It's Time to Empower Our Girls

People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

-- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (1988)

It was one of those sunlit, summer, Saturday afternoons, when the entire world seems to be at peace. I was sitting on the lawn of The New England Salem Children's Village in New Hampshire, watching the play of a "space cadet" girl named Nina and a "severely hyperactive" boy named Billy. The boy was running about, provoking squeaks from the nearby chipmunks, flushing a pheasant from the forests' edge. Nina seemed to be watching him, but noticing the expressions on her face, I guessed her mind was elsewhere.

Why? I wondered. Why was it that when Billy was totally engaged in the world? Even his differences of attention-span and focus that seemed so problematic in school evaporated under the intensity of momentary interest, be it in skateboarding, a video game, activities with friends, or the behavior of an oversized bug.

And why did Nina's ability to focus seem to come more easily to her when imposed on her by external authority - a demanding teacher, for example - but wasn't as easy for her to turn on by herself? At the time, I told myself it was because Nina hadn't been as resilient as Billy, and so had responded to the severe child abuse that brought her to our program in a way that made her more compliant.

Then came the fairy tale.

A short time after that, I was reading the story of Cinderella to my own daughter. About halfway through the book, I suddenly realized what I was "teaching" her with this story. The "good girl," Cinderella, was also the one in the story who was beautiful. The "bad girls" - Cinderella's stepsisters - were physically unattractive. But one level deeper, the story became really bizarre. Cinderella was compliant and uncomplaining, and spent much of her mental life in a fantasy world, while the ugly stepsisters were young women who had a goal and a mission and were trying to reach it. In other words, assertive women were ugly, and compliant women were attractive. Assertive women lived in the real world of power and competence, but eventually would lose out; pretty, compliant women lived in a world of fantasy, but if they kept doing what they were told, even if told so by a fantasy fairy godmother, then everything would work out.

And the prize in this competitive psychodrama? A man. And not just a normal man, but a man who was so self-absorbed that he spent an hour or more dancing with Cinderella but afterwards couldn't remember what she looked like and could only identify her by her shoe size!

I remember walking into the living room and saying to my wife, "I think I've just participated in a cultural brainwashing experiment," as I described my observations about the story I'd just read to our daughter.

In our culture, boys are encouraged to act out their need for aliveness - to build, conquer, destroy, change, form and reform everything from the physical to the social to the religious. Thus, those boys with an intensely strong need to know their own aliveness are the most visible - they're constantly self-stimulating through interactions with the world around them. When they have functional ways to do this they're called gifted or bright or accomplished; when they find dysfunctional ways to meet their need for aliveness, they're called hyperactive (or worse).

As you can see from the story of Cinderella (and others, like Snow White, etc.), girls in our culture are given a very different story about how they should meet their need for knowing their own aliveness. From a very young age, they're told to sit down, shut up, not interrupt, and be a lady. The varieties of hyperactive behavior are either driven out of them or else they're labeled as hyperactive tomboys, which is not usually considered (at least by the girls) a positive label.

So these girls (and a small percentage of boys) figure out a different way to meet their need for aliveness, a way that doesn't demand external sensory input.

Keep in mind, this need for aliveness is a visceral need, on a par with the need to eat, sleep, and breathe. People will violate their own survival to get it met (and do so in very painful and sometimes deadly ways every day). It operates below the threshold of conscious awareness, just as does the need for safety (you don't "think about it" when a car pulls out in front of you in traffic: like the need to experience aliveness, the need to remain safe is automatic, visceral, instinctual). The need for aliveness is not a cognitive need: it's not satisfied by thinking. This is why cognitive and behavior modification therapies have only short-term results in most cases with ADHD children (because they introduce novelty, which wears off quickly). This view of ADHD shows that it is not a failure of inhibition any more than the common Victorian era situation of a starving mother's theft of bread for her child (usually leading to deportation to Australia, or to prison as in Hugo's story Les Miserables) was a failure of inhibition: that mother was responding to hunger.

The need for aliveness is a neurological "hunger" that must be satisfied.

So while boys can satisfy their need for the experience of aliveness by physical activity, girls are slapped down (more often metaphorically than literally, but the effect is the same) when they try to get their need for aliveness met by physical activity or manipulation of the physical world around them. So, in the face of the Cinderella story, and the millions of other messages that girls in our culture get about how they must be passive and quiet in order to be "feminine," they learn another way - an internal way - to "know they're alive": they escape into fantasy. So while our boys are getting their arousal from doing things externally, our girls are getting their need for aliveness met by creating and stepping into worlds of fantasy and imagination. And when the teacher calls on them, they seem to be off in space.

It's not that the girls aren't stimulated - they're fully engaged in the fantasy that's often visualized right in front of them. It's not that they don't interrupt like the hyperactive boys - but instead of interrupting others, they're interrupting themselves, with raging internal monologues that are so often interrupted in their own minds so badly and so frequently that they can't remember what they were thinking just five minutes before.

