Untangled by Lisa Damour

a bookclique pick by Jessica Flaxman

My grandmother liked things to be neat. When she saw my long hair in knots, she would bribe me to sit still so she could run a comb through it. I really didn’t want to stop playing to get pretty, but the promise of chocolate was sufficient enough incentive for me to sit, relatively happily, through that and other unofficial lessons in what was expected of girls. I thought about this experience when I read Lisa Damour’s Untangled, a great book about girls’ development. Damour works at Case Western and at Laurel School in Ohio, a leader in secondary girls’ education and home of the Center for Research on Girls. In her book, Damour describes seven stages in a girl’s life: parting with childhood; joining a new tribe; harnessing emotions; contending with adult authority; planning for the future; entering the romantic world; and caring for herself. Each stage is brought to life through research, anecdotes and analysis. Damour’s thesis is simple and powerful: the majority of what girls say and do as they are becoming adults is not only normal, but necessary to their becoming independent and successful. For example, when a girl who is sweet and loving to her parent one moment and then suddenly responds as if that same parent is as lowly as an unwanted Brussels sprout, she is well within the bounds of normal, if unfriendly, behavior. Although “it’s deeply painful to become a Brussels sprout,” it’s not bad or wrong for girls to express emotions that may shift on a dime. Damour tells readers that they can and should respond to that unanticipated chilliness with an “ouch” or “wow” – but shouldn’t ascribe ill motives or character traits to the one who isn’t sure how she feels about things. Another key observation Damour offers is this: “like teenage boys, [girls] often want privacy for its own sake.” However, as a default or a rule, adults tend to deny them that privilege because, essentially, we believe they shouldn’t want privacy the way that boys do. Girls, argues Damour, don’t need to have any more reason than boys may have to want their own space, place, and time. Damour is no Pollyanna, however. At the end of every chapter, she outlines some of the behaviors that are, in fact, quite worrisome. These behaviors include self-harm, bullying, substance abuse, and something she calls the “female Peter Pan,” or an extended immaturity in an adolescent girl’s outlook and attachments. I loved and appreciated the wisdom in Damour’s book. I think about it nearly every night because one of my own daughters has thick, beautiful hair that is often quite a mess. She loves to wear it long and tangled. I do my best to refrain from remarking on it, not to mention trying to brush it out for her.

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