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Is your daughter thriving or just surviving in school?

Updated: Mar 6

Why parents of girls should take a hard look at school today and explore some more life-giving options.

Most girl parents I know want their daughter to emulate Wonder Woman, dream big, and learn to stand up in the world on her own two feet. I come from a serious matriarchy of self-made women. Being surrounded by strong women my entire life, I’ve often wondered what it is that develops that strength. I’ve also kept an eye out for what debilitates or erodes the strength and potential in young women. 

I’d like to offer observations as an educator, a parent, once a girl, and now a woman. In laying out the serious issues I’ve seen for girls in school, I hope to provide the opportunity to examine and question an institution that’s always part of parent discussion, yet is also often considered “taboo” to truly question or critique. Our daughters need us to be strong enough to venture into this space, to look frankly at the problems, and to look broadly at possible solutions. We want our girls to be capable, confident, independent… so let us do the same here.

While we hope our daughters will learn strength and confidence from us at home, the environments they spend time in make an enormous difference in their thinking and being. We may say we want to encourage and develop their strength of spirit and limitless potential, and then they find themselves in schools where the rewarded objective is obedience and uniformity. The focus is external approval and validation, and it becomes part of who they are - even if you can’t yet see it. ​

You might think your daughter will be “just fine” just about anywhere, but is “just fine” enough for you? Is it enough for her? What if she seem to be performing “just fine,” but is crumbling inside? I’ve known kindergarten girls who say they can’t be themselves, second grade girls with panic attacks, and high school girls paralyzed by perfectionism. I myself was a very good girl, excellent student, and super rule follower. I still remember the day I challenged a teacher in high school about a test question and was angrily scolded afterward, my place in the class questioned because I questioned her authority.

I’ve been working to dismantle the fortress of “schoolishness” I dutifully built over my years of diligent studiousness. I feel like I’m still struggling to de-program from so many years of absolute deference and pleasing - and the second-guessing of my own judgement that came as a result. Are these the skills we want our daughters practicing on a daily basis? Are “good grades” the point of childhood?

Here's quite an uncomfortable question that must be asked: Do we want to wait for our daughters to unravel before we start looking for alternatives? In the name of convention, we may be sacrificing more than we realize. I hear so many adults lament the scarring they endured from school - the pigeonholing, the anxiety, and the shaming. The damage caused by conformity doesn’t even take into account other stressors at schools like teachers who yell at or publicly shame students, bullying, racism, sexism, etc. It’s enough that our girls are expected to constantly and consistently produce perfect products to the precise specifications of authority figures who do not figure in their interests or individuality. 

Too harsh? I strongly recommend you go ask a young person (maybe yours) if they feel like school is about developing who they are or about following the rules and earning grades to please their teachers. Does it develop creative and independent thinking? Maybe you feel like you got through it so it can’t be that bad. I encourage us all to look closely at the reality today - what’s really happening in the classroom - both in the stated curriculum and in the underlying curriculum, the structure of the classroom and the school.

While so many educators are typically working the hardest and best they can in the systems they are in, the systems demand conformity and external validation. 

Your daughter must: sit in her seat, do the assignment exactly the way it’s stated, solve the problem like everyone else, and arrive at the predetermined outcome. She. may. not. question. the. system. Unless your daughter goes to a democratic school, her school is simply not a democracy and cannot be. When it comes to curriculum, policy, and practice, she has no voice or choice in the matter. 

The frustrating reality is that most teachers simply cannot make space for genuine interests - it would be difficult to grade (and so wouldn’t “count” - as the grade is the goal, the only currency of value, in that system) and the time it would take would put them “behind” the treadmill of the standardized curriculum (discrete information that is frankly often meaningless to the present and future of our students).

Our daughter runs the gauntlet, achieves the A’s, wins the awards...and.. becomes burned out or worse. We watch her interests fade until she doesn’t even necessarily know what she likes. She may know what she gets good grades in, but not what lights her up. This is a loss I see too often. ​

Our (frankly archaic) school structure, sets our girls up to either slowly or quickly lose their sense of self. We then cry, “Girl Power!” and expect them to suddenly recover it. It’s a double-bind. We can’t have them submit and follow then expect them to rise and lead. We may not want to see it, but there it is. It’s definitely easier to imagine that our daughter is different - she has a strong enough character to withstand the oppression, she can do her school work and not internalize the pressure. The reality may not live up to the ideal, as much as we may want it it to. ​

What is the greatest gift we can give our daughter? Perhaps it is letting her step outside of conformity and find her own voice. What are we worried will happen if we let her deviate from the norm?

You may have a coffee mug that says, “Well behaved women rarely make history” or an “I am woman, hear me roar” bumper sticker, yet find yourself afraid to unleash that roar too early. What will the neighbors think? What will her grandmother think? We’ve come to equate “good at school” with overall goodness and a bright future of goodness. I would argue that most schools are developing the wrong things for our daughters to get “good” at.

