Let’s hear it for girl power!
Heidi Raeside, Aquarius parenting ambassador, author of Tuesdayschild.me parenting blog and mother of two
Even as a mum of boys, I’m aware of sexism influencing our impressionable children. It’s in the marketing of some toys and activities, it’s there every time we call a girl who exhibits leadership skills ‘bossy’ and it’s there when we focus on telling a girl how pretty she is, rather than asking about school or what games she likes. It’s often innocent and mostly subliminal, but it compounds dated stereotypes that fuel latent sexism.
Raising either gender has specific responsibilities, but I think there’s possibly an extra burden on parents of daughters. The female of the species needs to be twice as good, twice as strong, twice as ambitious as male counterparts for a chance to be considered on a level playing field – whilst appearing twice as humble, nice... Oh, and attractive.
These are things the motherhood knows instinctively and subconsciously. But is it worthwhile for mums, especially those raising the next generation of women, to increase their awareness of the institutionalised challenges and barriers women face? How are we ourselves holding young girls back?
Much of what holds women back is internal and a lot of it is passed on from other women, such as our mothers. How girls grow to feel they fit into society, what they’re good or not good at, what they should be... These are ingrained from toddlerhood so we need to be careful what we teach our daughters about their options, ambitions, self-belief and priorities.
I’m by no stretch a parenting expert. But I read what I can, when I can, on bringing up courageous girls as the issue fascinates me. Here are five action points on how to raise a strong and well-rounded daughter, all based upon the manifesto of leading life coach Samantha Ettus:
Take her outside Encouraging a girl out of her comfort zone when you can will give her a greater sense of her body as a source of strength and ability and teach her to take healthy risks. Climb trees, collect bugs, do a yoga class at the park and go camping. Bikes, roller skates, or skipping ropes are heaps more fun than a princess Barbie doll.
Help her love her looks Oh, the damage we do when they hear us bash our own body image, see us struggling on faddy diets, or witness a wardrobe crisis. If your daughter catches you loving your body, regardless of shape or size, she will grow to love hers. Teach health and happiness over skinny and pretty.
Parent with empathy Empathetic parenting is proven to lead to greater self-worth in kids. It’s not about agreeing with her, but expressing an understanding of how she feels. Again, this is easy for me to type from a safe distance, but although I don’t have a daughter, I know what a pain I was as a child and teenager and can imagine how this one might be the toughest of all to bite your lip and persevere with.
Pursue her interests Interesting people are interested. Find out what your daughter is interested in and help her build upon it to develop passion. To be keen for knowledgeable or be good at something is great for confidence and growth, and fleshes out a well-rounded individual.
Minimise the princess Easier said than done, right? Of course little girls love princesses and I expect they always will. However, focusing daughters too much on beauty and femininity at such a young age might be channelling them in the wrong direction.
Big boys do cry…
Saliha Alfridi, psychologist and managing director at LightHouse Arabia and mother of four
“Boys are so much easier than girls.” “Girls are so much drama when they get older.” While so many of us get involved in the great parenting debate over which sex is more challenging to raise, we are in danger of overlooking a more serious issue. What is the best way to raise boys into honourable and respectful men?
I speak from experience, not only as a mother of two boys (and two girls) but also as a psychologist who has spent the last decade working with boys and men. While it may be easier for parents to raise boys due to the low levels of outward drama, it is certainly not easy for the boys to navigate the scary and lonely inner landscape.
I have heard first-hand the pain, suffering, hurt and anxieties of boys and men who have been brought up with the notion that big boys don’t cry. These are males who have spent years in quiet anguish as they were applauded for being emotionally detached and ridiculed for even the smallest expression of emotion. They feel fear, anxiety, sorrow, grief, panic, loneliness and shame – but they don’t feel they can talk to anyone about it. Emotionally blocked, and silently suffering, these are the lost boys of the 21st century.
As much as popular culture will have us believe that boys are tough, cape-wearing, unemotional superheroes, in reality they are as emotionally fragile as girls. Just because they’re not as outwardly expressive as girls doesn’t mean that they don’t have complicated emotions that run as deep. And just because they are seen as the stronger sex, doesn’t mean that they don’t have the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the so-called fairer sex.
We are raising our boys to conceal their emotions, and we are teaching our boys that anger shows strength and sadness shows weakness. It’s not just a bad idea; I believe it’s dangerous. In the UK, for example, research revealed that there’s a marked gender gap in university admissions and fewer males are choosing to study for a degree. Also, three times as many men are regular drug users than women. Many psychologists believe that a reluctance to express their emotions openly is a significant factor in these statistics, and that we are setting our boys up to bury their feelings in alcohol, drugs and other unhealthy avenues. This is not just the case in the UK but a worldwide phenomenon. Our boys are drowning in their own emotions.
We need to look at what we’re doing to raise healthy, emotionally intelligent and fully engaged boys. How? By helping them to build an emotional vocabulary from a very young age. We need to teach our boys that it’s OK to cry when they are hurt, be sad when they lose, and grieve when someone leaves or dies. Instead of brushing their feelings under the carpet with the natural response of, “Be a big boy and wipe away those tears,” we need to encourage them to reflect on and express their pain and sadness. In order to do this in the best of ways, we have to be conscious of how the larger society has impacted our own ideas of masculinity.
Our boys need to understand that they can give an outpouring of emotion without compromising their masculinity. Ultimately, this will make them more self-aware, emotionally resilient, and capable of expressing both positive and negative feelings. Most importantly, it will make them authentically happy.
As a mother, it has been important for me to go against my instinct to be a solid rock for my sons. Instead, I have chosen to let them see me as vulnerable. I have let them see me cry, hurt, suffer, grieve and feel. I have spent time with my sons talking about my feelings and theirs. I have shared my internal struggles, moral dilemmas, wrongdoings and mistakes. I have let them see the whole being who is their mother. In doing this, I will have hopefully modelled for them the courage it takes to live life with integrity, authentically, and to its fullest.