By Laura Newberry Los Angeles Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Laura Newberry reports, the "In Defense of Girlhood" therapy group "is a unique attempt to address "adultification bias", a form of racial prejudice that can lead teachers and other authority figures to treat Black girls as more mature than they actually are and, as a result, give them less support or punish them more harshly than their white counterparts."
Renee Curry ushered four girls into the classroom and asked them to sit on the carpet. They were bright-eyed and giggly, jittery with excitement.
Curry emptied the contents of a large reusable shopping bag onto the floor.
The girls, ages 5 to 7, wasted no time. They plunged their hands into a pile of tiny plaid skirts, gingham dresses and sparkly tutus, eagerly selecting their dolls' first outfits of the day.
"Grab your doll and we're gonna dress them while we talk," Curry, now seated on the rug, said as she pulled Black and brown dolls from another bag. The girls let out a collective shriek and claimed the dolls they'd been playing with for the last few weeks.
"All right," Curry said, trying to capture the girls' attention as they argued over whose doll was whose. "We're going to go around and introduce our dolls."
A first-grader cradling two babies in her lap went first. "This is Mark," she said. "He's 1 year old, his favorite color is green and his favorite food is broccoli and carrots."
"Do your dolls like broccoli and carrots?" Renee asked the other girls.
"No!" they yelled in unison.
A similar scene played out every Thursday afternoon between August and March in this classroom at Crete Academy, a nonprofit charter school in South Los Angeles that serves students who have experienced homelessness and poverty.
Curry is an associate marriage and family therapist and the architect of In Defense of Girlhood, a therapy group that aims to preserve the innocence of young Black girls through doll play.
The group is a unique attempt to address "adultification bias", a form of racial prejudice that can lead teachers and other authority figures to treat Black girls as more mature than they actually are and, as a result, give them less support or punish them more harshly than their white counterparts, research shows.
This presumption can affect Black girls as young as 5. In the case of Crete students, the effects of adultification bias are compounded by poverty; many of their parents are single, working night shifts or multiple jobs, and rely upon their children to help run the household.
So for an hour each week, Curry strives to remind her group of girls that they are, in fact, little girls. She validates their innocence by celebrating play and encouraging childlike banter. She cultivates their confidence and nourishes their friendships.
And she has a lot of fun doing it.
Back in the classroom on a chilly November day, the girls continue introducing their dolls.
"Her name is Coconut Cutie and her last name is Sunny," said a second-grader named Ryan. "She likes to play at the skating rink."
"My doll loves going to the club," one girl interrupted. The others burst into laughter.
"Going to the club?" Curry asked, raising an eyebrow. "We'll talk about that later."
"Like I was saying," Ryan continued, holding her doll under its arms, "her favorite phone is the iPhone 11 and her favorite pants are sweatpants." :: The seeds for the doll group were planted in spring 2019, when Curry had just begun giving one-on-one therapy to girls in need of extra support at Crete Academy.
As the executive director of the Center for the Empowerment of Families, a local nonprofit that runs arts and therapy programs for young people who have endured trauma, Curry stays abreast of the latest research on how youths are affected by prejudice. After reading a paper on adultification bias from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, she immediately thought of the girls she'd been working with.
In the first study of its kind in 2017, Georgetown researchers found that adults believed Black girls needed less nurturing and protection, were more independent and knew more about sex than white girls of the same age.
"Adultification contributes to a false narrative that Black youths' transgressions are intentional and malicious, instead of the result of immature decision-making, a key characteristic of childhood," researchers wrote.
The study asserted that such bias contributes to the harsher treatment of Black girls in the education and juvenile justice systems, and fewer mentorship and leadership opportunities being available to them. Black girls are nearly six times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts, according to research by the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School.
As a therapist, Curry knew that if children aren't given the time and space to play, imagine, explore and be free of the pressures and stresses of their world, there's a much higher chance that they will be more childlike as adults.
"They'll struggle with responsibilities to take care of their own," Curry said in an interview with The Times. "They'll struggle with intimacy. They'll struggle with having conversations with their partners. So we want them to experience childhood at appropriate age levels."
Curry had observed this early abandonment of childhood firsthand.
In 2018, she helped lead a therapeutic dance program for school-age girls in the Imperial Courts public housing development in Watts. Instead of engaging in what is traditionally thought of as play, the girls interacted by showing each other Instagram posts and YouTube videos. She heard a man in the community casually call one of the girls "woman."
When Curry got to Crete, she asked the girls she counseled whether they played with dolls. Some said they had a doll at home but were sometimes stopped from playing, and were instead told to take care of a younger sibling or to brush their teeth. One girl said her grandmother sold her doll because her family needed money for rent.
"Playtime from their perspective was like a privilege, and so I just wanted to change that narrative for them," Curry said.
When she read the Georgetown study on adultification bias, a light bulb went off.
"I totally think this is real. This is a thing," Curry told Crete Principal Hattie Mitchell after sharing the study with her. "I want to do something." :: Curry's first group of girls were in fourth and fifth grades, ages 9 to 11. Some had recently lived in homeless shelters, and their parents, most of whom were running the households alone, were adapting to life outside a shared space environment.
It was a struggle to get those girls to play with the dolls. Curry could see in their eyes that they wanted to but were too embarrassed. They looked to their peers for validation, and no one wanted to be called a baby.
"I'm too old. I don't play with dolls," one 9-year-old said. Another girl left the room.
Curry felt she needed to try with younger girls. Research shows that creative interventions such as play therapy have better outcomes when started before puberty, which can start as early as 7.
Mitchell identified a few girls in kindergarten through second grade who she thought would benefit from the group. They were girls who had already been assigned a social worker because something difficult had happened in their families, events that led to changes in their behavior or academic performance. Others were overwhelmed by the daily grind of poverty.