Power is surely one of the greatest gifts any parent could give their child. Power to feel secure and comfortable with their identity, whatever that may be; power to make positive and life affirming choices; power to resist peer pressure and think critically for themselves; power to be expressive, intuitive and caring; power to grow into a woman in a world that may present a range of gender based challenges.
I am a mother of three daughters: three strong, bold, articulate girls who I am determined to nurture into powerful women. Ellen (14), Lila (10) and Charlotte (5) are my inspiration to explore new and insightful parenting practices, especially those with a leaning towards girls and female power.
Here are my favourite ideas, gathered from a range of sources:
Foster your daughter’s interests and passions
From a young age your daughter will be able to tell you what she is and isn’t interested in. It might be something as simple as listening to music, drawing pictures or kicking a ball. Listen to her ideas and enable her to develop her skills by firstly providing the tools or equipment and secondly participating in her favoured activity. A love of music may develop into the opportunity to play a musical instrument and join an orchestra or band, drawing may lead to a love of art, design and all things creative, while sports ability may naturally lead to a wide range of physical interests from team games to rock climbing. Find ways for your daughter to master her chosen interest, perhaps by taking lessons as she gets older and more able, and find outlets for her to demonstrate her skills if she is interested in doing so. For older girls, belonging to a like-minded interest group – whether it’s a band, sports team, dance group etc – can provide an alternative social sphere from their school peers as well as the opportunity for non-school and non-screen based activities. Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out says, “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.”
Allow her to make choices AND make choices for her
As I recently learnt from my youngest daughter’s pre-school teacher, even young children will appreciate their own “choosing time”. Sometimes she gets to choose what she wears/ eats/ says/ etc and sometimes she needs to do as you ask her. Differentiate clearly between when it is your daughter’s time to choose, and when it is yours. When your daughter has made her own choices, allow her to revel in her success or lament a not-so-successful choice: perceived failure is a powerful learning experience! The opportunity to make her own choices gives her experience with control and responsibility; allows her to take risks in a safe situation (you won’t be letting her make inappropriate choices that have too serious consequences!) and shows her you are listening to her views and helping her achieve her own goals. Making choices on her behalf, and explaining why you are doing so, allows her to benefit from your experience and decision making skills and shows her you care. Having your own set of “house rules” is a great place to start. These are the choices you have made on her behalf and could be written up and clearly displayed. Outside of these rules, encourage your daughter to be responsible for making her own rules, but remain available to help her.
Explain your views on parenting
Your child is learning from you not just how to be a person, but how to be a parent! Whatever choices you are making, whatever opinion you hold, whatever plan of action you are implementing, share it with your daughter. She will benefit from your journey – both the successes and the failures – and she will see from first hand experience how important she is to you.
Encourage independent learning and problem solving
Allowing your daughter to tackle a challenging task can be more terrifying for you than it is for her. Consider driving! While many parents are too scared to watch as their daughter heads out into the traffic for the first time, the teen finds the independence of driving an exhilarating experience. Risk assess the situation, and then set your daughter free to explore for herself. According to Simmons, “When parents take over, girls don’t develop the coping skills they need to handle situations on their own.” Solving problems, managing stress and overcoming the fear of failure are all important life skills which are best practiced from a young age.
Teach your daughter to listen constructively
I recently explained the concept of constructive listening to my 10-year-old daughter on our way home from her music lesson. With only six weeks until her viola exam, Lila’s teacher had crammed the lesson with tips and information on how she can improve. To Lila, this meant she was going to fail her upcoming exam. To me, it meant her teacher thinks she is so good that she deserves to get a distinction. We discussed how sometimes teachers couch their advice in a constructive way such as “You’ve doing a great job and if you’d like to do even better, you could try this…” Other times what is said is less constructive. Your daughter is likely to have many, many teachers throughout her education, and the way they present their teaching may range from fabulously constructive to downright negative. With a little practice, your daughter can stop making advice mean that she is bad or wrong, and choose to hear advice as a constructive tool.
