10 ways to empower girls

To celebrate International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, here are 10 ways to raise strong and confident daughters…

As a mother of three young girls, I spend a lot of time reflecting on how to raise them to be strong, independent and capable women. I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I made.

I kept quiet when a group of boys sexually harassed me all through the seventh grade because I was afraid that things would be worse for me if I spoke up. I spent most of my 20s believing that boys would only like me if I wore revealing clothing and acted “fun” and “sexy”. I tried to be “one of the boys” when I worked for a men’s magazine, and I even made myself believe that objectifying women was OK because I didn’t want to be known as one of those “ball-busting feminist chicks”.

Live and learn. Now that I’m 41, I’m a vocal feminist and I talk to my daughters every day about how girls can do ANYTHING that boys do. I’ve done a lot of reading on how to empower my girls and here are 10 ways that have stuck in my mind.

1. Model self-acceptance

Avoid talking about your body hang-ups in front of your daughter. Try to eat well, exercise and demonstrate a positive body image. You’re her first and most important role model, so show her that you accept and love yourself.

2. Don’t focus on her looks

While it might seem harmless to tell our girls how cute, pretty or beautiful they are, it can lead them to develop a sense of self-worth that’s dependent upon their appearance. As adorable as it might be to dress up your toddler in tutus and post photos on Insta or to stock your first-grader’s closet with princess dresses, remember that these messages aren’t empowering for her. Try to use words such as “determined”, “creative”, “hard-working”, “brave” and “kind” to describe your daughter instead.

3. Let her be adventurous and rowdy

When a little boy climbs a tree and shouts like a pirate from the top, we barely bat an eye. But if a girl does the same thing, we tell her that she’s being too loud and to calm down. I should know – I do it all the time to my eldest daughter who’s highly spirited. But that’s doing her a disservice because it’s teaching her to dim her light and be a “good girl” while all the boys her age are encouraged to be wild and free. Let’s allow our girls to be wild and free, too.

4. Encourage her dad to be involved and loving

The brilliant Australian psychologist and parent educator Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Girls and 10 Things Girls Need Most, stresses the importance of a father’s role in raising strong and confident girls. He believes that a dad is “the blueprint for what she can expect from boys and men”, and that a father who ignores, belittles or criticizes his daughter will teach her to expect the same treatment from other men.

“Girls want the companionship of their dads, to have solid discussions, to joke and play,” he wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald. “They like to download their concerns, without you needing to do anything but listen.”

5. Seek out strong female role models

Take a little pressure off yourself by ensuring that your daughter has other strong female role models in her life, including grandmothers, aunts and family friends. These women will be an invaluable source of love, support and advice as she grows up.

6. Talk to her about feminism

According to Biddulph, when your daughter is worrying about boys, her body, sex, bullies or pursuing interests she’s told are “for boys”, knowing about the feminist movement can help her get through.

“Realizing that this has been a battle fought for over a century and in every corner of the world, that it is not just her, has been found to be a great mental health boost, because it makes you angry instead of frightened or inadequate,” he toldThe Independent. “You feel part of something larger.”

I talk to my girls about how things used to be for women, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. I love reading them stories of powerful women who changed the world in  the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls book.

7. Talk to her about sex

Many parents shy away from talking to their girls about sex before it’s too late and they’re doing it anyway (or they’ve seen pornography that will give them a very skewed and potentially negative or dangerous view of what sex should be). It’s important to talk to our girls about their sexuality from a young age and to teach them that they – and only they – are in charge of their bodies. When they’re old enough, we need to tell them that they’re entitled to a fulfilling sex life that isn’t just about pleasing someone else.

8. Help her find her passion

Psychologist Peter L. Benson called it a child’s “spark” – an interest, passion or gift that, if nurtured, gives their life meaning and purpose. He even believed that children whose sparks have been ignited are more likely to steer clear of drugs, alcohol, violence and other negative pathways. Whether it’s soccer, painting, creating things, playing the violin or caring for animals, help your daughter find what she truly loves doing and encourage her to pursue it.

9. Watch women’s sports

Actively choose to shield your young daughter from the unattainable beauty standards that are splashed all over the media and present her with images of strong, healthy, accomplished athletes instead. Watch Serena Williams smash it at Wimbledon, Danica Patrick race to victory at the Grand Prix and Lindsey Vonn carve up the slopes at the World Cup.

10. Teach her to stand up for herself

Arm your daughter with the skills she needs to defend herself against bullies and aggressors from a young age. In preschool, you can teach her to say, “Stop, I don’t like that” and to use strong body language such as putting her hands on her hips. As she gets older, teach her to respond to bullies in an unemotional manner and to maintain eye contact. This approach will portray confidence and take power away from the bully. And make sure she knows that she can always come to you or another trusted adult if she isn’t able to ward off her antagonists on her own.