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A GIRL'S WORLD IS WIDE OPEN -- IF SHE'LL RISK IT

She says the words once in a while, maybe when riding her bicycle up a steep hill or getting stuck on the monkey bars: "I can't do it."

What a father says or does next makes a big difference.

The world is changing. One hopes it's changing fast enough that my two young daughters can, to borrow the Army recruiting come-on, be all that they can be.

It may sound tired, 30 years after the feminist movement revved up. But junior high teachers still tell of bright girls hitting adolescence and getting "dumb" -- pretending not to know the answers because they're afraid being smart isn't "feminine" and turns boys off. Loading up on makeup and tight jeans completes the body-over-mind metamorphosis.

The battle is against society's messages, subtle or otherwise, about what they can and can't, are and aren't, supposed to do. The messages are sent not just by the bikinied model at the car show, but from dear old Dad. Before fatherhood, he may not have noticed or cared about the invisible chains that can hold girls back. And now, as a father, he might unintentionally be tightening them.

Nicky Marone is the author of "How to Father a Successful Daughter" (McGraw-Hill, $16.95), which was an eye-opener for this dad. She said a basic paradox remains. Traits men commonly think of as feminine -- submissiveness, vulnerability, sweetness, sensitivity -- are useless for success. And the ones men identify with achievement -- independence, willingness to take risks, belief in oneself -- they think of as male attributes.

Which leaves girls with the impossible task of succeeding while still being feminine (at least the traditional view of feminine).

The answer has come from a legion of postmodern women, from Sally Ride to Susan Molinari (with a detour through Madonna), who have upended traditional notions of femininity. Girls today are more likely to play basketball than cheer for boys who do. But old dogmas die hard. And many men, unwittingly or otherwise, feed and shelter them.

Whether they come to the rescue at the first sign of their daughters' distress, or act as the family authority figure, the message their daughters get is the same: You need a man to help you.

Writes Ms. Marone, "In cultivating traditionally female behaviors -- being sweet, attractive, emotional and dependent -- you discourage the traits required for achievement: competence, taking risks and mastering skills."

Though it's a fairer world than it used to be, some things haven't changed much. As Ms. Marone puts it, "Boys automatically assume privilege and girls automatically surrender it."

As a junior high teacher, Ms. Marone divided her class into problem-solving groups. Invariably, the boys made decisions and the girls took notes. When she forced them to switch, the boys went ballistic. But the girls, relieved of the pressure to be "feminine" -- i.e. subservient -- basked in the power.

Our 5-year-old is already trying to sort out what men and women are "supposed" to do. Passing a golf course, she noticed a group of men on the green.

"Is that something women do, too?" she asked.

Yes.

"As many women as men?"

And her young eyes see the old man's blind spots. She recently asked, "When we all go somewhere, how come you drive and Mommy doesn't?"

For dads, it's what they do, not what they say. If fathers make all the decisions, interrupt women in conversation or, ahem, do all the driving, it won't matter how many times they tell their daughter she's as good as the guys.

Fathers can help. They can teach their daughters to swing a bat, climb a rope, fish. They can take her with them to the hardware store or a baseball game. They can make sure she spends as much time on the computer as the boys, and isn't embarrassed about a 100 on a math test. They can sign her up for self-defense classes as well as dance instruction.

The idea isn't to emasculate men. It's to help her understand she can do and be what she wants. And that, when puberty hits, she doesn't have to turn into Pamela Lee to attract boys. Knowing that a flush beats a straight or the infield fly rule will get many a young man's attention.

Boys have their own crosses to bear. But there's nobody telling them they shouldn't, or can't, succeed.

Daughters are different. Which is why, lately, one doesn't always run to the rescue every time she says, "I can't." There's more at stake than getting the bike up a hill.

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