7 rules for raising happy girls
A new book on parenting girls spells out the conversations we should be having with our daughters.
Once upon a time, the most challenging conversation a parent might have with their young daughter was a chat about the birds and the bees. These days, ensuring little girls stay carefree, happy and confident is more difficult than ever, in a culture that pressurises them to be skinny, pretty, sexy, popular and bright high-achievers.
Girls who are barely finding their feet in primary school now have to develop enough resilience to withstand the barrage of unhealthy messages about their bodies and gender being bombarded at them by the media, fashion, advertising, music video and porn industries. The need for more candid dialogue with our kids was brought home to many parents last month, when the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre said children as young as 11 were getting their sex education from watching porn.
A parent's ability to wield a positive influence is still at its peak when children are aged between seven and 12. By instilling self-worth in their daughters at this age, parents can equip them with the tools to cope with efforts from some quarters of society to reduce them to nothing more than the sum of their physical attributes. That's according to Tanith Carey, the British author of a new book called Girls, Interrupted: Steps for Building Stronger Girls in a Challenging World.
The 47-year-old parenting writer directed the advice to parents of girls, rather than boys, simply because she is a mother to two daughters, 13-year-old Lily and 10-year-old Clio.
The following tips for helping young girls become more comfortable with themselves are based on advice from Carey and Irish experts.
1 Learn to love your body and teach her to do the same
Many mothers have themselves grown up in a world that equates beauty and thinness with power and success, so it's no surprise they can subconsciously pass on similar messages to their daughters.
"We self-criticise in front our daughters, so these little girls are picking up on these messages," author Carey says.
From an early age, girls can feel trapped in a constant beauty contest they can never win. And that's even before they join social-networking sites, where some girls' self-worth is measured out in how many "likes" they get for their selfies on Facebook or Instagram. If they don't get enough likes, they have failed this beauty contest; if they do, it's perceived that "pretty" is all that they are, Carey says.
She suggests parents get their daughters to look at themselves in the mirror and to focus on the body's abilities, not its appearance. Show her that how she looks is just a small part of who she is, Carey says.
2 Praise your daughter for qualities other than her appearance
There's no harm in telling your daughter how beautiful she is now and again. But instead of constantly complimenting your daughter on her pretty dress or face, praise her for other qualities, too, such as her friendly nature, talents, kindness or humour.
Research suggests that telling a child how good-looking they are does not boost their self-esteem; rather it leads them to believe they are valued for their appearance rather than for themselves, says Deirdre Cowman, a psychology lecturer at All Hallows College and a director of Endangered Bodies Ireland, which is part of a global activist movement aimed at countering negative messages about body shape.
3 Find your daughter's spark
With girls continuing to outperform boys in school exams, it's tempting for parents to push them towards academic goals that will secure them a place at the best schools, universities and, ultimately, high-paying prestigious jobs.
But, along the way, we might miss out on what our daughters are really good at and put stifling pressure on them to match our own expectations.
From an early age, parents can cultivate their daughters' spark - what they are innately good at - by letting them freely pursue their own talents instead of overloading them with extracurricular activities they are not interested in. Carey points out that kids like to do things that come naturally to them, so ask your daughter what she loves to do and give her the space to do it, whether it be writing stories or taking care of animals.
4 Don't encourage her to be Little Miss Perfect
Girls are exceptionally prone to perfectionism in all areas of their lives, from grooming to their grades. As girls are more likely than boys to be natural people pleasers, they want to match up to everyone's expectations of them. Because the pressure to be blessed in everything from looks to academic success has accelerated, a new breed of Little Miss Perfect has emerged, Carey says.
Parents unwittingly reinforce this pressure to be perfect at all times by praising their daughters for being a "good girl". Carey recommends banishing this term from your vocabulary altogether and instead showing your daughter how much you appreciate her imperfect true self rather than an ideal she's trying to live up to.
5 Challenge media messages
Children and adolescents now see more images of perfection in advertising, the media and on the internet in one day than the previous generations saw during their entire teenage years, says Fiona Flynn, youth development officer for Bodywhys.
Help your daughters become more media literate by examining before-and-after photos of airbrushed models, actresses and pop stars, so that they can learn that the image of perfection they aspire to may not even be real.
Parents can point out the tricks deployed by some quarters of the advertising industry to deliberately instil insecurities in young girls in order to sell them a solution, such as cosmetics, Cowman says.
6 Tell her about sex - before porn does
It's not a question of "if" our children will see porn, it's a question of when, Carey says. Pre-teen girls can first encounter porn by accident; it finds them, in the form of viral emails, pop-up banners, or even hidden among innocent YouTube videos.
By their early teens, girls will be actively searching for porn to make sure they don't sound naive to their classmates, Carey says.
Modern pornography is not of the soft-core variety you may have seen in your youth; it depicts acts that are much more violent and degrading towards women than ever before. And it is now the most widespread form of sex education, so teach your daughter before the porn industry does, Carey says.
The writer explained to her eldest daughter when she was just seven that the videos she may see on the internet of adults with no clothes treating each other unkindly are not true to real life.
"I said: 'That's play-acting for the camera - it's fiction, like an action film or a scary film'," Carey says. "I have given her a buffer in case she comes across it."
7 Girls need a dad's love more than ever
A father's unconditional love is a powerful form of comfort to girls as they grow up in a sexualised era where they are encouraged by society to please men with the way they look and act, Carey says.
It's not enough to just be a male role model - fathers have to spend time with their daughters, listen to them, and reassure them that they love the person she is becoming.
Research has shown that women who were close to their fathers growing up are more likely to be happier than those who did not, develop better friendships and have more self-worth.
They are also less likely to have sex at a young age because they pursue healthy relationships with men, according to Carey's book.
'Girls Uninterrupted: Steps for Building Stronger Girls in a Challenging World' is available now.