On Raising Girls in this World

Raising a girl to be strong, competent and engaged can feel like a daunting task. These strategies might help. 

By Tania Loenneker, Associate Director of Development | Apr 01, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting
Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

As parents, we want ALL of our children to grow up healthy, happy and to live a fulfilled, productive life—no matter their gender. This is a difficult enough task to accomplish in today’s complex world.  In a society with many, often conflicting, messages on what it means to be a strong, successful, beautiful woman, raising a girl to be strong, competent and engaged can feel like a daunting task.  Hearing your I’m Stumped questions, we want to offer you insights and approaches that might make this incredible ride of a lifetime a little easier.

Parents recognize quickly that each child is unique in personality and interests. Girls and boys, too, tend to differ from each other. There are particular moments in life when the needs of a girl differ from that of a boy.  As parents, it’s our job to pay attention to these needs and respond to them, without valuing one over the other.

Not so long ago, our society promoted the belief that in order to have stronger girls we had to measure them against boys.  We used to think that in order to create gender equality we had to make girls be more like boys. However, societal changes have caused a shift in thinking about this issue. Research on gender has given us a clearer understanding of the differences between boys and girls—and how girls contribute value in their own right!  Research on girls indicates that there are many similarities among girls. This is in no way meant to imply that all girls are the same. Each girl is wonderful in her own, unique way—each girl, much like each boy, has her own set of feminine and masculine traits. However, if we are willing to learn more about the assets that many girls have in common, then we will be better prepared to connect to them and to help them grow into strong, confident women. Instead of expecting girls to be more like boys, we strive to equally value the potential that girls bring.

One thing we know from research is that girls deeply value relationships – which is great news!  In a world where competition, power, profit and individualism have been upheld as the path towards success, these relationship-based assets have long been dismissed as “soft skills”. However, thought-leaders and  business experts are now telling us that our 21st century world needs many of the competencies and perspectives that go along with relationships—traditionally associated with feminine values:  collaboration, diversity, inclusion, connectedness, and compassion, to name a few. 

Collaboration. Girls often prefer to learn, play and work in a group setting.  As they are wired to be in relationship with others, they tend to do better at problem-solving when they are part of a supportive, collaborative learning environment.  While the contribution of every girl counts, they often arrive at solutions to problems in a cooperative way. Today, we see collaboration being promoted in schools and businesses, so it is important that girls get exposed to working on a project together as a team.  As a family, for example, you may come together and jointly make decisions on certain rules, chores and priorities giving every member a vote. 

Diversity and inclusiveness. Everyone has a voice.  As much as girls are inclined to operate in social groups, it is also important to empower girls to make their own decisions and stand strong in their own beliefs. Working in collaboration with others should always be balanced with an opportunity to safely share their individual viewpoint. At home, this might mean sharing your own opinion about a subject and asking your daughter to weigh in. Simply creating opportunities for her to share her thoughts on a topic can build her independence and confidence. Girls tend to feel a strong desire to be included and to include others, even if this means a diversity of perspectives.

Connectedness. Girls are not only allowed to feel more strongly about relationships, but are also shaped, early on, to look for a deeper connection that involves the sharing of feelings and meaning.  This can manifest in many ways, but often bubbles up in peer relationships.Pair this with our culture’s influence on how girls should express their feelings, and you have what we often call girl drama. And while parents may be weary of girl drama, we have an opportunity to consider this positive viewpoint: that relationships matter! Then, we can use our own connection with our daughter to help her survive these times without losing confidence in herself or in the power of true friendship. Connectedness, after all, has been critical to survival.

Compassion. Feeling connected to others and this world is the foundation for compassion.  In conjunction with our culture expecting girls to be understanding and accepting, girls are predisposed to empathize with other’s emotions and experience--accessing their own feelings of hurt, loss, and pain. Compassion compels us to act instead of standing or walking by.  It makes us engage with the world by advocating, giving, and helping make the world better for everyone. 

So, as parents, how can we help navigate strong emotions and the need for connection?  How can we help our daughter navigate this complex world and have her—and us—emerge with strength and dignity?  How can we honor, bring forth and further these competencies, and empower our girls to believe that they are valuable and important in our world?   

