Raising Strong and Confident Daughters Today
Find out more about raising a strong, confident girl in today's world.
The Message Around Us
Turn on the television, watch a video, read a book, browse through a toy store, and even blow some steam at an arcade game—most messages about women are the same and soaked up like sponges by our daughters. Child and family advocacy organization, Children NOW, has conducted many studies on the effects of media on children’s development. A survey conducted in 1997 of children 10-17 looked at girls’ and boys’ perceptions about gender roles in television. One of many noteworthy findings show: “Worrying about appearance or weight, crying or whining, and weakness are all things both girls and boys say they associate more with female characters on television than male characters. Playing sports and wanting to be kissed or have sex, on the other hand, are more often thought of in association with male characters than female.”
It’s easy to point fingers, but can the media play another role by offering examples of women as strong, capable, positive individuals? “Absolutely,” says Patti Miller, Director of Children and the Media Program at Children NOW, in Oakland, CA. “Our 1997 study on Media, Girls and Gender Roles looked at a range of media that influence teenage girls, including television shows, commercials, movies, music videos, teen magazine articles and printed advertisements. The findings show that children today are likely to get conflicting messages about the role of women,” says Miller. “While there are more positive role models of women in the media as independent, honest, intelligent problem solvers, there are still many examples of stereotypes being reinforced—depicting women in terms of their appearance and their relationships.”
That half an hour of down time while a child is absorbed in a video or television show does not need to be deleted from our lives. Like everything else, parents need to be aware of what their kids are watching and the messages the programs send. “Grace seems to prefer videos and TV shows that I would associate with boys, for instance Dinosaur, Tarzan and anything having to do with horses,” says Mimi Towle a mom of two daughters, one three years old and another due any day now, in Mill Valley, Califorina, and who makes it a point to sit and watch programs with her daughter. “I recently bought her Pocahontas thinking it would introduce her to a strong female character, but I felt the violence and cruelty of the characters overshadowed the strength of the main character. She loves the video, but seems more interested in the raccoon and hummingbird than the humans.” Miller adds, “The media is a very powerful tool that can reinforce negative stereotypes for girls and boys. It’s important that parents talk to their children about the negative gender messages they see on television. Parents should also select shows for their children that contain positive messages about gender, race and class. It’s important that they think about their children’s media consumption in the same way they would think about a healthy diet for their children.”
When Lauren Pacibella turned one, she received a dump truck and a doll. Now at age three, her parents have no idea where that truck can be found. Many parents tell a similar story. “My daughter is so girlie. All she does is play with dolls, in the kitchen and in her playhouse.” As parents, it is important to respect our daughter’s individual interests—and these interests certainly change over time. However, we can set the stage for different kinds of play that they may have not expressed interest in before. “I know that I have to catch myself,” adds Mimi Towle. “The other day we were at a toy store and my three-year old daughter expressed interest in a Barbie on a horse. She is a tomboy so I was intrigued that she showed more traditional “girl” interests in Barbie. I caught myself wanting to push this interest but instead stepped back and let her decide. She passed on it and went for the dinosaurs and frogs.” Mimi adds, “I don’t think I have said anything to influence her. This is nature, how she is and how she learns about things in her world.”
“Look for opportunities to introduce girls to construction, building things, game-strategy,” says Dr. Toy, the popular columnist and creator of Dr. Toy’s Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ (play quotient) She suggests for parents to “look for neutral colors and don’t emphasize pink, so that they don’t get thinking that is “girls” color. Encourage them to play with a wide variety of playthings including musical instruments, magic and machines (things that get put together). Stretch the imagination with creativity (art supplies), communication (electronics) and conversations (puppets). Introduce them to the world of high tech and help them to learn the basics.”
Little girls are impressionable by everything around them. What they observe in the media, what they observe adults doing in the world and the explanations they are offered are downloaded, saved and demonstrated in their own behaviors. By no means is there the suggestion to ignore their individual interests, whether it is doll play, stroking a paint brush, kicking a soccer ball or whatever. “Often when my daughter plays with children and adults she seems to mimic predatory animals, chasing and growling at her prey, ” says Mimi Towle. “I know that she has learned much of this from her videos and the hours of animal planet she has watched. Are the tiger costumes and growling feminine? No, but to me she is a happy little girl expressing herself. I’ve found myself tempted to growl at few people myself.
Like Mimi, let’s value our daughter’s individual strengths and support them as they come to terms with societal messages about being a female. Our girls have new role models, including our nation’s pride and every young girl’s heroine, star forward, Mia Hamm. She said in an interview with reporter Steve Davis, “I think it is such an important responsibility to show young girls that they can achieve anything they put their minds to.” Who are her role models? Her parents. Sensitive to our daughters needs, sensitive to explaining what they are observing, nurturing their development into strong, capable women, we’ll help them grow up feeling they can accomplish any of their own goals too.
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