Raising Empowered Daughters

Raising Empowered Girls*

Once upon a time, people said little girls were made of sugar and spice, and everything nice. Today, most of us recognize that the recipe for raising girls not only includes more ingredients, but that too much sugar can be toxic.

According to Dr. Mary Pipher, author of the ground-breaking and still-relevant book "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" (1994), our daughters "need to feel that they are part of something larger than their own lives, and that they are emotionally connected to a whole. [Girls need] love from family and friends, meaningful work, respect, challenges, and physical and psychological safety. They need identities based on talents or interests rather than appearance, popularity or sexuality. They need good habits for coping with stress, self-nurturing skills, and a sense of purpose and perspective."

In a word, every young girl needs "empowerment." 

Not just empowerment in big, public, external matters like voting, managing a career, or running her own finances, but personal empowerment for expressing her inner self and actualizing her private dreams.

Nancy King, dietician, health and fitness coach, and founder of Your Life Flow workshops and retreats, advises that some aspects of raising an empowered girl depend on the child's natural temperament, as well as her current developmental stage. For example, a child with a hesitant, shy temperament between two and four years of age might be unresponsive to her parents' efforts to help her feel empowered. But the same girl might be more receptive to empowering opportunities between ages seven and nine, when she's more aware of others and more coachable than she might become as a teen, when being accepted is "everything."

King also points out that "empowerment does not give a kid license to talk back to her parents. Empowerment provides room for a girl's self expression, but her parents retain their authority and the responsibility that entails."

Sources of Disempowerment

According to Anea Bogue, the Founder of REALGirl Empowerment Programs and a female empowerment expert, the average girl's self esteem peaks at about age nine, then plummets.

This happens, she argues, because up to and through adolescence girls are sent a great many messages that they are somehow "less than" boys: God is male, Santa Claus is male, Presidents are male. In such a maelstrom of masculine mastery, it's only natural for girls to conclude they must be inferior, "damsels in distress," in need of constant protection.

It's not much better for boys, of course, who are sent messages that tend to disconnect them from their emotions. With girls, however, the messages tend to disconnect them from their personal power.

And it's getting worse, not better. 

As Jean Kilbourne has shown, for example, the advertising and entertainment industries sexualize young girls more today than ever before. 

And just within the last decade, the continuing rise of social media has created scary new possibilities for exploiting, demeaning, and bullying our daughters. Largely because of social media pressures, some teens have recently felt so publicly shamed or embarrassed they have taken their own lives! 

Another dangerous issue is instilling the need to "please." 

We often teach our daughters to be as sweet as they can, to make sure others are happy, to do what's nice so as to satisfy others. As a result, they grow up uncertain about their right to say "no," and when to choose what's best for themselves instead of for someone else.

Heightened Awareness

"When girls move into adolescence," explains Bogue, "they go through a physical awakening to their sexuality, becoming aware of themselves as an individual for the first time. It's like when you buy your first car: your awareness of every issue -- all the different cars you can buy, all the options -- is heightened. When girls awaken sexually, they ask 'Who am I?' and 'Who am I supposed to be, to be acceptable and desirable?' They seek answers, and the messages they often encounter establish a sense of low self-value.

"Rather than helping girls to become healthy sexual beings," Bogue accuses modern media of "treating them as the object of someone else's desire."

Of course, short of shutting down American culture, there's no practical way to turn off these messages. Nevertheless, there are some simple, effective strategies parents can use to help their daughters:

Sources of Empowerment

"To begin," advises Bogue, "parents must first become aware of what they themselves learned from our culture about the acceptable, desirable qualities of girls and boys. If you become aware of that programming in yourself, you can more readily guide and facilitate the growth of your little girl, make her aware of her innate value, unique gifts, and who she really is."

Parents intent on raising an empowered daughter should work to raise her awareness of any negative messages coming her way, and help her develop tools not just to filter them out, but to protect herself from ideas and beliefs that can chip away at her self-esteem.

Bogue believes that Moms have an extra responsibility, more than Dads: to embody the woman you want your daughter to become. 

"More than half of young girls," says Bogue, "see their Moms self-criticize their looks in front of a mirror. If you like yourself instead and feel beautiful, your daughter will have a much easier time feeling good about herself."

Similarly, if children see that Mom too often resolves a conflict by deferring to Dad, her daughter can absorb the idea that marriage is an unequal partnership. If Mom wants a daughter to grow up feeling equal and powerful in her relationships, she must strive to model these traits in her own life. 

A Mom should work not only toward a strong sense of self-worth, say the experts, but also to help Dad understand that protecting his daughter is best done not by walling her off in a fortress, but by instilling self-sufficiency. 

Double Standards

We regularly say "boys will be boys," and evince a certain faith that boys who fall down will get back up to try again. So we are more willing to let boys experiment, take risks, and get hurt. 

But we often feel more fear for our daughters, and so protect them too much, making them risk averse and overly concerned with self-protection.

"I'm not suggesting reality is totally safe," says Bogue, who seeks to instill a sensible balance between personal growth and self-protection. "My 16 year old daughter knows very well that there are predatory men, and that it's better to walk with a buddy than alone." Bogue has also sent her daughter to martial arts classes, to give her tools to self-protect and be realistic without preventing her from stretching her wings in the world.

Daily Empowerment Activities

It's never too early -- or too late -- to start helping a young girl feel empowered. 

Every day, parents can create safe opportunities for a daughter to practice being herself. "Help her cross the road today," says Bogue, "so tomorrow she can do it safely on her own." 

King suggests: "It's important that you raise a girl to be responsible on projects, to see something through from inception thru completion. It doesn't matter if she's working in a pet shelter or just cleaning out the closet. Daughters need positive experiences of being powerful and successful. It's also OK if several of her attempts fail. Part of empowerment is learning not to abandon a project just because it's going badly."

Obviously, helping your daughter become empowered is a process. 

"Expect inconsistencies," says King. "She will make a plan and not follow through. She will change her mind and her values." 

To understand why, reflect on your own life: sometimes you take a strong stand and exercise leadership, other times you pull back. It's the same for young children and teens, only more so.

Empowered Role Models

"Increasing amounts of research," says Bogue, "teach us to protect daughters by giving them not just the right tools, but also the right role models."

Real-life empowered women are increasingly visible, doing things like running the U.S. State Department, building billion-dollar companies, and outperforming the pack in everything from sports to science, entertainment to arts and literature. 

"Even so, there are relatively few empowered female role models for girls," says Bogue. "One is Sheryl Sandberg. She is phenomenal. Lady Gaga, as strange as she wants to be, has modeled for girls the value of being authentic. I guess it will take a while for more and better role models of empowered women to come along."

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Sidebar: The Princess Problem

Some experts think parents venture into dangerous territory when they encourage the Princess fantasy, which intrinsically contrasts the "empowered girl" with the "Princess," and portrays the two as mutually exclusive or at least suggests that empowered females inevitably lose some femininity.

But helping your daughter feel empowered need not make her brash, genderless, or less feminine. The real Princess Di, for example, wore the fancy gowns, but was also passionate about her causes. She took many bold actions and accomplished a great deal.

Fortunately, a growing number of role models now exist -- such as in the film "Brave" -- that play off traditional values, but turn the traditional Princess story upside down and emphasize empowerment. 

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Sidebar: Quotation

"When a woman reclaims her … identity, she does not need to seek outer sources of approval, for a firm, unshakable basis for self-esteem emanates from the depths of her own being."

 - Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment

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*Originally published in L.A. Parent Magazine, May 1, 2013.