Unfortunately, the place where our first creative ideas go to die is the place that should be most open to them—school. Studies show that teachers overwhelmingly discriminate against creative students, favoring their satisfier classmates who more readily follow directions and do what they’re told.” - Jessica Olien, Slate Magazine 6 Dec 2013

I went to an all-girls high school and then years later taught at another all-girls high school in another state. I believe strongly in the intentional empowerment of young women and the active development of their unique voices. Whether in an all girls or co-ed environment, the truth is that educators and parents cannot speak for young women and then expect them to develop that voice themselves.

​I saw my classmates and then my students who had been conditioned by years of intense grade focus, internalized anxiety, and a kind of exhaustion with “learning” that was difficult to watch. They wanted to know how many points everything was worth, not the worth of the learning itself. And their worth was bound up in grades they were given. Even among teachers dedicated to girls, the learning space was still confined by the expectations of excellence defined by letters and numbers on a report card.

Girls, though celebrated for their successes, are unfortunately rarely encouraged to be truly different, divergent, “out-of-the-box” thinkers and creators. Society still wants “good girls” who “make their families proud” and quietly conform to and excel at the tasks dictated for them to dutifully complete. The question here is of a double standard that keeps girls in conformist environments while allowing boys freedom to develop more broadly. 

I read a study a while back that found that in traditional co-ed schools, girls seem to do better in elementary school while boys seem to do better in high school. The hypothesis was that elementary school teachers valued traits that are seen as easier for young girls than boys - sitting still, coloring in the lines, playing quietly, pleasing authority, etc. In high school, boys were either called upon more by teachers or accustomed to making their opinions heard above those of girls. This was an argument for all-boys elementary schools and all-girls high schools. What it should really be an argument for is schools that do not reward the suppression of the very traits they will later reward. Our girls are praised for being quiet and for waiting their turn, and then too often trampled over when those skills leave them ill-prepared for speaking their minds, or even knowing them.

It is abundantly clear in most school settings who is always in charge. Hint: it’s not your daughter (and she knows it). It is decided for her day in and day out:

  • what she will read, 

  • what she will write about, 

  • what she will paint, 

  • who’s class she will be in

  • when she will speak, 

  • when she will sit, 

  • who she will have to sit next to

  • when she can eat

  • when she can breathe outside air

  • what she will study, 

  • when she will move on to the next subject, 

  • when she’s allowed to have a question. 

Are we holding them back by holding them to a school standard that is inherently structured to suppress their individuality and strength? Our can-do, go-getter leaders don’t truly develop by always facing a teacher, being told exactly what to do and when to do it. If we want our daughters to be self-directed, they are going to need practice. They may have a rich life outside of school, but that typically is also heavily directed by adults - ballet, gymnastics classes, or team sports run by adult coaches. With the best of intention, we hover and direct every step, focusing on the product and neglecting the importance of the process. If another is always at the wheel, when will they learn to drive their lives? Our culture drags our children along and then expects them to take the lead.

We’ve talked before in this blog about internal vs. external locus of control. That distinction is about who we consider is in charge of our lives - ourselves (internal forces) or others around us (external forces)? Is it all out of our hands or are we the authors of our lives?

So, What Can We Do?

We must create and seek space for girls to think and speak freely, space that our male-dominated culture does not and will not naturally provide. ​

Isn’t school the “necessary evil?” Perhaps you’ve sought out what seems to be “the best” of the available conventional schools. In fact, you might just not yet know what else is actually out there for your daughter. I was an educator for over 10 years, complete with a Masters Degree and three children, before I discovered some of the truly empowering alternatives to the school systems I knew well and lamented helplessly.

I’m speaking of self-directed opportunities for our daughters. What are these? Self-Directed Education (SDE) spaces are areas in a person’s life where they follow their own interests, pursue them with as much passion as they want, abandon pursuits, and take up new ones - learning through trial and error. In short, learning the way people learn best. This seems wild and dangerous to many - don’t they need to be told what to do? Won’t they otherwise do nothing? Hold a moment - check out the quick explanatory video below about self-directed education (not too long and worth it if this is a new concept).

Do you remember your daughter before she went into “academia” (which starts younger and younger, but let’s say started in kindergarten)? Before “buckling down” to worksheets and tests, really all on her own she learned one or two languages (from scratch), probably created, sang, danced, talked a lot, tried new things, got dirty, got silly, got excited, and really discovered something new every day. Where are her spaces to continue these very important things? Developmentally they are all extremely important. They are how she learns her limits, pushes past some of those limits, negotiates her place in the world, determines who she is and who she wants to be. It’s not based on external evaluations, but rather on her internal compass. ​

Our daughter's internal compass must stay calibrated with continual use. It can’t lay in a drawer with her baby shoes to be pulled out again around 18.

Only through self-direction does she find her own direction.

