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January 2005
Raising Strong Girls
by Lynn Grasso, M.S., OTR/L

Most of us who are raising girls (mine are 13 and 3 years old) either consciously or subconsciously want them to become strong, capable, assertive girls who can stand up for themselves as they navigate the social and emotional waters of childhood, adolescence and ultimately adulthood. Female development is "out there" for the world to see: physical development is obvious, friendships are largely noticeable, and emotions tend to be more consistently obvious than boys' emotions, so our girls really need a great deal of support as they grow into the fantastic human beings we want them to be. But what can we do to help facilitate our daughters' confidence, dignity, self-respect and ultimately lifelong success?

When my first daughter was born, my husband gave me a book called Things Will Be Different for My Daughter (Stryker & Bingham), which started my personal journey of self-reflection. I began to feel an intense pressure to both shield my daughter from painful experiences and push her toward exciting ones. After facilitating a girls' self-awareness group and benefiting from some timely research on girls, I offer some guidance that my daughters, the girls in my group and their parents have found helpful. It is important to remember that preparing your daughter to become a strong, capable girl and woman begins in the toddler years.

EDUCATE YOURSELF

Read up on girls' issues. Many contemporary authors are discussing the struggles girls face just because they are girls. Realize that all things are not equal for girls. Often they are called on less frequently than boys in class, and they are motivated by different types of activities than boys are in the classroom.They exhibit specific types of aggression, and their acts of aggression are often not appropriately responded to by adults. There are differences between how males and females are portrayed on TV, movies and in the newspaper.

  • Check out the great studies by the American Association of University Women (How Schools Shortchange Girls, Girls in the Middle, Gender Gaps) at www.aauw.org.
  • Read the latest books on girls:

    Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman

    Odd Girl Out, by Rachel Simmons

    Things Will be Different for My Daughter, by Mindy Bingham, Sandy Stryker and Susan Allstetter Neufeldt

    Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher

    Ophelia Speaks, by Sara Shandler

    Backlash:The Undeclared War Against American Women, by Susan Faludi

DO SOME SELF-REFLECTION

  • Dads, what were adults' attitudes about girls when you were growing up?
  • Moms, were you encouraged to speak your mind? Express your anger?
  • What was your family's attitude about discussing your body or discussing sex?
  • Were you bossy? Did you ever manipulate your friends or gossip about them? Were you ever the victim of these behaviors? Did you ever refrain from raising your hand or speaking out in class for fear you would look "too smart"?
  • What is the attitude/your attitude in your workplace toward women who are outspoken or authoritative?
  • Are you a "people pleaser"? Are you able to say no? Are you competitive? Has your competitiveness been supported or put down by others?
  • What is your emotional response to the word "feminism"?
  • Who are your female role models? Can you identify any public female role models for your daughters?

BE AWARE OF YOUR EVERYDAY LANGUAGE

"Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the smartest one of all?" There are many subtle ways during everyday interactions that you can instill in your daughter the sense that girls are strong and smart, not just damsels in distress to be rescued or weak beings relying on others.

  • When reading books or telling stories with your daughter, be sure to have a female heroine or adventurer in your story rather than a male hero. When reading Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, play down the emphasis on beauty and embellish the characters' intelligence, courage or wit. Why did the prince marry Snow White? Because she was smart and responsible!
  • When your daughter refers to her stuffed animal or other nongendered characters as "he," gently remind her that Teddy could be a girl, too, and so could that smart little child in her favorite story. The big, strong elephant or tiger at the zoo could be a "she" also.
  • When people (including you) comment on how "cute" or "adorable" your daughter is, follow it up with "Yes, and she knows how smart she is, too. Right Katie?"
  • Always praise positive behavior with specific terms, rather than saying "good girl." "Good girl" says nothing about what she is doing right; it only promotes the need to please. Use phrases like, "You finished your lunch so quickly!" "I love how you opened your juice box all by yourself!" You can also decrease "people pleasing" behavior by teaching your daughter that saying "no" to peers is okay and should be practiced.
  • Try not to be overprotective with your toddler or preschool daughter. For example, on the playground, encourage her to climb that big ladder, to swing higher, etc. The feeling of physical accomplishment, even at age 2 or 3, is very powerful.
  • Moms, avoid self-deprecating remarks. Never say things like, "Go to Daddy with your math homework honey, he's smarter than Mommy" (yes, I actually heard this from a college-educated woman, referring to third grade math.) Watch your comments about your own body and other people's comments about your daughter's. Be careful to promote support of girls and women by refraining from gossip or making remarks about people you know. When your daughter complains about another girl's behavior, help her see the reasons for the friend's behavior. For example, maybe her friend's parents are divorcing, and she is feeling abandoned. Avoid feeding into the comments with statements like "Yes, I think she's a nasty little girl, too, honey."

