they feel better if they are on a diet. Between fourth and sixth grade, "eating disorder thinking" begins: "If only I lost five pounds, I'd be able to...." Between the ages of 13 and 15 most eating disorder behavior sets in. The transition to college can also lead to an onset of eating disorders.
What is needed is a cultural revolution, said Steiner-Adair. Women need to "throw their weight around" politically and in the marketplace. "The fashion industry is a $55 billion industry that is marketing eating disorders. Imagine what an effect we would have if we just stopped buying it for a month." Steiner-Adair also pointed to Senators Susan Fargo and Pam Resor, who attended the forum, as advocates for changes in this arena.
Parents must constantly help their children interpret images they receive from the culture. For example, Steiner-Adair suggested parents could comment, "That's such an unhealthy image," in response to an ad with an extremely thin model. Steiner-Adair encouraged parents to continue offering this kind of commentary even if the child makes no response. "Don't expect a response,"she said.
Secondly, Steiner-Adair advised parents not to speak derogatively about their own bodies. "Don't weigh your self-esteem," she said, observing that many women say they were "good"or "bad" during the day depending on what they ate. "This good and bad talk filters down to the elementary school cafeteria."
In closing, Steiner-Adair stated that the generation that came of age in the 1960s has created an enormously competitive environment for children. Expressing hope for the future, Steiner-Adair said, "We're spinning out, but I think we'll spin back in again." This will take vigilance and creativity on the part of parents and child advocates. "Think of all the different ways you can counter the culture."
The Concord-Carlisle Stand for Children Forum was presented by the Concord-Carlisle Community Partnership for Children which was formed to help families cover the cost of quality child care. The Concord Children's Center administers the program which is funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Education. The partnership offers tuition assistance for working families, parent education, teacher training and a lending library of books and materials in conjunction with the Center for Parents and Teachers. For more information about tuition assistance and the services the partnership provides, please call Kai Shaner or Cathi Burrell at 978-287-6175.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito