Rachel Simmons on raising Real Girls tonight at the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center

by Chrisie Wendin on September 14, 2010

“I better be good, huh?” quips Rachel Simmons, when talking about the sold-out Bay Area workshops she is conducting this week, including tonight’s appearance at the M-A PAC. Dubbed the “Be You! The Real Girl Tour,” the parent-child program is sponsored by Kepler’s, as well as the new Consortium of Atherton and Menlo Park United Schools (CAMPUS), which strives to bring top-notch speakers and programs to local parents.

And Simmons certainly fits the bill. She’s an expert on all things girl, through her work as an educator, best-selling author, and co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute (GLI). Simmons’ latest book, now available in paperback, draws upon her work with the organization. Says Simmons, “The Curse of the Good Girl contains the wisdom that I accumulated during my years at the Girls Leadership Institute. The concepts are the ones taught at GLI.”

Many local families have been introduced to these strategies through current and past GLI school programs at Encinal, Laurel, Hillview, Oak Knoll, and St. Raymond’s. The school workshops help girls navigate a world in which they may face incredible pressure, unrealistic expectations, and pervasive female aggression. And for girls growing up in affluent areas like Menlo and Atherton, with more choices and opportunities come more parental expectations and more pressure to perform.

And then there is the issue of parents who do too much for their children: “There is speculation that when affluent girls have parents that over-parent, they don’t develop coping skills of their own. When caught in tough moments, they don’t know how to respond. In many ways, that is what we are trying to work on with girls — the coping skills to respond to challenge.”

Learning through laughter

Simmons says that for GLI alumni, tonight’s interactive workshop will be somewhat of a refresher course but also much more than that. “It’s an opportunity to spend quality time with your daughter. And you can never talk about or practice this stuff enough,” asserts Simmons.

One of the hallmarks of the GLI programs is getting kids and parents to be silly and have fun, all the while nurturing emotional intelligence, assertive self-expression, and healthy relationships. Describing herself as mentally 14, Simmons says, “People ask, how can you do this work? It’s so depressing. I think that there’s a way to laugh and have fun with this stuff even when it’s painful.”

GLI’s school programs, which are taught by Bay Area-based staff including GLI co-founder and Executive Director Simone Marean, are limited to a dozen or so parent/daughter pairs. But the M-A PAC event and others like it draw hundreds of participants, helping kids to see that it’s okay — cool, even — to be their true selves. “It’s also important on a deeper level, says Simmons, “If a girl is in an unhappy friendship, she may not be able to see outside of that. But if she sees all these other girls who believe this too, maybe she’ll realize there’s more for me out there than I think.”

GLI began its programs here in the Bay Area and its success means expansion to new regions (the East Bay, New York City and Colorado) and younger age groups. Look for kindergarten and first-grade programs to be available in Menlo Park very soon. Says Simmons, “There’s a misunderstanding that aggression in female friendships begins in middle school. We know that it starts much earlier. And truly the younger a girl, the more open she is to what we have to teach.”

If you weren’t able to get tickets to tonight’s event, Simmons offers some parting advice: ” The two most important things you can do when your child has a problem with a friend are: Number one, empathize before you do anything. Recognize and validate your child’s right to feel the way she feels. And your second question should be, what do you want to do about this?”

Photo courtesy of Rachel Simmons

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