It’s Cool to Be Cruel: How Moms Can Help Girls

It’s hard to imagine that anyone who heard about the recent teen rape case in Steubenville involving two teenage boys sexually assaulting an unconscious, drunken 16-year old girl and broadcasting it over social networks, would be anything but horrified. For some of us, it was further compounded by the news coverage that portrayed the high school football players in tears at the verdict. The pubic felt sorry for them. That the violence and psychological harm done to the girl became incidental to the story incited an outrage in social media circles. And this has happened before in other communities with even more tragic consequences for the girl victim.

Girls giggling at computer iStock_000005580773XSmallBut the teachable moment was largely lost among our teens. Mostly, they didn’t hear about it and no one told them about it. Maybe the story just didn’t ruffle enough feathers. Yes, teens do stupid things. They also do destructive things. But let’s just say that there are people who can do something with such a newsworthy story: parents, coaches, teachers, school guidance counselors, or club newspapers, anyone? Might they not serve as potential messengers for violence prevention programs or constructive dialog when such incidents happen?

Can we all please wake up?

When I took the opportunity to share the story with my 15 year old, she was shocked indeed. Her face scrunched up for a few moments imagining the party scene. This long pause was then followed by a “Thanks, mom, that’s really nice to share. Thanks a lot.” If it made her uncomfortable, that was the point.Our girls and our boys are growing up with social media and in a culture that amplifies the objectification of women and the destruction of

Our girls and our boys are growing up with social media and in a culture that amplifies the objectification of women and the destruction of intimacy like never before.There is no healthy sexuality taught in schools or churches. At each turn girls and boys are learning new values, largely from online culture and media, and parents are largely clueless to it. Gone are the values of kindness, respect, speaking one’s own truth, collaboration, and constructive play. What have they been replaced by?

According to Catherine Steiner-Adair, PhD, an esteemed researcher and psychologist who speaks with kids around the nation, the top three cultural values for our children are:

  • Presentation
  • Objectification
  • Instant gratification

Today, the goal of “being famous” is more important than being productive, generous or industrious.  Having  the right “package” wins votes on talent shows. How many ‘likes’ or ‘follows’ supersedes any experience of intrinsic self-worth and mutual regard.  According to Steiner-Adair, the three most insidious online memes for girls today are: mean girls, slut chic and ana chic (as in pro-anorexic).

Ready to run yet, moms?

I’m right there with ya. Girls are being marketed padded bras and manicure parties as early as grade school, and tween boys are now the largest growing audience of violent pornography.  This makes the days of hidden Playboys stuffed under mattresses appear a sweet pastime.

It’s not any better for moms and dads.  The self-absorbed or bitchy career mom has replaced the ditzy stay-at-home mom; and dads are often depicted as lost puppies not knowing what to make of the females around him.

In my house, if any media totally exemplifies the emerging values of our girl culture, it’s Dance Moms. It is the perfectly edited compilation of mean mom/mean girl culture if ever there was one. But that’s rant for another time.

Yes, our cultural values have gone down a sinkhole and it will take a mighty effort to reverse the trends.  But it can be done.

Moms out there, it is your job to intervene early and repeatedly… with girls especially. It’s a now a major part of your job
description. You need not be in their faces with worry or highfalutin dictates, but simply be observant, consistent, patient, and gentle in guiding your daughters as they grow up. Inoculate. Don’t check out. Don’t assume anyone one else is going to teach them or that issues like violence prevention, body image, dating abuse or online cruelty will be covered in a health class.

What to do?

It’s really simple. It just takes consistency.

Here are six strategies:

1) Pay attention. 

Really pay attention to what’s going on in your child’s world. Show interest and be inquisitive.  This matters even if you don’t get any acknowledgment from your kid. They soak up everything you say and do.

2) Converse about what you and your child see on TV, in the movies, and online.

Hang with them when whenever you can in front of the TV. Teach them about the roles of ads (what are they trying to sell; how are they getting you to want to buy; how does the ad make you feel?). Then, when it’s developmentally appropriate (4th grade and up), constructively analyze how girls and boys are being portrayed and what your child thinks about it.

3) Limit their exposure to the Internet for as long as possible.

A major coming of age milestone is now getting a cell phone. When it comes to tweens,  seriously consider the introduction of a smartphone with access to the Internet. Honestly, my younger daughter got hers too early (at 12) and having an older sister using one tipped the balance. Instagram scores big with this crowd and you now have to add time to periodcially scroll through the banter of tweens, just when you want to spare a few moments to relax in in your busy day.

4) Set rules for media use and texting. 

You can demonstrate the appropriate use of technology for your child. Like…don’t drive and use your cell phone or text. I have been guilty of this, “Oh, I’m at a stop light!”  (It’s confusing to kids when you lecture about safety and you casually use your cell phone when they’re in the car.) Turn off media during mealtime. Shut down media early in the evening so the brain and body can relax. Avoid use of technology on family vacations, too.

5) Talk about the tough issues that may make you uncomfortable. 

Like ….sex, dating abuse, rape culture, hooking up, drugs and alcohol, and the effects on the teen brain.  Organizations exist that have scripts and toolkits for parents of adolescents on how to initiate a conversation.

Friends are more important to teens than anyone else, so talk about that, too. Friends can be like a drug stimulant to a teenager and that’s why they do risky things with friends. It’s how the brain works. It’s a social high.

This is also why humiliation by peers can be expereinced as a final blow and can result in teen suicide. We see it again and again. It’s heartbreaking.Talk to them about the meaning of intimacy, friendship, social responsibility and leadership. (“Why is so cool to be cruel these days? Where does that come from? Do you think that’s why So&So sent out that text?”)

Don’t know when to bring it up? Find the quiet moment, like when you are driving or sitting around watching a show.  This makes it easier when the inevitable girl drama, or social slight, or stupid incidents happen – or, god forbid, a tragedy close to home. You’re building a foundation for conversation – and by being open and non-judgmental you’ve set forth the values of thoughtfulness, appropriate behavior, and respect.

6) Be a role model. 

Behave in a manner you want your children to follow.  What you do is more important than what you say. Uphold your core values. Be brave. Walk the talk.

It’s as simple as that.

* * *


There is a teachable moment every day – from stories of the schoolyard to the media they consume. Ask about your child’s day. Be perpared when sticky things come up. Here are excellent resouces for parents:

  • Catherine Steiner-Adair  – Her new book comes out Aug 2013,  The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood, Family and Relationships in the Digital Age. (She recenlty spoke at the Atrium School, in Watertown, MA.)
  • Miss Representation  – Watch the film with your teens. Educate yourself on current and problematic gender stereotypes in our culture
  • Spark Movement  – Girls empowerment movement
  • Common Sense Media  – Guides for parents on media
  • Drugfree.org  – Toolkits for parents on substance use, additictions, and getting help

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