HELP YOUR DAUGHTER APPRECIATE HER UNIQUENESS

  • Complete a family tree with your daughter, including all of the past and present women in her family. Talk about these women, and interview others about those who have passed away. This will help her understand "herstory."
  • Think up adjectives and descriptive phrases with your daughter about herself:

    What kind of a friend she is (e.g., loyal, sensitive, etc);

    What are her values/interests (e.g., math, sports, creative arts, animals);

    How is she out in the world (e.g., asks a lot of questions, participates in class discussions, helps out at church/synagogue).

EDUCATE YOUR DAUGHTER ON ASSERTIVENESS

The parents and girls in the group I facilitate report that this topic is one of the most helpful.

  • Discuss the differences between assertive, aggressive and passive behavior. When your daughter comes home from preschool or school with a story about how someone treated her badly, do a lot of role plays about how she could respond next time. Always ask, "What did you say to her when she said that to you?" You may frequently hear, "I didn't say anything," or "I just walked away." Give her examples of alternative responses; for example, "Tell her how that made you feel," "Tell her in a loud voice, ‘Stop that, I don't like it!' " One of the main reasons girls do not stand up for themselves after being hurt by a friend is that they don't want to hurt their friend's feelings.
  • Model assertive behavior. If the hairdresser is cutting your hair too short, speak up. If someone cuts in front of you at the grocery store, kindly, but with assertive posturing, explain that you were next in line. Read The Assertive Woman (Personal Growth), by Stanlee Phelps and Nancy Austin (a classic, now in its fourth edition).
  • Teach assertive posturing: Stand up straight, speak in a strong voice, hold your head up, look people in the eye. It's a beautiful thing to hear a fourth-grade girl do this and then come back and tell you how she used it to deal with a "best friend" who was forcing her to wear blue pants every day to prove her loyalty.
  • Always point out the girls and women who are assertive on TV or in movies and the girls who are not. Point out when girls or women are portrayed as weak, submissive to men or needing rescue; or, how frequently the boss, school principal or authoritative characters in shows, movies or books are men and their subordinates are women. "Susie, wouldn't it be great if this show had a woman as this lady's boss?" But don't use divisive language against men or boys.

UNDERSTAND GIRLS' FRIENDSHIPS AND AGGRESSION

As one dad I know puts it, it is helpful for our girls to "see other girls' peer roles as almost something separate and distinct from who they really are. It can be difficult to do, especially where hurt feelings are involved, but it is essential to give them a mental vocabulary, or common language, to analyze peer relationships and behaviors and to deal with them in stride." Understanding the information below helps girls to begin to depersonalize abusive behavior of other girls around them and to recognize their own potential for bullying.

  • Read Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman, to help you and your daughter discuss cliques, gossip, power plays, group dynamics and rites of passage. This insightful book contains massive amounts of information and advice and inspired the movie, Mean Girls. It helped parents and girls in my group to articulate what is happening in their intimate social world.
  • Allow your daughter to express her anger. In Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons explains "the hidden aggression of girls," called relational aggression, which begins in the preschool years. Friendship is used as a "weapon." "Susie said I can't play with her anymore," or "I don't want Katie to be my friend anymore." Rather than telling her to ignore Susie or supporting her alienating Katie, discuss why and how your daughter is feeling, and role play future responses.
  • Help your daughter feel comfortable with competition, and teach her that relationships can survive it, as Simmons suggests. You will find that many girls, probably your daughter, too, will instinctively comment that a certain girl at school "thinks she's all that," just because she's wearing an enviable outfit or has recently been elected class president or has a cute boyfriend. Call her on it, and talk about it.
  • Be ready to deal with the indirect aggression by your daughter and her peers – the "up and down look," the silent treatment, gossip. Cut off gossip. Don't do it, don't let her do it. It is one of the main ways girls use friendship as a weapon. In Mean Girls, the characters refer to this inexplicable temptation to talk negatively about others as "word vomit"!
  • Teach your daughter the difference between friendly criticism vs. abuse, mentioned in Bingham and Stryker's book Things Will Be Different For My Daughter. This section of the book discusses how to role play with girls about dealing with conflict and how to recognize when others are being abusive. It offers constructive ways to give criticism to a friend or to point out unacceptable behaviors.
  • Help your daughter tell her peers how their hurtful actions make her feel: "It made me feel really alone when you said..." As Simmons says, often girls are offended by directness, so confrontation techniques have to be practiced.