Tackle negative messages about body image head on
It’s sad but oftentimes true that your daughter may place more value on the opinions of her peers than the opinions of her parents, despite the fact that you are much more likely to have her best interests at heart! It is also sadly true that the opinions of her peers are likely to be informed by the media which presents biased, stereotypical and unrealistic images of women. Discuss this with your daughter! Discuss airbrushing, ageism, racism and the under representation of people with disabilities in the media, and ask her to consider her own definition of beauty. Comment on beautiful people who fall outside the narrow images presented in mainstream media. Find images of thinking women’s role models and display them in your house: stick a postcard of a Frida Kahlo self portrait on the fridge, or hang a poster of Marie Curie or Mother Theresa on the wall and explain to your daughter why you think they were beautiful people. Share the concerns you had about the way you looked as you grew up, and how you overcame those concerns. I grew up considering myself large and ungainly as opposed to delicate and graceful. The fact is I am a 5’9” woman with size 41 feet and matching hands. I tell my daughters that they will be healthy and Amazonian like me, that clever people love themselves as they are, and that beauty is about how you are, not how you look.
Limit screen time
Screen time is everything to do with phones, tv’s and computers. No daughter or parent ever has come to the conclusion that hours spent on Facebook, watching television or playing computer games is a positive and life-affirming experience. Many have said that it is a place where young, impressionable girls receive damaging and destructive messages about body image; are exposed to negative societal values; have their own worth or importance questioned; experience cyber-bullying; are exposed to images and people who denigrate girls and women; and take part in puerile activities which simply deplete their self esteem. Having an online life is fine, but it requires management by a responsible adult. Use content management software, discuss the risks and benefits of being online, and differentiate between doing homework on the computer and playing games. Encourage your daughter to hand in her phone/ laptop an hour before bedtime so she can wind down in peace and isn’t receiving messages, tweets, Facebook updates etc throughout the night.
Allow her to express her anger
In an article on powerful daughters on the PBS Parents website, Meg White says: “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”. Lyn Mikel Brown and Sharon Lamb, co-authors of Packaging Girlhood, are quoted as writing, “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.”
In relation to girls expressing their anger to their peers the article suggests parents discuss emotional violence which it defines as gossip, rumor-spreading and exclusion, as well as physical violence such as 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.
Ask. Listen. Think.
Make time to ask your daughter how she’s feeling, how she is handling the pressure of school, whether she is enjoying family life, what she hopes to achieve in the next 12-months, how she felt about her last school report, why she doesn’t keep her room tidy… then listen to what she says without interrupting, correcting or judging. Thank her for her insight. Consider what she has said. At another time, ask her if she would like to hear your thoughts on the issues she has raised.
Discuss the differences between pornography, sexual relationships in mainstream movies or TV and loving relationships in real life
Not that long ago, sex and nudity were taboo subjects that were tastefully alluded to in mainstream media. The said tasteful allusions were normally made in the context of love, romance and relationships: women were considered to reach their sexual prime in their 30’s at which time a woman and her partner would likely be skilled and experienced lovers in a long term relationship. It was left to science teachers and awkward parents to explain about the birds and the bees, and clumsy teens eventually fumbled their way out of virginity and on to a path of sexual discovery.
Now we have the internet.
Now we have porn movies falling into the laps of prepubescent boys at the click of an “I’m over 18” button. Now we have porn stars educating boys on how women behave with men, how women look when they’re naked, and what women want from a sexual encounter. In What’s happening to our girls?, author and social researcher Maggie Hamilton explains the pressure this puts on increasingly young girls to partake in porn-style sex – in particular group sex, anal sex and oral sex – often under the influence of drugs and alcohol, often at parties and often with boys they barely know. Alarming stuff. But knowledge is power: talk to your teen daughter about sex, demystify pornography and encourage her –when she is ready – to pursue relationships which are loving and multi-dimensional.
Celebrate yourself and your daughter!
Being a mother is one of the most powerful experiences a woman can have. You have the potential to shape another human being and create the future! Amazing! Appreciate how important you are to her and nurture an intimate, confiding, sharing relationship. Make time to do things you both enjoy whether that be a trip to the cinema, chatting over a cup of tea, visiting art galleries, cycling, baking… skydiving…?
Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons
What’s Happening to our Girls? By Maggie Hamilton