Are you a rule follower through and through? Do you love to live in the black and white of life? Do you desperately avoid the messiness of the gray, wanting to define things, put them in a clean box, and tie them up with a nice little bow so that they stay the same for eternity? Just me? OK, great.
Well if you are like me, you may often find the values of Gen Z (those born between 1995-2012, give or take a few years) strange, inaccessible, or maybe even a little threatening to the way you normally think and operate. As adults in the life of this younger generation, we may be tempted to immediately view their ideologies as only negative and harmful, rather than also recognizing the unique gifts they offer and ways they challenge us to grow. Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me and iGen, says the following of generational shifts:
“There’s a natural human tendency to classify things as all good or all bad, but with cultural changes, it’s better to see the gray areas and the trade-offs” (iGen: Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood).
And the gray area is exactly where Gen Z likes to be (a direct confrontation to my beloved comfort zone). Because they are a generation that upholds fluidity as a value, there are many unique challenges that we are facing as a society and a Church. One that we feel keenly is the tension of understanding, teaching, and living authentic masculinity and femininity.
BLESS HER HEART AND MODEST SHOPPING SPREES
As a little girl growing up in the deep south and the Catholic Church, I was given quite the combination of qualities to define being a woman. I distinctly remember learning to “put my face on” before leaving the house, being told that ladies only chew gum behind closed doors, and organizing modest shopping sprees after every women’s session convicted me of our culpability in leading our brothers in Christ astray.
As I grow in understanding my identity as a beloved creation and daughter of God, I continuously have to place these ideals under a microscope. I have to learn to recognize the unique way in which God is choosing to manifest His image in me, as a woman. I also have had to continuously learn that, while femininity is a shared characteristic of all women, it lives and breaths in as many different ways as there are women in this world. We cannot simply package femininity as a one-size fits all pink, midi dress and expect every woman to wear it with confidence.
Unfortunately within the Church, when we talk about the gift of being a woman, we often reduce the conversation to the clothing we wear, the hobbies we pursue, the way we speak and carry ourselves, and the vocational options we have. While these aspects of life have their place in discussions about being a (male and female) disciple of Christ, they are not the defining factors of living courageously the strength of womanhood. Through the many different women in my life, I have learned that authentic femininity is both fierce and gentle. It is life-giving and formidable. It creates a space for the human person in a vast spectrum of ways. It is beautiful, messy, and an incredible to privilege live out of and share with the others. It is also desperately needed in our world.
A NEW GENERATION OF WOMEN
If we want this new generation to hold on to the complementarity of men and women, I believe we have to challenge ourselves to recognize and break out of the unhealthy stereotypes and generalizations surrounding gender. We have to be OK with asking questions with them, sitting in the tension of not having immediate answers, listening to experiences that are different than our own, and affirming what is good before immediately condemning what we perceive to be wrong. What should we affirm, then, in the life of girls and young women so that they fearlessly and uniquely grow in authentic femininity?
Her voice matters. The way your teen experiences the daily situations of life matters. She has a unique perspective that should be honored. The opinions she has are worth being heard and considered, even if the decisions made go in a different direction that she would like. You can teach her how to do this by bringing her into family decisions and conversations as you see fit. Give her confidence in expressing her concerns and desires, while also learning to hear the perspectives and see the needs of others. It is also important to encourage her to develop her own charisms. These are the unique abilities we each have that serve and build up the Body of Christ. As you pray about and recognize the gifts of your daughter, affirm them in her, and provide ample opportunities for her to serve others with them. Reflect together how you each live out of your charisms in new and exciting ways. Along with these things, help her to articulate the unique mission she has been given by God that will string through any time of study, job, relationship, or vocation she enters into.
Her body is not a threat. It is essential to emphasize from a young age that God gave her this biological body, with all its amazing phases and abilities, for a reason. The woman’s body is intrinsically good. Many of us probably agree in theory. However, the way we talk about and try to inforce virtuous actions in young women usually sounds and looks something like this, “You need to cover your body because if you don’t, it will lead the men around you to sin.” Subtly translated, “Your body is inherently dangerous, men are incapable of (or unresponsible for) mastering their passions, and if you are ever taken advantage of, it is probably, in someway your fault.” We desperately need to broaden the conversation about virtue, making it less about the clothing we wear, and more about the way we engage in our relationships overall.
Her growth in virtue is freeing. Virtue is not a limitation to her uniqueness, but allows it to flourish. When we help young women cultivate virtues, such as prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice, and all of their subsets, we are equipping them to take on life in all of its current and future joys and struggles. Growth in virtue is exactly that — growth. We are all works-in-progress. Sometimes we make poor decisions, big and small, but we can learn and should learn from them. You can help your teen grow in autonomy by identifying and talking about the virtues you want to grow in. Make space to listen and talk about the ways she has struggled, failed, and succeeded in the decisions she has made. Every now and then, check in on her role models. Ask her who is inspiring her. Help her craft a language around what she admires in others. When talking about others, especially the saints, help her to recognize that her life is not meant to look exactly like someone else’s life. However, she can identify and reflect on the aspects of their life that resonate with her. It is natural for all of us to occasionally get stuck trying to follow the exact same path as someone we admire, which is why we need people we trust to remind us of the unique way that we reflect the image of God.
STRONG WOMEN TRANSFORM THE WORLD
At the heart of authentic femininity, in all of the ways it is lived out, is ultimately a relationship with the God in whose image we are created. It requires that we dive head first into a life of prayer, and teach young women to do the same. Cultivating all of these things in young women requires that we cultivate them in ourselves. By becoming strong, virtuous women (or if you are a man, encouraging the women in your life), we can ensure a generation of strong, virtuous women will follow.