RAISING POWERFUL GIRLS
Bringing up our daughters to be confident go-getters isn’t an easy task, especially when they’re surrounded by negative messages and less-than-ideal role models. ANNA HIGGINS discovers ways to help parent our girls when it seems like the world is against
Bringing up girls in the modern world
When our daughter Lily was almost two, we found out we were having another baby. It would be a boy, declared the ultrasound technician, pointing out the obvious on the screen above. Boys and girls are so different, my dad told me upon hearing the news. Pah, I thought. A kid is a kid. It’s society who forces girls into pink and boys into blue. We’ll live in a wonderful magical land where every child wears grey and plays with wooden animals and there’s no such thing as Barbie. I thought the divide between genders was entirely imparted on children by external forces. Oh boy, was I wrong. By the time Louis was born Lily had spent her short life thus far gravitating towards dolls, frills and any shade of pink. Then out he shot – a huge, burly, insatiably hungry ball of pent up energy. Whilst Lily would primly fill cups with tea and colour in, Louis bashed trucks into the furniture and threw crayons across the room.
Pride of place
Girls are different, and like the All Blacks sizing up the opposition before a big match, sometimes we have to study up to tackle the task of the best way to deal with our daughters. Like their brothers they need to grow with a sense of their worth and knowledge of the importance of being kind, considerate, confident human beings. Recent political events in the United States may have had your daughters pondering a woman’s place in the modern world. Donald Trump’s campaign trail remarks towards Hillary Clinton and other women were considered immature by some, offensive and misogynistic by others. If the man in charge of the most powerful nation on earth has a cavalier, dismissive attitude to half the people on this planet, how do we explain to our girls that this isn’t and shouldn’t be the norm? Taryn Kljakovic is the co-founder of Auckland-based movement Women’s Collective, and hopes Trump’s election could be a catalyst for positive change. “I think [his election] has made people less apathetic. They’re not going to sit back any more and just let other people take control of what’s happening around them. I think there’s going to be a lot more communitybased action. “Within that there is a really good way to teach our children about being involved in their communities, about being really conscientious about the way they treat other people, doing their bit and giving back, and helping them to come out of themselves.” A good place to start with our girls when discussing the Trump factor is to point out the resistance shown to his unique, er, charms. More than five million people marched in protests around the world in mid-january following Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. They united on the basis that women’s rights are human rights, in solidarity with LGBT rights and gender and race-based equality. Almost 700 marches took place on seven continents, including Antarctica, and yes, of course there were men and boys in attendance – including former US Secretary of State John Kerry and filmmaker Michael Moore. While a pre-presidential Donald Trump once announced on radio he would break up with any woman once she reached the age of 35, our girls need to know they are valuable no matter the number of candles on their birthday cake or the number of kilograms on the scales.
IF THE MAN IN CHARGE OF THE MOST POWERFUL NATION ON EARTH HAS A CAVALIER, DISMISSIVE ATTITUDE TO HALF THE PEOPLE ON THIS PLANET, HOW DO WE EXPLAIN TO OUR GIRLS THAT THIS SHOULDN’T BE THE NORM?
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Focusing on the perceived importance of their physical attributes is not constructive for any young person’s sense of self. It’s so essential girls know their looks and body aren’t the only thing of worth in their life, and parents can influence their views on this. That said, being called pretty isn’t necessarily an insult, and a princess doesn’t have to be a fragile little flower – just look at Princess Leia. Or to Frozen, the highestgrossing animated film of all time. In the Disney tale two sisters save each other and their kingdom, and the dastardly prince who was once in the running to be the movie’s hero ends up banished and humiliated. Professor Nicola Gavey from the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology believes labelling our young girls ‘pretty’, while not intended to be a loaded term, is something generally best avoided. “I know this seems like a normal thing to do and it probably seems like a wellintentioned compliment to most people,” she says. “But the message it can give is that your value lies in the way you look and, in particular, a look that is appealing to others. If a girl grows up internalising this as a central part of her identity, it can end up being quite a vulnerable position.” More important than what they look like is shining the spotlight on what qualities our girls possess which will stand them in good stead for the future – an active, curious mind, physical strength, health, kindness, compassion. And a worthwhile sense of self. Giving girls the confidence to feel good about what their bodies are capable of and what gives them feelings of fun, achievement and satisfaction is something which should start in infancy, Gavey says. “Anything we can do to make it seem normal to appreciate your body for what it does and feels like inside rather than what it looks like on the outside, is going to be helpful.”
