It’s not easy being a girl. Girls are burdened from birth with a heavy load of expectations, from physical appearances to social behavior. It doesn’t take long for them to learn gender distinctions. When they watch television or play with other children, suddenly there’s girl toys, clothes, games, colors, behaviors, jobs, and much more.
Along with this lesson can come a perception of weakness because, although women have come a long way in attaining equality, many still view females as weaker than their male counterparts, and kids can be crueler than adults. Your daughter, who’d long dreamt of becoming a firefighter, may come home from school one day saying she wants to be a teacher because either the boys or other girls at school said firefighting is for males, crushing her dream beneath a dangerous yet perpetuating stereotype.
As parents, we have to work to help our children understand that these perceptions are often erroneous and statistics (such as boys are better in math than girls) do not define an individual. The best gift we could give our daughters is empowerment, and here are some tips to do it.
1. Don’t force her to be a “tomboy” because you think participation in “male behavior” is somehow more empowering; let her develop naturally into the person she wants to be:
One of the most common mistakes parents make when trying to encourage their daughters to break gender lines is forcing them to take part in sports or other hobbies that are traditionally thought of as male interests. While participation in these is absolutely recommended if your daughter is sincerely interested in them, making her cross gender boundaries for the sake of crossing these boundaries without your daughter’s genuine interest is counterproductive.
It’s more important to allow her the freedom to make an educated choice in activity. As a parent, you can and should explain why you’d rather her choose a particular activity, but in the end, if she still chooses ballet over basketball, it’s a more empowered decision because she learned she has a say in her life. Besides, contrary to popular belief, activities don’t really have a gender.
2. Limit her media intake when she’s young; when she’s older, help her understand the messages and motives in the media:
Most parents agree that the television is not a babysitter, but many still sit their children in front of the TV when they are too busy to entertain them. Depending on what she’s watching, though, your daughter can receive many confusing messages about what a girl should be. Instead of allowing pop culture to tell your daughter what to do, hold back on the television until she’s older. This way she can draw conclusions about her world based on her own non-media-induced life experiences.
When she reaches an age to better handle television (probably school age, when she’s exposed to other kids who pass on these messages anyway), help her understand the financial goals of advertising. When I watch television with my daughter, we analyze commercials like they’re mysteries.
For example, I ask her, “How did that commercial make that doll look fun?”
She’ll think about it and respond, “Because it is a doll of a character on a cartoon.”
Then I’ll ask, “So is that doll going to act out the cartoon?”
And she’ll answer, “No, it’s just a doll. It’ll only sit there.”
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t crush her hopes of ever getting a toy nor does she find this game disappointing. On the contrary, she really seems to enjoy exposing the tricks, but the main goal is to get her to think twice about television messages instead of just seeing an image and wanting it.
3. Show your daughter that your love for her isn’t based on looks or weight:
Spare your little girls a negative body image from an early age. Have her eat healthy food because that’s what everyone in the family eats, not because you worry that she or anyone else may get “fat”. When they’re little, limit your children’s unhealthy food intake without mentioning it so that healthy food habits are just something that comes naturally instead of something you have to go out of the way to do. Similarly, take her walking and playing as part of your everyday routine. Don’t relate a healthy lifestyle to weight loss because it may give children the wrong idea of its purpose.
Besides establishing a foundation for healthy living early on, don’t tell your daughters that certain outfits or colors make her look “ugly”. If you’re unhappy with an outfit (perhaps because it’s completely mismatched or too small), make the reasoning about the OUTFIT and not about your child. Instead of saying “you look ugly in that” try “that’s okay for at home, but for school, you need to wear something different.”
And if she looks great in an outfit or after a haircut, tell her, especially when she gets older and may better appreciate the compliment, but be sure to recognize her for other accomplishments that are not beauty related. Congratulate her on her grades, ideas, artwork, cooking, thoughtfulness and anything else. That way you’re letting her know you love her for everything she does.
4. Allow your daughter to decide, to argue, and to disagree:
Forcing a child, daughter or son, to be submissive and to never question authority tells them there’s something wrong with their decisions and beliefs. While some parents want quiet children, the ability to think for yourself, argue, and persuade (through reason, not crying), is one of the most powerful gifts a parent can give her child.
Teaching your children to argue may sound crazy to some, but as Jay Heinrichs explained in his essay Argue With Me, it not only turns them into powerful adults, but it teaches them skills like decision making and proper emotional responses (explanation instead of whining).
And allow your daughter to disagree sometimes without fearing your wrath. Give her a chance to practice standing up and defending her views in the safety of her own home (if it’s nothing dangerous, of course. Some arguments she shouldn’t win, but I trust you’ll recognize these when you see them). Additionally, HELP her win her argument with you by asking questions to keep her on track when her thoughts start to stray.
If she says “I want to go to the mall because you never let me go!” ask “Well, why should I?”
If she goes off on a tangent like “UGH! Last week you said no to me going to a party. Now you won’t let me go to the mall!” ask “What does the party have to do with the mall?”
Try to lead her to a convincing argument. It can be tough, but you have to occasionally let her win.
5. Listen to her, help with her problems, but ultimately allow her to decide the best course of action.
Even if you have to set aside a special time each day, be there for her. If you take the time to always listen to her interests, dreams, and concerns without judgment, she’ll talk to you more readily when making big decisions or dealing with more difficult problems.
When trouble does arise, hold back on the urge to tell her what to do. Talking at your daughter will not only frustrate her, but it can make her hesitant to come to you in the future.
Instead, tell her about experiences you’ve had that may relate (without forcing her to believe you took the best course of action), and help her weigh the pros and cons. Ask her to consider her possible actions, their possible outcomes and which one she’d rather pick. If she asks what you’d do, be honest, but remind her she’s a separate person and could take a different path.
By allowing her to handle tough decisions, you’re giving her the courage to trust in herself and her reason-based conclusions.
It can be difficult to take off the reins and let our daughters blossom into intelligent and powerful women, but cultivating a sense of independence early on gives them the best chance in the future where self-determination and rational thought can push them past boundaries. Do not allow her to become a slave striving to attain a media-perpetuated picture of the ideal woman; help her become a woman based on her own definition, and give her the strength to pursue her goals without first asking society for permission.
Jay Heinrichs, Argue With Me, Wondertime Magazine
PBS, Raising a Powerful Girl, PBS Parents