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.

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."

Seek out opportunities for her to be with other girls in communities and activities where they can do what they want to do -- whether they're "good at it" or not. "Think of her interests to guide you: if she's an athlete, great; if she wants to hang out around horses, great. Girls need opportunities to explore things that might lead to strong interests and careers, without the pressure to 'win,'" Johnston-Nicholson says. "Make sure she knows people can be good at any doggone thing." Encourage her to try non-traditional as well as traditional pursuits -- take her fishing, work on the car with her, help her build a soapbox derby car. Girls Inc. and the Girl Scouts of America offer a wealth of ideas.

The point, says Marx, is to communicate an appreciation for who your daughter is, not who you think she should be. "Don't try to remake her. This is part and parcel of the whole drive to have perfect children, super achievers in school, super competitors in athletics," she says. "That doesn't mean you shouldn't encourage her to achieve, but let your daughter know that you accept her for who and what she is."

That can mean accepting yourself. On that self-esteem thing -- how good a role model do you think you are? "Parents may never have worked through their own concerns about how thin we need to be to be attractive," Johnson-Nicholson says. "If we're not monitoring our messages, we're passing them on."

A Family of Media Critics

Girls Inc. urges parents to become "a family of media critics" to combat negative gender stereotypes on TV, in the movies, in music, and in magazines. "Watch TV together, look at her favorite magazines with her, and deconstruct the messages together," Johnston-Nicholson says. "Ask her what she thinks this show says about girls, what they're like and how they should be. Ask her about the ethics of the show, and if that's how she and her friends treat each other. Talk about the messages about bodies, and if the girls in the magazine pictures look the way people really look."

The Girls Inc./Harris poll found that most girls feel that they don't see "themselves" on television, and that the issues they're concerned about -- like divorce, making friends, drugs, and sexuality -- aren't being addressed in a way that speaks to them. "Whether it's TV, magazines, or music, being media critics together offers a real opportunity to have good discussions about the messages girls are getting in their real world," Johnston-Nicholson says.

And don't forget about school -- the other source of so much of your daughter's daily input. "Make sure that the role models they see and the books they read are equitable, and encourage them to express their opinion," Marx says. This means meeting with teachers, taking a close look at the books your daughter reads for class, and asking a lot of questions.

"We can't underestimate the importance of adults in girls' lives. We need to explore how we can help them open doors to their futures by breaking down the stereotypes that hold girls back," says Johnston Nicholson. "Our research tells us that the girls who succeed are the ones who have a loving, secure home environment and adults they can talk to."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Fern Marx, senior research scientist, Centers for Research on Women, Wellesley College, Cambridge, Mass. Heather Johnston-Nicholson, Ph.D., director of research for Girls Incorporated, based at the National Resource Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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