As the ultrasound technician ran her magic wand over my jelly-covered belly and searched for signs of who my unborn child would be, I waited impatiently for confirmation of what I was already quite sure of: that “it” was a girl.
This, my third pregnancy, had been much more difficult than the first two, both of which produced boys. I was sure the added tiredness and the nausea that lasted well into the second trimester were signs not only of the fact that this baby would be different than the other two, but also of the energy and effort it would take to raise her.
I wanted a girl, of course. My husband was excited to have daughter as well. And my sons thought it only right that since they already had a brother, they get a sister this time. So when the ultrasound tech confirmed our suspicions, we were thrilled. A girl! Finally! This would be something new, and exciting, and different.
But I was also apprehensive. Girls, I thought — though wonderful, amazing, beautiful, surprising creatures — were a little bit scary. I worried about dealing with “mean girl” problems, with body image issues, with pressures to be beautiful and intelligent and athletic and kind and popular and strong and sassy all at the same time. I imagined those emotional teenage years and hoped that we wouldn’t become disconnected right at the time when she needed motherly support and encouragement the most.
And, of course, I wondered if there was any way to stop myself from passing on my less-than-desirable traits: the feelings of unworthiness, the high-strung attitude, the perfectionism.
In those first weeks after the “diagnosis” that I was having a girl, I asked all my mother-of-daughter friends to tell me all the wonderful things about having a girl and to convince me that, scared as I might be, I could still raise a girl who was strong and smart and confident. Since then, I’ve read so much about raising daughters, and I’ve fallen deeply in love with my little girl. Though only 14 months old, she is already fiercely independent (and I do mean fierce), absolutely fearless, and excited to jump in and wrestle with her brothers — or “dress up” in my shirts.
Here’s a little bit of the wisdom about raising strong daughters that I’ve collected and taken to heart over the past 18 months — and that I hope to live by as my daughter grows up.
1. Love your body
Oh, bodies. They are so hard. Dissatisfaction is expected. Fat talk is rampant. Self-worth, shame, and confidence are all tied so closely to the size and shape of our bodies. I don’t know if it is possible to prevent at least some degree of body consciousness, but we don’t have to facilitate it.
In our own homes, we should avoid talking about how “fat” we feel, or about the pounds we want to lose, or the disappointment with the way we look in those jeans. And as much as we can, we should try to love the way we look in front of our daughters. They’ll take their body image cues from us, so let’s give them good ones. We need to do our best to be sure they know that our self-worth is not tied to a number on a scale or a dress size; and theirs shouldn’t be either.
2. Beauty is in behavior
When we talk about beautiful people, we are often talking about their looks. Often, but not always. Many beautiful people are beautiful because of the way they behave: they are kind and generous, thoughtful towards others, willing to give of themselves. When we talk about “ugly” people, we should talk about how something was an “ugly” thing to say or do.
Teaching our daughters that it is the way they behave towards others and towards themselves that paves the way to becoming beautiful can free them from worrying about having (or not having) the perfect hair or the straightest teeth. With that extra freedom, who knows what good they can do in making the world a more beautiful place?
3. Sing your own praises
As parents, it’s easy to martyr ourselves for the sake of our children. And they are completely oblivious to it. (Ungrateful little buggers.) But what if we took the opportunity to point out to them all the wonderful things we do for them? What if we weren’t shy about letting them know that not only do we do a lot of amazing things, but we’re actually pretty amazing people, too?
I’m willing to bet that not only would we feel less resentment about doing those little things we never get thanked for doing, but we would open their eyes to the all of the things that we, and others, do for them. Gratitude, with all of its benefits for mind, body, and heart, would become a part of who they are, and our daughters would not be afraid to look for and own their own brand of amazingness.
I’m not going to be afraid to say, as humbly and genuinely as I can, “Isn’t it great that you have such a beautiful, talented mother?” to my kids. I’m hoping that it will not only instill a level of gratitude and respect, but also a level of confidence and pride in who they are.
4. Dad time is well spent
Girls need strong relationships with their dads. It’s important — even science tells us this. Research shows that girls who don’t have strong relationships with their dads are more likely to develop destructive relationships, have unplanned pregnancies, suffer from low-self esteem, and less likely to graduate from college. Dads have the ability and the responsibility to teach their daughters how they should expect to be treated by men.
So if we want to raise girls that are strong enough to walk away from abusive relationships, or that can demand respect from a room full of boys, we need to give them the gift of a strong, healthy, respectful relationship with her dad. (Or, if he’s not available, with another trusted male role model.)
5. Own your smarts
Being smart is nothing to be ashamed of, but as girls grow up they are getting the message that their value lies in their bodies and in their looks, rather than in their brains. Intelligent women are mocked and ridiculed in the media and girls are left wondering if there is any value to their intelligence.
Our girls shouldn’t have to wonder if it is better to be smart or pretty, and they shouldn’t feel like they need to hide their intelligence. Research shows that girls often have an advantage over boys in language skills, and they’re often more emotionally astute than boys, too. We can help our daughters take pride in their strengths (and bolster their weaknesses) by taking an interest in the things they are interested in, involving them in a variety of activities from fixing cars to making dinner, and by praising their efforts to do their best.
6. Fit is fabulous
Being physically fit not only keeps girls healthy and active, it can give them an added perspective and more confidence in their bodies by emphasizing what they can do, over how they look. It can also help them learn to manage stress, boost their performance in school, and teach goal-setting skills. Playing team sports lets her be part of a group, and see how she can contribute to a common goal and develop strong relationships with her peers.
7. Charity never fails
Charity is nothing more than love seeing others who need help, and giving that help to them. Doing that — seeing needs and filling them – gives girls immeasurable power to influence the world in ways big and small. But it will also teach them to trust themselves, and help them grow and flourish into women who can find fulfillment in whatever circumstance they are in, because there will always be someone who is struggling and who can benefit from their attention.
8. Walk your own way
It takes guts to go against the crowd, but that’s what we want, right? Daughters who are not afraid to follow their guts? Whether it be going after her dream job, or standing up to her friends when they’re being unkind, there are a million situations — both big and small — she can benefit in from having the confidence to walk her own way.
She’ll get that from watching you, of course, but also as you encourage her in her pursuits and praise her as she makes difficult choices and comes out on top.
9. Preach perspective
She may be the center of your world, but she’s not the center of the world. Teaching her humility gives her power to help others, to look beyond herself, and to understand that she is a part of a great big world. What kind of part she decides to be — hard-working, dependable, generous, or thoughtful — is up to her, but at least you’ve given her some perspective on her place and her potential power.
10. It’s on her
Taking responsibility in life for the little things as well as the big is a daunting and difficult task. We are not in control of everything that happens to us. And, in fact, a lot of bad things do and will happen to our children in the years ahead.
But if we teach and model that happiness is not in the circumstances themselves, but in our response to them, we are giving our daughters the ability to choose to be happy. Or to take charge in a difficult situation. They don’t have to sit back and wait for someone else to fix things. They can do it themselves.