Of course, I'm oversimplifying to say this is "girls versus boys" in the world of AD/HD. There's a small percentage of girls with a strong need for aliveness who manage to make it through childhood without internalizing the Cinderella story, and are able to go out in the world and do and get what they want and need. And there are a small percentage of boys who, during childhood, learn to get their need for aliveness met through fantasy rather than through externally hyperactive behavior. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Evidence that both "quiet ADD" girls and "hyperactive ADHD" boys are both working through the same need for aliveness is easy to find. Both usually respond well to high-stimulation classrooms and environments: when the external world is sufficiently interesting that they "know they're alive," the hyperactive ones no longer act out, and the space-cadet ones no longer escape into fantasy. This is true whether it's an engrossing movie or a teacher who's mastered the Robin Williams style so brilliantly demonstrated in the movie "Dead Poet's Society."

Second, both types respond well to stimulant medication, drugs which satisfy the need for aliveness via a chemical rather than a psychological or physiological means.

And neither type will respond over the long-term to behavior modification schemes or most cognitive interventions: classroom and real-world experience shows that they both do best when they're passionately engaged in life and, regardless of structure, do poorly when they aren't interested in the topic at hand.

By raising our girls in a more egalitarian fashion, without changing our larger social institutions, we may be just shifting their destined label from "dreamer" to "tomboy." By simply medicating them, we may temporarily make up for the deficiencies of a badly dysfunctional school system, but we don't truly meet their needs: they end up wounded by the experience of being labeled as psychiatrically "disordered" and "deficient" and learn only to rely on pills to get through life.

And, most tragically, by basing all our research and supposed "outcome studies" on girls who were run through the factories of our schools, without questioning the dysfunctional and wounding nature of the schools themselves, we perpetuate the "blame the victim" syndrome so prevalent in psychology and education today. Of course they'll fail over the long term, hyperactive or not: so would left-handed children in Origami classes where the only scissors available are designed for right-handed people.

In my opinion, we must approach this situation in a multimodal fashion. Our girls must be given empowering stories and positive, assertive role models. Egalitarian societies (what we call "primitive" or "tribal" cultures) are rich with such stories. We can - and must - share those stories with our daughters.

And we must reinvent our educational institutions, since they have such a powerful hold and a pervasive influence on our daughters. Held captive in our schools for a dozen or more years, our daughters are now being either punished or drugged for trying to find aliveness in acting-out behavior or in daydreaming and fantasy. Instead, we must create learning environments that stimulate, challenge, and engage girls as much as they do boys, rich with opportunity for participation, creativity, and equal power and say.

In such environments - which millions of girls today are finding in charter schools, alternative schools, and in homeschooling - we can unlock and bring forth the power and potential of our daughters to create a world that works for them, their daughters, and their daughters' daughters. We must work to propagate these teaching styles, which engage our daughters and don't require them to rely on medications to remain stimulated, into our public schools.

Today, teachers who break the factory-school mold and engage their students, such as California teacher Jamie Escalante (immortalized in the movie "Stand And Deliver") and New York State Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto (author of "Dumbing Us Down") are driven from teaching by a system which is more suited to a 19th century factory than a 21st century place of learning. This must change, if we are to rescue the potential of our often-overlooked AD/HD daughters. The change begins with you and me, working for transformation of education, contacting our politicians, and participating by joining PTAs and school boards. And it begins when we stop pathologizing our daughters, calling them "dumb blondes" or "space cadets" or "attention deficient" or "disordered" when it's the system and the culture that produced it that's most in need of change.

We must make these changes, and the experience of millions of girls across America who are succeeding brilliantly in alternative educational environments - usually without medications - proves it's possible.

A child of story once provoked a revolution by pointing out that, "The emperor has no clothes." The emperor of our largely male-dominated educational, entertainment, and psychiatric institutions, for all their good intentions, are still telling our girls to be silent and sexy Cinderella's. This naked disempowerment of girls and women in our society must stop, and it must stop today.

It's time for radical truth-telling, for a renewal of the once-honored status of women in our society. It's time to give our girls role models and opportunities filled with aliveness that don't depend on the approval of men to be validated, or a psychiatric label to be acknowledged. It's time to give our daughters back the dignity and self-esteem they deserve as honored and important members of our world.

©2006, Thom Hartmann

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Thom Hartmann is an internationally known speaker on culture and communications, an author, and an innovator in the fields of psychiatry, ecology, and economics. Hartmann is the award-winning, best-selling author of fourteen books currently in print in over a dozen languages on four continents, eight of them concerning ADHD. His most recent book is titled We the People: A call to take back America. The founder of The New England Salem Children’s Village (1978) and The Hunter School (1997), he has led national innovations in the areas of residential treatment for abused children and private/public education for learning-disabled children. The father of three grown children, he lives in Vermont with his wife Louise, to whom he's been married for over 30 years. Reach Thom on his web site at or via e-mail at thom followed by the @ symbol followed by or PO Box 247, Montpelier, VT 05601.

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