"Why are those girls so nice to their mom?" my first grader innocently asked as we watched the original film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women over the holidays. She then asked to watch it over and over again, reminding me how much I also loved the story as a child.
Set during the Civil War, Little Women is the story of four sisters coming of age under the guidance of their mother, affectionately called Marmee. The film starring Janet Leigh and a very young Elizabeth Taylor was a favorite when I was a child too, but I always thought it was because we also had a family with four daughters. I see now that the heart of the movie shows what girls need most to thrive: unbridled fun as well as at least one positive, older female role model.
Marmee is deeply respected by her daughters. They witness her live a dignified daily life of humility, love, and service. In one scene, the girls decide to sacrifice their $1 cash Christmas presents from a wealthy aunt to buy presents for Marmee. Following their mother's example, they also donate their one lavish meal of the year, their Christmas breakfast, to give to a family who needs it far more than they do.
Sure it's just a scripted movie, but its timeless appeal is a reminder that girls are hungry for our guidance and that they will emulate us more than we realize. We know that a mother influences her daughter's own body image and can even shape what kind of a parent her daughter will be herself one day. A recent study even found that a mother's (not a father's) drinking habits directly correlate with her children's later drinking habits.
Dr. Leonard Sax, a family practice doctor, psychologist, and author of the recent book, Girls on the Edge, argues that a good chunk of what should be a precious phase of girlhood (that time between childhood and adulthood when girls should be having innocent adventures like riding bikes, playing in creeks, and giggling with their friends) is being replaced by sexually charged images and expectations that have made them make the leap to adulthood much too quickly. Losing their girlhood and thereby growing up too fast is a detriment to their development, he says, and it's causing unprecedented increases in anxiety, depression, and loneliness in girls today.
Where are the carefree, fun-loving girls like Punky Brewster, Laura Ingalls Wilder, or the four March sisters when girls flip on the television in 2013? Those characters have been replaced with far more serious ones like Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and Rihanna (three of the most Googled young people in 2012).
One of the antidotes to this is to pair girls with older mentors. Though their peer group is strong and it's normal for teenage girls to want some separation from their parents as they develop an identity of their own, other female adult role models can be positive as well. We saw this in quilting communities of generations past and in some single-gender organizations. When I first became a mother, I joined a community of knitters and was the youngest in the group by at least 30 years. These women told me stories as they doted on my baby, teaching me to knit while they also doled out advice and welcomed me into a tribe of sorts. At different times in a girl or woman's life it may not be possible for her to have her own mother as a mentor, and that's where other women can help.
Several months ago, Dr. Laura talked on-air about a remarkable girl she knows and how this girl's mother has been "a phenomenal mentor" to her. The word choice was striking: I hadn't thought of one's own mother being a mentor. A teacher can be one, or a coach, or an aunt, but a mother? She was so right.
Mothers have a responsibility to be upstanding role models for their daughters to look up to. Yet, all women should share in this endeavor whether their children are grown, or they have sons instead of daughters, or they have no children at all. Younger people really do want to hear our stories and feel that sense of acceptance by us even though we may be years apart in age.
Julie Samrick is a stay-at-home mom of four young kids and the founder of Kid Focused, a site devoted to children and family issues. Subscribe to the free Kid Focused newsletter delivered weekly to your inbox and connect with us on Facebook too. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.