Are My Kids on Track: Girls and Reciprocity, Part 1


Let’s talk about tennis. I (Sissy) am not sure if you’ve ever played. I have quite a bit. Not well, but quite a bit. I spent lots of hours and lots of my parents’ well-earned money growing up in tennis lessons. Somehow, my ball always seemed to end up in the next court over rather than my own. But I played enough to learn the basics. And the basics of tennis are the primary analogy I use in my office to teach girls about reciprocity.

If you’ve never played, let me fill you in. I (try to) serve the ball to you. You see my ball and hit it back to me. I see the ball and (hopefully) hit it back to you. And so on and so forth. That’s what tennis lessons will get you. It’s reciprocity. Back and forth, back and forth with the same ball. Or conversation.

Awareness is foundational to relationships. Relationships are foundational for girls. They want to please and so they really do want to be aware. I also believe they want relationships to be reciprocal. They want shared conversation, shared experience, shared laughter, even shared trips to the bathroom. They want to connect, and reciprocity is what truly enables us and them to connect. I believe all girls want that. I just believe some girls don’t really know how to get there.

Stumbling Blocks for Girls

Think about the last time you were in the car with your daughter and one of her friends. What was their conversation like? How were your daughter’s tennis skills in terms of reciprocity? Did she ask questions? Did she listen and respond? If you’re not sure how she does in conversation, let me share with you an insider tip. One of my mom’s best parenting tactics was to alter the car stereo settings so it was louder in the back than in the front. Then, in order to hear each other, the kids had to talk louder over the stereo and she could actually hear their conversations. Just one to file away. . . . Basically, we want her to be willing to talk about herself, have the courage to ask questions, and the ability to listen in between. Reciprocity.

Stumbling Block #2: Competition

It is this fundamental inner doubt about our own value that catapults us into a search for self-esteem so loaded with apprehension that it easily becomes compulsively egocentric and even destructive.

Henri Nouwen

“Compulsively egocentric” sounds like a lot of girls I know . . . especially seventh and eighth graders. But all girls struggle to some degree with inner doubt. Inner doubt, however, can easily lead to insecurity. And insecurity can lead to destruction . . . hers and the girls around her.

When I think of girls being destructive, the phrase mean girls comes to mind. Girls can be and often are mean. Usually, at the heart of a mean girl is a drive for competition. For many girls, competition becomes their attempt to control their own inner doubt (and maybe control the people around them, while they’re at it).

Boys are a little more oriented toward competition naturally. They compete . . . win . . . lose . . . and keep moving. They have an innate knack not to hold it against the other party. Girls, however, are different. As soon as the competition ratchets up, the other girl’s humanity ratchets down. As Nouwen goes on to say, “When we fight for issues and no longer see concrete people with their unique personalities and histories, competition will dominate compassion and winning the issue may mean losing the people.”

Competition dominates compassion. Winning the issue—or scoring a higher grade on a test—getting a faster time in track—all can add up to losing the people in general, or the friend in specific. I have talked to countless girls over the years who struggle with friendships as a result of their competitiveness.

Sometimes the competition is outright. A girl wants to be the one in the class with the most awards and the girl on the team with the most trophies. This girl often makes either subtle or not-so-subtle comments to others to remind them who’s on top. In other words, she brags. Girls feel less-than around her because she tries to make them feel that way in order to make herself feel or look better.

Other girls are primarily competitive with themselves. The drive for perfection is consuming for them. They win the awards and trophies but don’t typically rub them in the faces of their friends. Their level of competitiveness can isolate them, as well. Other girls feel less-than around them, but only because they never seem to make mistakes.

Competitive girls need your help. They need you to focus more on their attributes than their achievements. Talk about her character more than her performance. She also needs to be put in positions to struggle. She needs to learn new activities, not just participate in activities in which she already excels. I know parents who set family goals where each member has to learn to do something they don’t do well. Let her practice struggling. And let her practice losing. Don’t allow your child to win every game or every match. Remind her that it’s okay to learn and even to fail. Her value and your love aren’t tied up, in any way, in her success. And check yourself, as a parent—especially if you’re a parent/coach—to make sure the previous statement is true.

Grab a copy of Are My Kids on Track for more information on Reciprocity in boys and girls!