Be available.  Not all parents have a (teenage) daughter who wants to talk. This is natural. During adolescence, it is common for kids to turn away from adult and familial relationships and turn toward peer relationships. If you have a daughter who is not interested in talking, don’t fret. The best thing you can do is be patient, let her know that you’re available to talk, and don’t pressure her. Being available doesn’t mean that you must have lots of time on your hands.  It means that you are open to allowing her to decide when she is ready to talk and to then listen as best as you can. If and when your daughter wants to talk, you want to thank her for sharing with you and honor your relationship by respecting and empathizing with her experience.

Honor her reality. Our daughter’s world is different from our world.  This is true no matter how old you were when you became a parent, how in touch you are with today’s youth, or how close you are with your daughter. Socially and developmentally, your daughter lives in a different world from you. So when your daughter comes to you with something – even if it seems ridiculous, petty, or unreasonable – you should believe her. Think about her experiences with curiosity. Why is she so upset about the incident in class today? Why is it so important to her? Instead of responding with doubt, approach her with openness and an attempt to understand. Believe that what she’s saying is true in her world.  

Don’t be afraid of strong feelings.  Sometimes we are afraid of strong feelings because we don’t know what to do with them. This is true especially with our children.  It can be tempting, but it is best not to try to “fix” strong feelings. When your daughter’s bouncing off the walls with excitement because she just made the varsity team, you wouldn’t tell her to calm down and move on, right? The same is true for her other big feelings. If she’s crying over a breakup or over a friendship, you can bring her ice cream, but you don’t want to rush her to get over her feelings and move on. You can just sit there with her as she has these big feelings, and allow her to move through them at her own pace.

Keep it confidential.  It may not be intentional, but your daughter may be testing you when she shares confidential information with you. She’s seeing if she can trust you with her important feelings. If you tell your friends, or bring it up in public, or even tell your partner without her permission, she will feel a violation of trust. As a result, she’s much less likely to open up to you in the future. There may certainly be times where you have to tell another person, especially her other parent, but you should let her know that you’re planning to do so. If you have to take action, such as talking to her school or another student’s parents, you should loop her into your plans so that she doesn’t feel like her trust has been violated.  

Don’t insult her friends. Even when a friend does something that upsets her, avoid stepping in and saying something that puts her friend down. Chances are high that they’ll make up soon, and then your daughter will worry about how you feel about her friend, and be less likely to share important things with you. If you have serious concerns about the friendship, share this with her without judgement and without doubting her judgement. Find out why this relationship is important to her – she will likely be able to tell you why. Be gentle. As the parent, you can still act gently (but firmly), if necessary.  

Model self-confidence and self-respect. A certain level of self-deprecation can be a great skill, but in the presence of your daughter, it is best to remain confident. Don’t make fun of your body—your daughter is listening, and watching. Don’t put down your own intelligence—your daughter is paying attention. If you want to raise a girl who is confident and self-sufficient, you have got to mirror that. The same is true for failure and disappointments as a fact of life. This doesn’t mean your daughter must share your deepest worries, but she must know that you, too, aren’t perfect or perfectly strong. Try to be real, and demonstrate the confidence and optimism that you hope to instill in your daughter.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable. We all mess up! Every single parent. Your daughter will watch the way you communicate and how you handle mistakes. She will learn from that. It is okay to own up to mistakes when we get too frustrated too quickly, doubt her honesty, or make assumptions about what she did or didn’t do. It is okay to apologize. It is okay to say you are sorry for hurting her feelings.  You’re not perfect, and no one expects you to be. Our daughters need to learn the appropriate way to be vulnerable and accept mistakes, and we are their mirror.

Raising girls is one of the great privileges in life. Inadvertently, we learn as much from them as they learn from us. Your daughter, or even your son, might fit only some or all of these commonalities described. Our kids have to navigate the societal expectations and need your support and careful response.  What’s important is that we withhold judgement when things get tough and honor the experiences of our girls in the context of their world.  As parents, we were given an incredible gift of positively impacting our daughter’s journey, as she develops a sense of herself and confidence in herself as she moves through adolescence. Perhaps this information and, always, a lot of love, thoughtful attention and connection, will prepare both of you for the path.