Raising Powerful Girls

In honor of International Day of the Girl on October 11, we look at the challenges parents face in raising girls in 2021 and how to overcome them…

two diverse girls hugging on International Day of The Girl

Raising girls can sometimes be challenging and messy, but also incredibly inspiring and rewarding. On the one hand, rates of depression and other mental health issues in teen girls are on the rise. But on the other, opportunities are opening up for women in education, business and politics, and it’s never been a better time to be a girl.

As a mama to three young girls, I look at their futures with a mix of excitement and concern. I can’t wait to see which career paths they’ll choose and who they’ll become. But I also worry about how they’ll navigate social media, whether they’ll have healthy self-esteem and body images, and whether they’ll continue to face the same deeply ingrained gender stereotypes I had to contend with growing up.

Here are five of the main challenges of raising powerful girls and how to overcome them:

1. Building self-esteem

How to overcome it: Praise their individuality and embrace their imperfections.

The authors of New York Times bestseller The Confidence Code for Girls found that girls’ self-confidence ratings drop by 30 percent between the ages of 8 and 14. One of the main explanations for this decline in self-esteem is that girls are encouraged from a young age to be “good girls” and people pleasers. They’re taught to color in the lines, play quietly and behave.

While these expectations might seem harmless, they teach girls that they should strive for perfection and that making mistakes is unacceptable. They berate themselves whenever they mess up and their self-esteem inevitably plummets.

We can help our girls avoid the perfectionism trap by embracing their individuality and encouraging them to take risks and make mistakes. We can also tell them stories of how we messed up and what we did to overcome those setbacks. My girls love hearing about my embarrassing blunders!


2. Promoting body confidence

How to overcome it: Be a body positive role model.

My daughters roll their eyes whenever I speak and think their dad can do no wrong. Sound familiar? It might not seem like we have much influence on our daughters, but we do. A survey of 1100 girls aged between 13 and 18 found that 63 percent of girls who report having a role model say it’s their mom. Aw!

No matter what your shape or size, show your daughters that you accept and embrace your body. Avoid criticizing yourself or talking about your weight. Try to model healthy eating and exercise habits, but don’t berate yourself if you slip up. Don’t talk to your daughters about how their bodies look – only about how strong they are and all the amazing things they can do. Avoid commenting on other women’s bodies too.


3. Managing the negative effects of social media

How to overcome it: Set boundaries and stick to them.

Several studies have shown that the more time teens spend on social media, the more likely they are to be depressed or unhappy. A recent analysis found that this effect is larger for girls: 26 percent of girls who spend more than six hours a day on social media report being unhappy compared to 18 percent of boys.

One of the easiest ways to reduce the harmful effects of social media is to not allow our children to have accounts until they’re old enough. The minimum legal age is 13 and experts generally agree that children shouldn’t be on social media before then (although many are because the law is rarely enforced).

When our daughters start using social media, we can set daily usage limits and regularly monitor our children’s accounts. (I believe this should be done with our children’s knowledge and consent rather than behind their backs.) We can have honest discussions about the difference between people’s highlight reels and real lives. Finally, we can check in regularly with our daughters to see how they’re feeling and whether social media is affecting their well-being.


4. Gender stereotypes

How to overcome it: Teach them how to be bosses.

Research by the Girl Scout Research Institute found that 92 percent of girls think they’re smart enough to be entrepreneurs, but 75 percent of them think they’d have to work harder to succeed because of their gender. While things are starting to change, gender stereotypes are still deeply ingrained in our daughters’ minds.

We can teach our daughters how to be bosses by allowing them to fail, giving them opportunities to negotiate (such as doing extra chores in exchange for a later bedtime) and teaching them how to make smart financial decisions. We can also talk to them about the accomplishments of successful women such as Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Even if they don’t want to be entrepreneurs, these teachings will be useful in many facets of their adult lives.


5. Protecting them from racism, bullying and abuse 

How to overcome it: Teach them how to stand up for themselves.

As parents, the last thing we want is for our kids to be victimized. But we won’t always be there to defend them, so we have to teach them the skills they need to defend themselves.

If someone is being unkind or mean to them, they shouldn’t bite back. They should try to remain calm and not give the bully the satisfaction of reacting to their taunts. After a few unsuccessful attempts at getting under someone’s skin, bullies often give up. But we should also teach our daughters not to remain silent in the face of repeated attacks. If they feel unsafe in any way, they need to know that they can talk to a trusted adult.

The same goes for inappropriate sexual behavior directed at them by peers or adults. We need to teach our girls that this is never acceptable and that their voice that will be heard if they use it.

When our girls speak, let’s listen. We owe it to them.


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