Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reviving a Value System

What matters to you? Let's get this question right out front. What is the most important thing to you? That's my first question tonight. My second is, if you have children, do you communicate what is most important to you to them? Do you think you communicate your values to others well? I don't mean do you lecture people ad nauseum about what they should be doing. I mean, do you live your value system? We can all talk the talk, but can we walk the walk?

You are probably sitting there wondering why I am asking that question. Well, I'll tell you. I've been reading a book called "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls." I'm reading this book because in the not-to-distant future I will be raising an adolescent girl and I have never been comfortable with the adolescent thing. I didn't do it well myself, I had several jobs throughout college that reaffirmed that this stage of life was "not my area," and the inherent conflict that seems to come with raising teenagers scares me.

Another reason I am reading it is because I remember being in junior high school and high school. It was not fun for me. I remember it being painful, confusing and brutal. Girls can be very mean and ugly to each other at that age. Many (although not all) do things that are exclusionary, thoughtless and viscious. I worry about my daughter having to cope with that. I worry about my ability to help her navigate what is coming.

The images and ideas that young girls are assaulted with very often are disempowering, soul-draining and disheartening. They are told by magazines that their role in life is to look pretty, make a man feel good, enjoy shopping, and to never ever make waves by standing out. One must blend. Do not attract undue notice. If you do, you will be cut down.

Want an example? Okay, I'll give you one. I have to change the names and circumstances because I am talking about minors here and I don't want to identify them in such a way as to expose anyone to harm, so here goes. I know some young girls, about 10 or so. Through my contacts I have learned that "Melissa" almost broke her wrist. She was pushed down an escalator. Yes pushed. Intentionally. By "Sarah" who was approximately the same age. It wasn't an accident. It was an intentional shove, witnessed by a group of adults. Due to the incident, "Sarah" is no longer welcome in the location that she pushed "Melissa" in, and she was kicked out of "the Girls Group".

My first thought about that was how viscious that was. What could a 10-year old be feeling that would make her feel so angry and justified in her actions? Hasn't she been told from the time she was a toddler that hitting is not okay and that you should use your words? Now before you start getting all "don't be judgemental" on me here, I am NOT repeat, NOT blaming the parents. I don't know them. I heard this story second hand, and I have no idea what kind of parents "Sarah" has. They could be Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful for all I know. They could be Mr. and Mrs. Apathetic. Or they could be Mr. and Mrs. Hooray for Me and the Hell With the Other Guy." I don't know.

What I do know is that a group of girls went on an outing to a public place. They were all part of a group. One of the girls either did something, or was perceived of as having done something that one of the others did not like. The injured party (perceived or truly injured, we will never know) then reached out as they were walking to the escalator, and shoved, hard, on "Melissa." We are not talking about kindegarteners here. These girls are in fourth and fifth grade. They know that someone could get badly hurt doing something like that. So "Sarah" either didn't care that "Melissa" could get seriously injured, or that was her intention. Either way, the idea that "Melissa" could break her neck falling down the escalator was not a concern that she had. Only retribution for the perceived infraction of whatever social rule there was.

So to bring it back to my question, what values are we teaching "Sarah" as a community? We pay lip service to the idea that everyone has the right to be treated with respect, honesty and fairness. But do we REALLY act that way? What in Sarah's experience has taught her that her course of action was acceptable?

Let's think for a moment. Sarah is immersed in the world around her. Like it or not, ten-year-old Sarah is receiving input from all around her about how to make her way in the world. How is she to get along? How is she to get her needs met? The meek shall inherit the earth but the squeaky wheel gets the grease. There's no "I" in "Team," but there is a "me."

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