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Raising Strong, Confident Girls

Girls today often face mixed messages about themselves. But proactive parents can empower their daughters to decipher those messages -- and make good decisions.
WebMD Feature

Girls are strong, smart, powerful, and can be whoever and whatever they want. Girls should be thin and sexy and dress like Britney Spears. Girls have the right to speak up in class and express their opinion. Girls should be seen and not heard. Girls can be doctors, engineers, and nuclear physicists. Barbie says: "Math is hard."

Ouch! Girls today could get whiplash with all the mixed messages about themselves, their bodies, their rights, and their abilities. In a 2000 Harris poll for the national nonprofit organization Girls Incorporated, girls in grades 3-12 were asked about gender stereotypes, their quality of life, and their plans for the future. Their answers -- and their parents' comments -- indicate that if anything, life for girls today is more difficult than it used to be.

  • 52% of girls said people think girls are only interested in love and romance.
  • 59% of girls said girls are told not to brag about things they do well.
  • 62% of girls said in school, boys think they have a right to discuss girls' bodies in public.

"I'm skeptical of the literature that finds that nearly every girl is going to plummet into the 'puberty pit,' but I do think that we're giving girls an enormously mixed set of messages," says Heather Johnston-Nicholson, PhD, director of research for Girls Inc. "Many are confused and some of them are harassed, and so there's a fair amount of reality to the notion that there's a challenge to growing up well as a girl in the U.S. these days."

"In many ways, media messages have become even more extreme," agrees Fern Marx, a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College. "On television, as well as in movies and in music, you have the strong girl and the girl as object, sometimes in the same breath. And what has happened over time is that these messages are extending to even younger girls -- there are clothes that make them sexual objects in grade school now."

Empowering Your Daughters

So your daughter is probably getting a lot of conflicting signals at school, from friends, in magazines, and on TV about who she is and what she can be. What's she hearing from you? And just as important, what are you hearing from her?

"The time has come to treat girls as people and listen carefully to what they're saying. They're the world's leading experts on what it's like to be them," says Johnston-Nicholson. So, if you want to help your daughter as she struggles with body image, self-esteem, intellectual growth, and peer pressure, listen before you talk. "That's always the first lesson. Listen, and then ask questions. Ask her what she thinks. Look her in the eye and say, 'That's interesting, tell me about that.' Ask a leading question rather than assuming that you know what's going on."

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