Raising Strong and Confident Daughters Today
Find out more about raising a strong, confident girl in today's world.
Beliefs about Girls
Lauren Pacibella was turning three. This year, she was very interested and involved with planning her party. Before placing the order for balloons, her mother asked her what colors she wanted for her party. Lauren answered without hesitation, “Blue and green.” To both of their surprise, pink and lavender balloons were waiting for them on the big day. Her mother looked at the clerk and remarked, “These aren’t the colors we ordered.” The puzzled clerk said, “But it’s written here that this is for a little girl’s birthday??”
Even though girls and boys are born more alike than different, they are distinguished from the start. Whether a frilly “going home” gown from the hospital or a pink ribbon taped to the head, girl babies begin life already with expectations about what it means to be female. Resisting stereotypes about gender is about as impossible as preventing a one-year old from falling down. All it takes is one look at a diet cola billboard while quietly sitting in her car seat or learning the tale of a lonely cindermaid to help shape ideas about gender—ideas that many parents don’t want their little girls to follow. Certainly, beliefs about the roles or men and women vary according to many factors, including culture and socioeconomic status. These beliefs have life long effects and tend to be inter-generational. The good news is that with the concerted efforts on the parts of parents, teachers and other meaningful people, girls are doing better than ever—proving that it is possible to raise girls who are strong, confident and very capable.
In the last decade or so, there has been enormous media attention paid to girls in our society. The media blitz started after the 1992 American Association of University Women’s highly publicized report, How Schools Shortchange Girls. In short, girls were not receiving as much attention as boys by their teachers, suffering from a decline in self-esteem and lagging far behind boys in important subjects, such as math and science. Research, television news magazines and newspapers jumped on it to report what is happening to our girls. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by clinical psychologist Mary Pipher quickly became a bestseller and provided much appreciated support to anxious parents and caregivers to help girls resist the ills of a “girl poisoned” society. Then the academic focus changed. Prominent psychologists questioned the empirical evidence behind the riveting AAUW report. The conclusion stunned many; it is not girls in trouble but our sons.
This academic crossfire will surely continue as long as women are having children. But in our everyday lives as parents of very young children, girls are influenced through the television, movies, books, advertising, and toys and subtly given messages about how females should act and look like. Perhaps even more constructive than the academic debate, is the reflection by parents on what has been working to nurture successful adolescent girls and how to assist our very young daughters navigate through the messages about gender with every step in development.
Puberty and Self Esteem
There is no disputing the progress made by girls in school, especially in subjects related to math and science. The National Center for Educational Statistics compiled figures on the Condition of Kindergartners Skills at the time girls and boys entered kindergarten in Fall 1998. Girls were more likely than boys to achieve higher proficiency levels in recognizing letters and word sounds and had a slight advantage in recognizing basic numbers and shapes. The National Assessment of Educational Progress published, in 1999 Trends in Academic Progress, a long-term study that examines trends in reading, mathematics, and science for nine, 13 and 17 year olds. Females scored higher in reading scores than males in every age group. And the gender gap that had previous existed for mathematics was no longer found in every age group. In science, males scored higher than females for ages 13 and 17, but the gap had narrowed. So academically, girls are doing not just okay—they are doing outstanding.
Recently at a dinner party, the woman next to me asked about my work. When I told her about this article, she commented that when her daughter started middle school, she changed. Before she approached all challenges and activities with such vigor, but suddenly she was more concerned with whether her friends liked her and if she fit in. Her daughter became quiet and removed. She emerged from this period as a strong adolescent with a dry, sarcastic sense of humor and slightly cynical outlook on life. Her mother proudly shared her daughter’s achievements socially and in sports and academics but also felt that there was a loss. She doesn’t have the same naive excitement about life that she did as a young girl.
There is considerable research what happens when girls hit puberty, that ultra turbulent time in development, typically around 11 or12 years but can start even earlier. The reports are mixed but in general it looks like there is a dip in self-esteem when girls enter adolescence. Many factors are involved including chemical changes happening in their bodies, an awareness of body image and influences from a “thin is in” culture. Eating disorders are more prevalent amongst girls, starting at this young age. Adolescent girls feel pressured about acting certain ways, being accepted by peers, sex, and contemporary views on what it means to be a woman.
When recalling her daughter’s experience before adolescence, at age eight, Pat Talbert, a mother of two in Oakland, CA, remembers her saying one day, out of the blue, “I never knew I was gonna be a person. It’s kinda strange.” Later when asked about that statement she said “I feel like I was born yesterday.” Her daughter’s sentiments perfectly sum up the realization that occurs for children on the eve of adolescence—they were just little kids and now before their eyes, they are changing into young women and men.
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