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As parents we want our daughters to grow up being their best selves, enjoying their childhood and fully empowered to achieve their dreams. So what’s the secret to raising girls?
Given concerns that girls are being raised to be people pleasers or that daughters are expected to be perfect, setting them up to be too worried to take a risk, raising girls sounds like a challenging task. However, there are ways to ensure effective communication with girls and support their development, and if we take a step back, experts say the answers are not too hard – they simply want to feel loved and valued.
Is it nature or nurture?
Author, speaker and University of the Sunshine Coast Associate Professor Michael Nagel has researched neurological development in children. He says that while the human brain learns based on its experiences, there are certain parts of biology and nature that we just can’t ignore.
“Within the first few days after birth, newborn girls focus their attention on faces while newborn boys focus their attention on objects. Newborn girls are immediately looking to connect, to bond. Relationships are imperative for girls from birth and they are very much in tune with others,” Dr Nagel says.
Cultural messages impact a girl's ambition starting at a very young age. Girls are often praised for being nice and getting along with others, while boys are often praised for being assertive risk takers.
Does a girl’s need for bonding impact her negatively later on?
Paula Davis-Laack, psychologist and founder of the Stress and Resilience Institute says, “Women have been socialised to be people pleasers, to not rock the boat, to be perfect, and this socialisation has downstream consequences”.
“Cultural messages impact a girl's ambition starting at a very young age. Girls are often praised for being nice and getting along with others, while boys are often praised for being assertive risk takers.”
Paula mentions research done by Stanford University psychologist Dr Carol Dweck and her book Mindset as well as other studies which have found that when young girls (or boys) are praised for qualities like smarts or talent, it can lead to the development of a fixed mindset. Conversely, being praised for process or effort helps girls and boys know what to do again to create winning streaks and take good risks.
While the research clarifies that not all girls have fixed mindsets, the messages girls receive has an impact later on.
“Girls who have developed a fixed mindset may stop raising their hands because they don’t want to look like the only one who doesn’t get it or who has a question, and they stop taking as many good risks,” Paula says.
Should we ditch Disney?
Should parents be worried about the Disney movie that is on repeat in their living room? After all, more than often, the finger gets pointed at the Disney Princess, who lives a life without flaws and traditionally doesn’t rock the boat, negatively affecting a girl’s perception of reality.
“There is no evidence to suggest that Disney movies necessarily have a negative impact on young girls,” says Dr Nagel.
“Under five-year-old girls understand the animation as a fantasy and pretend play. They don’t make the connection of wanting to dress up as a princess all the time and then wanting to ‘be a princess’ when they grow up. The shift in self-image really comes as teens and this is where social media has the capacity to have a negative impact on their self-image.”
How do girls let us know something is wrong?
The need to please others and be seen favourably can extend into how girls express themselves when something is bothering them.
Dr Nagel says that girls tend to shut down when something is wrong. He gave the example of an education setting.
“Sometimes we think of the good student as the one who is sitting quietly, sitting still, behaving. We think that they must be on track, everything must be fine with them compared to the student who is noisy and acting out – which is what boys do when something is wrong. For girls they tend to shut down, go inward and withdraw, so from our imagery of a good student, we can miss the call for help.”
While Dr Nagel says that not all female students who sit quietly and pay attention are silently screaming for help, it is important to recognise that girls who are ‘behaving’ may need assistance.
For girls it isn’t really about fixing the issue for them, most of the time it is just about talking about the issue with them, having them feel heard. Instead, parents should paraphrase what their daughter is telling them to show empathy and understanding.
How do you connect with a daughter who wants to please?
“Talk to girls,” says Dr Nagel. “Girls often have a far greater use of vocabulary than boys of the same age. They are far more developed in communication and for them communication is the key.”
Dr Nagel emphasises that it isn’t necessarily about understanding the problem and then fixing it.
“For girls it isn’t really about fixing the issue for them, most of the time it is just about talking about the issue with them, having them feel heard. Instead, parents should paraphrase what their daughter is telling them to show empathy and understanding.”
Paula adds that when praising a daughter’s achievements, for example “you’re so smart”, instead focus on how they achieved.
“What did they do to get that good grade? How did they win that game? Be specific in their achievement because it gives them a template to do whatever they did again to create a winning streak.” Focus on the effort, rather than the result.
It’s also all about Dad
“Dads are a daughter’s first hero,” says Dr Nagel. “They are their first male relationship in their life and the relationship they have with their dad will dictate their future relationships with men.”
Dr Nagel says it is about Dad being a healthy role model for their daughter to know what to expect from heterosexual relationships later in life. For those families where the father is not involved, another male role model is equally as important, such as an uncle or a family friend.
Dr Nagel emphasises that men are often programmed to problem solve and reiterates that in conversations with their daughters, it is important for them to not see it as a conversation on how to solve their daughter’s problem, but rather a conversation to have their daughter heard and listened to.
The key to raising girls
There is a key to raising happy, successful girls according to Dr Nagel.
“At the end of the day, and the main advice I give in my talks to parents, is that one of the most important things in terms of a girl’s early development in order for them to be successful and happy in life is to be cared for and know they are loved and valued.”
Five tips for raising girls:
- Don’t assume all girls are the same, everyone is different.
- Let them lead. Be guided by what they are interested in, not what you want them to be interested in.
- It’s never too early to start noticing and naming their strengths.
- Start pointing out emotions in books and having them name their emotions.
- Let them fail. Help them when they ask for it but encourage them to try to solve problems on their own so they develop self-efficacy - the belief in their own ability to overcome obstacles.