HELP YOUR DAUGHTER KNOW AND RESPECT HER BODY AND DEMAND RESPECT FROM OTHERS

  • Use the correct anatomical terms when teaching your daughter about the parts of her body, particularly her "private parts." Use a mirror to show her the different parts of her body and genitalia. This promotes healthy discussion as changes occur later. It also makes it easier to accurately describe any inappropriate touch by someone else.
  • Educate her on the changes to expect with puberty. Unfortunately, girls mature and go through puberty completely on the outside – breasts, pubic hair, hairy legs and underarms, etc. Girls often find the menstrual/ovulation cycle confusing. "Oh my gosh, you can get pregnant as soon as you start getting your period? What if you get it in fifth grade???"
  • Teach her to demand respect for her body from others. Some of us may have had the horrifying experience of adolescent boys (and girls!) snapping our bra straps in the hallway. And, if you think Dad's comments to little Katy about how she has inherited her mother's stick-like body, flat chest or skinny ankles are not taken to heart, you're painfully wrong. Especially if her brother Johnny is allowed to remark about it too. This is a form of sexual harassment (yes, harassment!) within the family, and it is inappropriate.
  • Discuss scenarios and conversations that might occur with boys and girls when she begins to develop: "Her boobs are so big," "Boys like her because she's not flat," etc.
  • Consider and discuss how often stories about female politicians or authoritative figures are opened by a comment about their hair, their weight gain or their clothes rather than what they have to say or what they stand for.
  • Help your daughter be comfortable in her own body. Help her understand society's definition of beauty, which is not realistic. Help her understand how women's bodies are objectified in different media. Teach her to analyze pictures of women in magazines and commercials. How many models in magazines are portrayed in submissive posturing or positions? What part of the model's body does your daughter look at first when she sees the picture? Have her describe the physical characteristics of as many women as she can find in a magazine–are they all blond? What are their body types? How many different races or ethnicities are portrayed in beauty/fashion magazines?
  • A great website to look at together is www.thecultureofmodeling.com, started by a former model who is concerned about this subject.
  • The following books are fabulous for discussions about girls' bodies, sex, etc.:

    The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls, by Valorie Schaefer and Norma Bendell

    It's Perfectly Normal: A Book About Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health, by Robie H. Harris & Michael Emberley

    It's So Amazing, by Robie H. Harris & Michael Emberley

    My Body, Myself For Girls, by Lynda Madaras & Area Madaras

DROP IT, SHUT UP, AND LISTEN!

Sounds harsh, but it is often what I have to say to myself when my daughter comes to me with what sounds like a benign comment about what happened at school, dance class, etc. Sometimes it's just her body language. Yes, I'd rather finish my writing, phone conversation with a friend or unloading the dishwasher. But she's really asking me in "pre-teen speak" to hang out, not say anything and get more information from her!

  • Make at least weekly time alone with your daughter, out of the house, no siblings allowed. Our fourth to sixth grade girls really need us around. She may not offer one bit of personal information about her day, week, friends, bullies, etc., but the more time you spend just hanging out, the quicker those conversations will start to happen. Be very conscious of how you react to information; strive to be calm and interested – appearing to overreact may cause immediate shut down.
  • Read the following lists from Queen Bees and Wannabes: "Things She Won't Hate Doing With You;" "Things She Wishes her Parents Did;" "What Daughters Wish Their Parents Knew;" "Fun Movies."
  • Don't ever, ever let her think you're judging her. Don't react in any way to what she tells you until after she finishes; then do so with caution!

HELP YOUR DAUGHTER IDENTIFY, PREVENT AND DECREASE ANXIETY, DEPRESSION AND STRESS

Girls can be susceptible to depression and anxiety. Prevention is key.

  • Help your daughter identify the signs of anxiety early: increased heart rate, holding her breath, ruminating thoughts, loss of concentration.
  • Assist her with identifying signs of depression: changes in appetite and sleep, prolonged sadness and hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, feeling unloved, loss of concentration.
  • Train her to do deep breathing exercises, sign her up for teen yoga classes, do guided imagery activities with her. Show her how to do full-body relaxation. Guided imagery and relaxation techniques were two of the most popular activities in my girls' group.

Happy girl-raising!

Lynn Grasso is an occupational therapist in private practice and at Ivymount School's after-school therapy program. She facilitates the S.T.R.O.N.G. girls group (Self Awareness Training for Responding to the Ongoing Needs of our Girls) for fourth and fifth graders. You can contact Lynn at grassoducey@starpower.net.


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