Refining Our Focus on Our Daughters

In the pre-air-conditioned, pre-TV (in our house) fifties when I was growing up, it was a regular occurrence on hot summer evenings for the phone to ring—there was going to be a hamburger fry at McClelland Park. I loved the picnics and getting together with our friends, but I didn’t like McClelland Park. There were no swings or slides; there was nothing for kids to do. It would never have occurred to my folks to take that into consideration when planning these get-togethers. Everyday life all those years ago was organized around adults, not children. Routines and schedules were largely arranged to suit grown-ups; children were on the periphery. So while the hamburgers fried and my parents and their friends stood around and talked without a thought of entertaining us, my brother, the rest of the kids, and I filled the time by collecting discarded bottle caps or scuffing through the gravel around the picnic tables, hoping to find a few coins that had fallen out of pockets.

Along with not being the main attractions, my brother and I also were not burdened with hearing that we were “special.” Mom and Dad commended us when we deserved it (making good grades or helping our grandparents), but there were plenty of shape-up lectures, reminding us that we were, if not ordinary, certainly not at risk of being exceptional. We were cherished and cared for, but according to psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath, we were lucky to have parents who did not put us at the center of the universe or shower us with excessive praise. In The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance, she says that “overfocus on the talents, skills, or insights of an individual child (no matter how gifted) naturally leads to an exaggerated self-importance in adolescence and young adulthood” and that this inflated sense of self results in children becoming “preoccupied with their own needs” and feeling entitled.

Many of us from the baby-boom generation, believing we should have had more attention and been noticed more for our uniqueness when we were growing up, set about to correct the deficits. Young-Eisendrath writes, “We gathered in groups large (rock concerts) and small (consciousness-raising) to bring to ourselves the . . . love we collectively longed for . . .

[and] eventually . . . dubbed our problem low self-esteem.” What is most interesting, however, is how my generation used that frame of reference to shift the paradigm for parenting our own children. Losing sight of the requirement that a child’s self-esteem must be grounded in genuinely earned achievement as well as in an understanding and acceptance of her weaknesses, we have gone overboard in praising our offspring and in refusing to let them experience setbacks. We also have allowed our daughters’ every whim and desire to dictate how we live our lives. The result is that by the time our offspring are teens and young adults, they may sincerely believe that they are special and that the world owes them something. Much that I read about postboomer adults, furthermore, suggests that the next generation of parents is following our example of overpraising children and that they, too, have adopted the role of offspring concierge.

This sense of entitlement is carried through to college classrooms across the country. In a New York Times article reporting on college students’ expectations for grades, a professor at the University of Maryland is quoted as saying that the grade for meeting the standard course requirements in his classes is a C. He adds, however, that his students “see the default grade as an A.” A University of California at Irvine survey cited in the same article also found that a third of students expect a B just for showing up for lectures.

The students’ value of effort over mastery is clear. Students commented that “putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade” and that “what else is there really than the effort you put in?” Students also tend to blame others for poor marks. According to one professor quoted in the article, “Attributing the outcome of a failure to someone else is a common problem.”

These attitudes do not bode well for smooth transitions from adolescence into adulthood. No one wants a doctor, veterinarian, attorney, or airline pilot whose focus is on effort instead of end results and who blames others for poor outcomes. Those of our young people who believe that advancement is an unearned privilege and that just showing up is sufficient have a lot to learn before they will be ready to assume adult roles.

At Miss Hall’s School, we are committed to preparing girls for future success as well as for inevitable difficulties. We create a structured environment that requires them to take responsibility for their learning, their lives, and their recovery when results aren’t what they expect. At home, parents, too, can resist the urge to rescue a daughter when she is disgruntled with outcomes or to join her in blaming others for her shortfalls. The key is to have a girl look inward and find within herself the courage to persist and the capacity to effect the change she wants to see in her life. Sometimes, it is good to look back to the common sense of the old ways.


Tips and Tactics

At the start of a new school year, sport season, or special project, ask your daughter what outcome she hopes to experience. Having her project herself forward will help her think about her goals. Once she has an idea of where she wants to go, suggest that she jot down some ideas about what she will do to prepare for the success she has envisioned.


Propose that your daughter write down the questions for which she wants answers and what her ideal answer would be. Then ask her to describe the one action she might take that will result in her getting the answer she is looking for, as in the following example:

  • Question: “Will I be accepted to college?”
  • Ideal Answer: “One of my top-three colleges accepted me!”
  • Action: “I will set time aside every weekend to study so I can raise my grades.”