WHILE WE SHOULD ALL BE MINDFUL OF FORCING THE ‘TRUCKS ARE FOR BOYS, DOLLS ARE FOR GIRLS’ STEREOTYPES ONTO KIDS... SOME LITTLE GIRLS LOVE WEARING PINK AND BEING PRINCESSES AND WE SHOULDN’T STOP THAT EITHER
We are capable of fostering an environment in which a healthy body image can flourish for our daughters. Encourage physical activity because of the way it feels to have a strong, capable body, not for its calorie-burning properties. Encourage team sports for the benefits of teamwork, friendship and camaraderie. And let’s not forget plain old fun. Professor Gavey says although our experiences around weight and body image are partly shaped by the wider social context of popular culture, parents can play some part in helping diffuse the power of these messages. Don’t talk about diets, or any unhappiness you may have with your own body. Make it a non-issue in your home. Certainly don’t pass comment on a child’s weight, size or body features. Comments about the size or shape of friends, family members, celebrities or even strangers can give young girls a harsh set of criteria with which to judge their own bodies.
Evolving new ideals
Popular culture has extended its reach through the advent of the internet and the rise of social media, but Kljakovic believes these methods of expansion are helping to slowly break down the barriers of stereotypical attractiveness. The blue-eyed blonde is no longer the be-all and end-all when it comes to the ideal type of beauty. Women like Michelle Obama, Sofia Vergara, Beyoncé, Serena Williams and Rebel Wilson have shown you don’t need the physical attributes of a supermodel to be confident, happy and successful, or to build a platform from which to showcase your talent. “The internet has been a great gift for humanity in so many ways because it has brought down some of the walls. We’re not so reliant on those traditional channels to dictate to us what we should be, what we should look like and how we should act, what we should do with our lives,” she says. “You can’t control the way the world represents people like you back to you, but you can help encourage your children to find their own role models.” Professor Gavey believes parents can help encourage media literacy within their daughters, assisting them to read between the subversive lines of the messages sent to us in advertising. Traditional advertising in print media, on television and online can subtly give a ‘very restrictive message to girls’, she says, and we can talk with our daughters about why these messages are in place, what they mean and what they’re aiming to achieve. Kljakovic’s day job in the music industry leads her to believe a lot of people these days are ‘obsessed with themselves’, a fixation which is being passed down to our children and magnified by social media. “I come across kids all the time who just want to be famous. It’s awful that they’re looking inwards or completely defining their worth based on how they look, not what they’re thinking or how they’re treating
people or what they do in the community.” We certainly don’t need an entire generation with Kardashian-like levels of self-absorption. Talk to your girls about how their self-worth doesn’t depend on how many likes a social media post may get. The old adage ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’ still rings true, and unnecessary meanness or bullying in any form is never acceptable. Also, the internet is forever. They’re called private parts for a reason.
Kljakovic and her wife have a one-year-old son, Miha, whom she says has been exposed to toys in all shapes and forms over his young life. Of late, Miha has forgone the dolls and prams for an unequivocal love of trucks, and his mothers are more than comfortable with his choice. Kljakovic believes we should give a child the freedom to be what they want to be without the typical associations made with either gender. While we should all be mindful of forcing the ‘trucks are for boys, dolls are for girls’ stereotype onto kids, she says, ‘Some little girls love wearing pink and being princesses and we shouldn’t stop that either.’ Professor Gavey has a different take on the matter, saying typically ‘girly’ pastimes, such as playing with mum’s makeup and trying on high heels, aren’t necessarily going to be harmful as part of a wide range of interests, “but I certainly wouldn’t promote or encourage it. I’m critical of the cultural pressures that still exist for girls to like this sort of thing, just because they are girls.” While raising well-rounded, confident girls can require a special approach, our lovely boys also need some of that attention. Showing our sons and nephews how we – not just as women, but as human beings – treat each other every day can help shape their attitude to the females in their lives as they grow older. Kljakovic says she and wife Sasha thought a lot about their son’s place in the world when they found out his sex during pregnancy. “I want him to understand his own power and never use it to intimidate anybody, boy or girl. I want him to be strong and fierce but also to be intelligent and empathetic and kind and generous, and just to have a great respect for women. I think and hope he will.” We should strive to help boys see themselves as full people who don’t have to fit into narrow boxes to belong in society, says Professor Gavey. “It’s okay to have feelings, be vulnerable and get hurt as well as be strong and independent; and be interested in things we might think of as ‘girl things’ just as much as things we might think of as ‘boy things’. Help them see girls as full people too who are just as important and diverse and talented as they are.” Our girls are special, and while there are a lot of challenges facing women these days there is also joy in acknowledging that New Zealand is a pretty great place to grow up female. Being female is pretty great, full stop. In the words of the marvellous Betty White, “Why do people say, ‘Grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina.”