Do This to Raise a Daughter Who Stands Up for Herself
It's a scary time to be raising any child, but in a world full of victim blaming, #metoo movements and glass ceilings, the importance of raising daughters who are assertive and independent — who can stand up for themselves — has taken on greater urgency.
How exactly, though, do you teach that?
We reached out to parents and child-rearing experts to find out which strategies work in raising independent and strong young women. In broad strokes, they told us there's no one simple lesson but, rather, it requires setting up a family dynamic that teaches girls to expect to be respected.
More specifically, they offered tips and tricks for setting up that dynamic at home, and for navigating some of the conflicts of childhood that play a big part in development.
Here's what they had to tell us.
Working mom Priyanka Prakash tries to step back when her 15-month-old daughter is playing with other kids. It may seem like this might be too young to teach a lesson but Prakash, who writes for the small business lending website Fundera in New York, understands it's important to start teaching girls to stand up for themselves at an early age.
"If another kid takes a toy away from her, I resist the urge to step in and console her or explain to her why that happened," she said. "I just let her navigate the situation and figure things out — of course, I'll step in if it looks like one or both kids might get physically hurt, but I find this has helped immensely in building her budding social skills and her sense of comfort and independence around other people."
Prakash said, "She doesn't cling to me like a lot of kids her age tend to do when she's around new people."
Julie King, co-author with Joanna Faber of "How To Talk So LITTLE Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7," echoes this approach.
She said that although parents often want to quickly end conflicts, every conflict present a child with a chance to stand up for herself. Parents are better off if they step back and simply help the child navigate the conflict herself.
For instance, King said, imagine a scenario in which your daughter is being annoyed by the noise from her brother's video game.
She advised: "Start by acknowledging her feelings: 'Sounds like the noise is really bothering you! It's making it hard for you to concentrate.' Then coach her on next steps: 'I think Jimmy needs to know.' The key is for her to talk about her own feelings, without attacking her brother or telling him what to do."
Assertive, Passive or Aggressive?
Anahid Lisa Derbabian, a licensed professional counselor, says parents should teach their daughters what it means to be passive, aggressive and assertive.
"If a friend or classmate verbally attacks her, bullies her, or if anyone gives her a hard time, by learning to be assertive she can speak up for herself in ways that show self-love, self-confidence, strength, and yet a proper handling of situations," Derbabian said.
Passive people tend to give up power to others, and those who are taught to be aggressive may handle situations in ways that may serve them at the expense of others. These behaviors include overreacting, becoming angry, loud, impatient, using threats, force, or intimidation, and not showing sensitivity to others, or the real desire to resolve a situation in healthy ways.
"When a girl is taught to be assertive through her parents' guidance, appropriate modeling, and repetition, she can learn to stay in the present and experience life's opportunities and challenges with confidence," Derbabian said.
Love Yourself So Your Kid Can Love Herself
Stephanie Wiscott, a health coach, said she believes the work she does with pregnant women helps them be prepared to set the example of being a strong woman from the day their kid arrives in the world.
"Our daughters look up to us," she said. "They want to see a mom that is proud of who she is — someone that believes in herself and wants to do good for both herself and others, someone who isn’t afraid to question others respectfully, someone who fights with class for something they believe in."
Wiscott said, "What doesn’t work is telling their daughter to love herself when their mom doesn’t love herself."
Kids Are Always Listening
It's not enough to simply address the issue in direct conversation with your daughter. Your actions and comments to — and about —other people speak volumes.
Eliza Kingsford, an author and psychotherapist who helps women with weight and body image issues, says some of the most toxic comments can come from an older generation of mothers who thought they were trying to be helpful.
"If a mother is constantly criticizing others for their weight or shape, it inadvertently teaches her daughter that body size is important," she said. "Even if she’s discussing weight in a positive way — 'Oh, she looks so skinny' or 'Have you seen how much weight she’s lost?' — those messages are still sending the message that body shape and size is important."
"Another inadvertent, but incredibly toxic, habit that moms can fall into is self-criticism," Kingsford said. "If she puts herself down in front of the mirror, pinches and pulls at her body, or says negative things about the way she looks ... her daughter learns that type of talk and criticism is normal and is more likely to speak to herself in that manner."
Do Unto Others
At the Fountainhead Montessori School in Dublin, Calif., Director Ais Her stresses a curriculum where girls and boys learn how to respect one another and, in turn, expect to be respected. Children are also taught how to speak up when they see someone being disrespectful.
"We begin this at a very young age — as early as 18 months — by teaching children to respect others and their environment (the classroom and peers), as even a very young child can learn by modeled behavior and through observing social norms," Her said. "Therefore, it is important for parents to remember that children learn by watching — this is how everyone learns to walk, talk, and, ultimately, behave. Behavior is just a result of this earlier work and the child's environment."
And while children can go to a teacher if they do not feel comfortable speaking up, the Montessori model ultimately tries to teach them to speak up for themselves.
"By always going to a teacher, they do not learn conflict resolution, which is a big part of life," she said.
The Crucial Five-Year Period
Quinn Cashion, a counsellor and life skills coach who works with girls, parents, and educators, notes that numerous studies show a significant drop in self esteem for girls between the ages of 10 and 15.
"Parents who create environments for their daughters to stand up for themselves in the younger years prepare them well for the teen years, when they question who they are," Cashion said. "Teen years can be challenging for parents. However, it is an amazing opportunity to guide their daughters towards their own wisdom and common sense so they are making healthy decisions for themselves."
Different Messages From Moms and Dads
Fathers and mothers will likely have more influence with their daughters in different circumstances, Cashion said. For moms, it’s a matter of modeling behavior: As a mother stands up for herself in her own life, she is naturally teaching and showing her daughters what standing up for yourself really looks like.
Fathers play a crucial role in a daughter's emotional development, "especially by emotionally giving her the space to speak up and be heard," said Cashion.
"Also, men who treat their wives and ex-wives with respect show their daughters how a man treats a woman," she said. "It is the first relationship between a man and woman that she sees, and it's an opportunity to demonstrate how to be in a healthy relationship where communication can be challenging at times."
Teach Her the 'I-Statement' Formula
Fallyn Smith is an elementary school counselor who runs Mindful Kids Coaching, a coaching business for parents and children in the San Francisco Bay Area. She suggested teaching girls how to use "I-statements," also known as "I-messages," to help girls speak up for themselves. The formula looks like this:
"I feel _______ when you _________ because __________ and I want ________."
For example, someone might say, "I feel disappointed when you don't invite me to play with you because it hurts my feelings and I want to play."
"This is a really important technique to practice since kids don't talk to each other like this naturally, but it gets the point across and the other person knows exactly how the person feels and what they want in the end," Smith said. "It's also important for parents to remember that they are the number one model, so make sure you are using this tool as well in your conversations and talk about examples with your child so they can see that it works."
Teach Her to Set Boundaries
Life coach Kathleen Fors said parents need to, first and foremost, establish that their daughter is loved unconditionally for who she is. She also has to have the freedom to express her opinion.
"This means that, as a parent, you respect your child’s opinions and desires, while holding them to established boundaries," For said.
From there, parents will find it easier to have ongoing discussions about what respectful behavior looks like.
"Share with her that it's OK to say, 'No,' and how to use 'I' in expressing her feelings and asking for what she wants, all with appropriate discernment," Fors said. "For example, she might say, 'I didn’t feel good when I was teased about my weight. If you want to be my friend then you’ll have to treat me with respect'."