SDE spaces can be as close to home as your actual home, giving her autonomy to explore, take over the backyard or garage, etc. They can also include peers, which adds not only a "nice social community" but the greatly  needed practice of authentic interaction and negotiation. I’m now part of a K-12 self-directed democracy, a Sudbury model school, for all of the reasons in this article. I believe decision making is learned while making decisions, that children require time and space to flourish as individuals, and that authentic community is an important part of human development. 

Sudbury schools are direct democracies run by students and staff together. Autonomy there means everyone is free and encouraged to follow their interests individually and collaboratively. Community there means each person is accountable to the whole, not just "if the teacher sees it." There are no grades (gasp!) and so of course no homework or tests - ever.

More shocking, perhaps, is that graduates of these schools go on to succeed in universities, businesses, and life. They’ve practiced running their lives and their learning. They are not burned out. They have a self-confidence not tied to external validation and a comfort with both adults and peers that is based on cooperation, not fear. I find parents are either desperately seeking a Sudbury school for their child, or can't quite pronounce the name. It's been a largely hidden gem for 50 years as school communities range from about 10 to 100 students around the country and internationally.

If there’s not a Sudbury school near you, there may be other self-directed and/or democratic school or SDE focused learning center near you. The Alliance for Self-Directed Education offers wonderful resources and robust research to support this pursuit for your daughter and your family.

Because it is self-directed and “liberated” does not mean it is simply “easier.” While there are no workbooks, textbooks, homework, or tests (for very very good and well-researched reasons), it can actually feel more difficult, especially at first, to choose one’s own path. There’s a comfort in someone else being at the wheel, telling you what you have to do at each turn. Young people who have spent years being told what to do may feel initially at a loss for what to do. Yet it’s exactly the challenges of daily decision making (even little decisions like when to eat lunch!) that build the executive functioning muscles they need to function as the executives of their lives. Choices like these are really only available in SDE spaces, during self-directed activity.

What are the challenges of self-directed education for parents? The first is stepping outside of convention and societal expectation. Then, it’s stepping outside of our own expectations and understandings. It probably won’t “look” like “school” or include the traditional “subjects” we’ve come to think of as essential (they really aren’t - gasp!). There won’t be a report card to stick to the fridge or teacher-directed project to post on Instagram. It won’t be as predictable and linear as we’re used to - more news to break: real learning is rarely linear and childhood is supposed to include trial and error.

Friends and family may be anywhere from skeptical to dismissive, telling you you’re hurting her future or she’s “not learning anything.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. She won’t be reciting and regurgitating information picked out for her by the school district, but that information will not only be available on her smartphone, it’s really not what ignites the fire of her curiosity and capability. In fact, the sooner your daughter starts in a self-directed environment, the sooner it becomes natural for her to direct her own life. And, as we’ve seen over and over, the sooner she starts this, the farther she typically takes her education. Why? It’s hers. And, she’s not burned out.

It’s about the process not the product. The real treasure is not the pretty project that gets an A but the purposeful young person who works on something that is meaningful to them. That’s real life. That’s what your daughter will be learning - because that’s what she will be living.

Can’t really believe that your daughter could learn what she’s interested in and go on to excel in college and life? If you haven’t yet, please just order or download Free to Learn by Peter Gray right now. After reading (or listening), if you think it was a waste of time and money, call me. I don't get any kickbacks other than the "Oh, wow!" from those who read it. I feel quite confident that it will open your eyes and mind the way it did for me and has for so many other parents and educators. It may just give you the courage you need to liberate your daughter in the way she needs.

Combining history/anthropology, child development research, and cutting-edge perspectives, Dr. Gray is a must-read for parents and educators. Paper, Kindle, & Audible options available.

I focus on girls here, but if you’re the mother of a boy, you likely still resonate with the importance of SDE spaces where your child can practice autonomy for a stronger sense of self, a more relaxed state of mental and emotional health, and more opportunity to discover and develop their interests and self-motivation.

Another leader in self-directed education, Akilah Richards hosts a thought-provoking and deeply supportive podcast and recently published a book that explores the liberation that self-directed education brings to both children and parents. Her work particularly explores and supports BIPOC families and communities in their liberation through new perspectives on education. Poignant, passionate, and personal, her powerful words have inspired many to question systems of oppression right under their noses and to choose to live out new understandings as truly free people.

Akilah Richards takes a good and hard look at "schoolishness" and self-directed education as liberation.

Fare of the Free Child podcast focuses on Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color (BIPOC) families who practice unschooling and other forms of Self-Directed, decolonized living and learning. Each weekly episode examines a particular way that we’ve accepted coercive, emotionally and physically damaging habits as a normal part of adult-child relationships. With a focus on deschooling one’s self, decolonizing education, and exploring radical self-expression, this podcast both challenges and informs us to push past coercion and fear, and walk toward a model for living with children that centers community, addresses social justice issues, and believes in trusting and respecting children and ourselves. #BIPOCinSDE #raisingfreepeople

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