When you heard the words “It’s a girl!” did you have any idea what was in store? I have to admit I had a nano-moment of flashing forward to the teenage years and hearing a door slam somewhere in the distance. But mostly, I was ecstatic that I was privy to the ever-so special parent-daughter bond. Luckily, we have strong women all around us, who have proven that strength and womanhood go hand in hand. Yet, there are so many kinds of “strong” and every girl is unique. So how do we, as parents, help our girls discover their uniqueness and help them grow up to be strong, independent and confident?
Human beings are complex creatures, and sometimes daughters are a special kind of complex. When they hit the tween and teen years, the combination of brain overhaul and new hormonal shifts can throw a parent off kilter. We like to blame hormones for the emotional tornadoes, but it turns out it’s the resetting of the teen brain that’s largely responsible. According to some helpful new research, girls around 12 years old, begin to feel emotions more intensely than adults or young kids. The frontal cortex in their brain, responsible for calming or navigating rough emotional seas, is under construction … for a few years. This is all for a good long-term cause – but understanding this can dramatically help us as parents. It can make “I hate you!” feel less personal and helps make us less defensive and reactive.
With this in mind, here are a few thoughts on how to parent so that our daughters grow up strong, confident and courageous.
Body Talk – We spend time, when our daughters are little, focused on first words and speech development. Curiously, we sometimes don’t focus on the part of communication that says the most – our body language; facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and tone of voice. So why not let our girls in on the secret? Just as important (or even MORE important) than WHAT you say, is HOW you say it.
Role-play some scenarios on how to introduce yourself to someone with a firm handshake and good eye contact. Show your daughter what it looks like to ask for something with your head up, and shoulders square, in a confident voice. Then do the opposite with exactly the same words but with your head down, hunched over in a quieter voice. Ask them what they notice.
Speaking up – I love assertive, strong women. There have been many throughout history. Teach your girls about them so they have role models. There is a great article by Margaret Wente about whether we should just “ban bossy”, as Sheryl Sanberg suggests in her book Lean In. However, I don’t really believe that it’s bossy we’re talking about… bossy sounds aggressive. I get the sense it’s assertiveness, resilience and the ability to speak up that we are really valuing here.
Encourage your girls to sometimes disagree. Even with you! Yes, I just said that. Obedience and compliance get us only so far. If we expect these things from our kids when they are young, they may choose to be submissive and obedient as grown ups. If we parent with mutual respect and an expectation that everyone will contribute to the family order, we teach our girls the skills of collaboration and cooperation. We can also stress that respecting oneself while still respecting others is possible. Speaking up is respectful. If the person you’re speaking with disagrees with you, there’s the opportunity to collaborate on a mutually agreeable solution. And if you end up agreeing to disagree, the world will continue to rotate on its axis. Not everyone is going to agree with you and not everyone is going to like you all the time. But if we respect ourselves, and others, we can’t go wrong. When we work with our kids on these skills, instead of the traditional punishment and reward system, we’re empowering them and preserving everyone’s dignity in the process.
When the going gets tough, the girls get going – Notice when your girls have overcome adversity. The key is to give them lots of opportunity to try and succeed. Sometimes they may not succeed – but the beauty about not reaching a goal is that therein lies another opportunity; the opportunity to brush yourself off, learn from what worked and what didn’t, and try again. This is the message we hope our girls will hear. Keep the focus on the effort they put in and remind them that they can choose how to define success.
Promote self-validation – Instead of placing a stamp of parental approval on something they have accomplished, notice what they DID and what CHOICES they made, then ask them if they are proud of THEMSELVES. That way, they are able to process their own thoughts and feelings about their actions. As our girls grow up and hit the teen years, their peers play a bigger role in their lives and, if they have a solid sense of how they feel about themselves, they are less likely to give in to peer pressure. Encourage them to seek INTERNAL validation, instead of getting used to relying on EXTERNAL validation.
There is no cookie-cutter way to parent girls. We are each unique and have different ways of learning and growing. However, by giving girls the opportunity to truly express themselves, we allow a new confidence to surface. Give them the chance to speak up – really listen to them to understand – and let them in on that incredibly powerful non-verbal communication secret. It will come in handy no matter where they land in life. Also, replace the “practice makes perfect” mantra with “practice makes progress” and you’ll instill a sense of resilience that will carry them through their successes and their set backs.
Finally, let them be proud of themselves. You can always say you are proud of them and you love them, but make it ever-present and unconditional, not based on their actions or the situation. There are good choices and bad choices, not “good girls” and “bad girls”. A good girl can make a bad choice… and likely learn a really valuable lesson from it!
Passing on love, strong values and firm boundaries is helpful for kids but let your girls look to themselves for validation and self-care. Girl power doesn’t have to be bossy but it darn well can be self-assured.