Understanding and Raising Girls
How do you raise a powerful girl and what does that mean?
Powerful girls grow up feeling secure in themselves. They learn to take action, making positive choices about their own lives and doing positive things for others. They think critically about the world around them. They express their feelings and acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of others in caring ways. Powerful girls feel good about themselves and grow up with a "can-do" attitude. Of course, strong girls may (like all of us) have times of insecurity and self-doubt, but these feelings aren't paralyzing because the girls have learned to work through their problems. Powerful girls will grow up to lead full, valuable lives.
Here are some of our experts' ideas to help you raise powerful daughters.
Encourage your daughter to pursue a passion.
"Full engagement with an activity she loves will give her the opportunity to master challenges, which will boost her self-esteem and resilience and affirm intrinsic values rather than appearance," says Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out. "Having a passion lets her go shoot baskets or play an instrument, for example, instead of being swept up in online drama."
Let her have a voice in making decisions.
"Whenever possible, let her make constructive choices about her life. Let her choose her own clothes, within appropriate limits. Give her a voice in what after-school activities she participates in and how many she wants to do (as long as it works for the rest of the family, too). Remember that knowing what she cares about most will come from trying some things and finding she doesn't like them, as well as from finding things she loves to do," recommends Jane Katch, Ed.D., author of They Don't Like Me. "Your daughter might need to make a commitment for a short time for an activity (one soccer season) but when that's over, it's okay to try something different!"
Identify the values most important to your family.
"Consider the ways you convey these values, especially by example. What are the moments in your daily life when you can model the values you want your daughter to learn?" asks Simmons. What traits and strengths do you want your daughter to develop as she grows? See if these qualities are reflected in how you parent."
Encourage her to solve issues on her own rather than fixing things for her.
"When parents take over, girls don't develop the coping skills they need to handle situations on their own. Ask your daughter to consider three strategies she might use to deal with a situation, and then ask her about the possible outcomes. Let her decide what she wants to do (within reason). Even if you disagree with her choice, you give your daughter a sense of control over her life and show her that she is responsible for her decisions," says Simmons.
Encourage her to take physical risks.
"Girls who avoid risks have poorer self-esteem than girls who can and do face challenges," says JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., author of Girls Will Be Girls. "Urge your daughter to go beyond her comfort zone -- for example, encourage a girl who's scared to ride her bike downhill to find just a small hill to conquer first." Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., co-author of Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health and Leadership, agrees. "It's important to help even non-athletic girls develop some physical competence and confidence when they're young. Whether it's through team or individual sports, girls need to form a physical relationship with their body that builds confidence."
Get girls working together.
"Girls who work cooperatively in school or who problem-solve together do much better in taking large risks or facing challenges. These girls report an incredible sense of accomplishment and feeling of competence, both of which give a huge boost to self-esteem," says Deak. "Encourage your daughter to participate in team-building activities or join organizations that rely on teamwork."
Let your daughter know you love her because of who she is, not because of what she weighs or how she looks.
"Encourage your girl to eat in healthy ways, but don't over-obsess over what she eats. Listen to her opinions (about food, and other things) and show appreciation for her uniqueness, to help her develop herself into the person she wants to be," says Steiner-Adair. "Comment on the way she carries herself into a room or the ideas she is expressing before commenting on her looks. She needs you to know her insides and validate the developing person within, as well as noticing her emerging young womanhood," adds White. Point out all the amazing things her body can do that have nothing to do with weight, like jumping off the diving board and running around the soccer field. "You need to debunk the idea that beauty is about looking a certain way," says Robyn Silverman, Ph.D., author of Good Girls Don't Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It. Ban all "fat talk" from your home (including negative things about your own body).
Allow her to disagree with you and get angry.
"Raising a powerful girl means living with one. She must be able to stand up to you and be heard, so she can learn to do the same with classmates, teachers, a boyfriend, or future bosses," says White. Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., and Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., co-authors of Packaging Girlhood, write, "Girls need guidance about how to stay clear in their disagreements, and they need support for not giving up their convictions to maintain a false harmony. Help girls to make considered choices about how to express their feelings, and to whom." Steiner-Adair notes that "Not all girls will want to do this, especially shy girls, but you can still help them develop the skills."
Address girl fighting when you see it.
"Talk with girls about relational violence (such as gossip, rumor-spreading and exclusion) as well as physical violence (hitting or fighting). But don't assume all girls are mean, and avoid saying 'girls will be girls' when you witness girls engaging in exclusive cliques and clubs. Instead, affirm girls' relational strengths and sense of fairness, help them identify and hold on to their strong feelings, like anger, and encourage them to practice more direct, positive ways to effect change in their relationships," says Brown.
Make regular time to listen to your daughter.
"By creating consistent, predictable times when she knows that you are receptive and available to listen -- like riding in a car, taking a walk, or just sitting reading -- you will eventually be let into her inner world. Let her use you as a sounding board to sort out what she is going through, without solving problems for her. The answers that come from within her are the ones she will eventually live by," says White.
Listen more than you talk.
"When we talk to girls, they often experience it as us talking at them, and they not only stop listening, they stop thinking and reflecting. But when we listen to them, they have to think about what they are saying, and they tend to reflect more. And we need to keep an open dialogue -- we can't dismiss their chatter about ups and downs of friendship as trivial, and then expect them to talk to us about the important stuff," says Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., co-author of Mom, They're Teasing Me.
Limit your daughter's exposure to the media and popular culture when she is young.
"This will give her more time to develop her own ideas, creativity, and imagination from her direct first-hand experience. As she grows, media messages will start to get in, so having rules and routines from the start can help your daughter control her own experiences as she gets older," says Diane Levin, Ph.D, author of So Sexy So Soon.Help her process the messages in the media.
"Help her avoid the narrow focus on appearance and consumerism that often dominates the media. By helping your daughter process the messages she sees on the screen and develop her own ideas about them, you can prepare her to better resist the media's pervasive stereotypes," says Levin. "Help her notice the bigger picture -- for example, how looking like her latest teen idol can be fun but also connects her with a lot of other stuff she might not have noticed or thought about. Wonder aloud about more general patterns you see, like how all those little purses hanging from everything might make it seem that all girls, even three-year-olds, are into shopping," add Brown and Lamb. "As she gets older it becomes increasingly important to help your daughter understand the difference between sexualized images in the media and healthy sexuality.
"We have to acknowledge the pain our daughters are experiencing, so they feel heard and accepted and empathized with. But we also need to put it into perspective, to stay calm and listen to what they are experiencing without projecting our own experiences onto theirs. Your daughter is having a different experience than you did, even if there are surface similarities," says Cohen. "After all, she has something you didn't have: you."
"Having a powerful girl can be exciting and energizing. Find activities you both enjoy and do them regularly together. Maybe you both like cooking or having breakfast together, hiking or reading books," says Katch. "Try to keep this connection as she gets older -- if times ever get tough, you'll appreciate this special bond you share!"