Hey, everyone, on today's episode, we're going to delve into what it's like to parent girls these days – that's those who identify as she/her. What are the worries, concerns? What are good ways to help them build life skills, communication skills, people skills? We get into all of that with Rachel and Claire, our early education experts and girl moms.
Rachel: Hey, everybody, it's Rachel. And I'm here for another episode of "Teach. Play. Love." And I'm joined by my colleague, Claire Goss. Welcome, Claire.
Claire: Hi, Rachel, I'm happy to be here.
Rachel: Today, we are going to talk about something important to both of us as professional educators and in our personal lives as parents. We are going to discuss strategies for parenting younger kids who identify as female. And we'll use the term girl and female throughout this discussion, and we do mean any child who identifies as female. And we are both parents of young girls. Mine aren't so young anymore but have raised young girls, I have two daughters. And they are currently 17 and 22, but I've spent a lot of time raising them, thinking about the best way to support them as strong, successful women. And, Claire, who are you raising?
Claire: I am raising a girl who is about to turn 13. So, I'm coming into that adolescent period. But I've spent a lot of time as a mom and an educator, thinking about raising her to be strong and confident as she enters adolescence and my role in that, and society's role in that, and her community's role. So, I'm just...I'm really excited to dig into this with you today.
Rachel: Great, me too. And I would welcome anyone who's listening to this, if you have children that identify as male, that this will be equally valuable to you. So, everybody join us on this really important discussion as we support the spirit of International Women's Day, Women's History Month and really celebrate the socioeconomic and cultural achievements of women and talk about how we make that real for our young daughters and as they're growing up figuring out who they are and who they want to become. Why we're talking about this, I think that's important to talk about. The research tells us that by middle school, and I've experienced this with my own girls, and then, Claire, right, you just mentioned you're right in the middle of it, more boys than girls want to lead. And that pattern continues into adulthood. We can see that in the leadership of organizations in society, and we want to change that. We live in a world where women are 50% of the population. And so, we know that that makes sense that they're 50% of leadership at least, but that's not the reality.
Claire: That's right.
Rachel: And leadership really is whatever we mean, leadership positions, leadership influence, leadership in making change, any kind of leadership, but girls start to step back in middle school.
Claire: Yeah. And what's really interesting about that research is that I think the research still shows that girls typically outperform boys academically, and yet still, by adulthood, there are fewer female leaders. So, it's something happens, right? Something's going on with the girls who are turning into women, their confidence, leadership skills. So, that's one of the reasons that it's such an important topic, because we're all raising future women, right? These kids who identify as female, they are going to be these potential leaders someday. So, how do we encourage that? How do we let them know when they're little when they're 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 that they could be a CEO, "You could be a congressperson. That could be you," right? We want them to fulfill those dreams as they want.
Rachel: You know, when they're 3, 4, and 5, they're often believing they can do anything they want to do and be, and those are when they're getting the messages that lead to them stepping back and not taking a leadership role. So, both things are happening. It feels like they're as confident as can be at that age, and they are. But it's slowly happening to them that they're getting societal messages and messages from...subtle messages from even family members or in school or other places they are that are very unintentional sometimes but that help them think about themselves in a way that we don't want to. It changes their self-identity. It changes what they think is possible. But the good news is there are things we can do about it that some of them are big and some of them are small, but there's absolutely things to do about it. We do in education programs. Especially in our programs, we're thinking about this, and there's plenty to do at home to support your girls.
And when you're paying attention to this, you're absolutely going to notice it more as well and see more and more opportunities. Mostly it's just about identity and self-concept, how children are defining themselves, and the confidence to do things and take risks and to grow and to learn.
Claire: That's right. So, Rachel, you are a female leader at our company and in my life. And I'm wondering, did you always have leadership skills? Were you always the confident woman that I know now?
Rachel: Well, I'm glad that's the projection you see, right? It doesn't always feel like that. But that's true, I think, for everybody in a leadership role. No, I didn't always see myself as a leader. But when I have taken on more and more leadership roles, I've always thought about what it means to my daughters. And I have said yes to things that I wasn't sure I could do to show a model for them. And we've talked about it. So, I think of myself, especially in my teen years, reflecting back, I wish I could talk to that girl and tell her, "Stop being so self-conscious. You deserve to be more confident." So, reflecting on that, I have been determined that my girls be comfortable in their own skin. We have talked a lot about in our house weird as a compliment.
Claire: I love that.
Rachel: So different is a compliment. Why would I want to be like everybody else? Why would I want to step back? Why wouldn't I want to be my best self? So, I hope that's helped or definitely a silly group together. So, I hope it has helped. But simple things like that is not having it feel shameful or bad to be different or to stand out and have that be something to really celebrate. That's really been important to me as I'm raising my girls.
Claire: Talking about that at home and using those words, not as a teasing, bullying tone, but as a kind of complimentary, like, you're weird, and that's good, you're different, and that's good. We do that in my home with the word, you know, nerdy, because that was something that I was teased about a lot as a high-achieving girl in my late elementary and middle school years. I was teased a lot for being bookish and nerdy. And the boys in my class who are equally bookish and nerdy did not get teased. And I remember taking note of that. I don't understand why that's a bad thing. So, we've done the same thing in my house. If you say someone is being a nerd about something, that's a huge compliment in our home for my girl and my boys. And that really about...I think it was seven or eight years ago, I am raising my daughter with my husband. And he heard, I don't know if you heard it or read an article of Sheryl Sandberg. Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, so obviously very powerful female leader in our culture.
He heard her interviewed, and she was talking about the word bossy. And how she wanted to ban the word bossy in reference to girls, and we had a great conversation. I think my daughter was about five at the time, obviously extremely observant, soaking up influences left and right – TV, books, movies from her parents, from her kindergarten teacher. And my husband and I had this kind of serious conversation about how we are going to decide together not to ever call her bossy. Because if she was being bossy, which sometimes she liked by the sheer definition of the word, sometimes she was and sometimes still is, we don't want her to feel bad about that. Those are her budding leadership skills, right? And it had never occurred to him that that would make...like, have a negative consequence by saying, "Stop bossing your mom around. Stop bossing. You're not the boss of the situation. Jane, no, you're not. You don't get to pick what we're having for dinner because you're not the boss."
And there are other ways to talk to your children in those situations, where you can still set boundaries and adjust expectations without using these words that might end up sinking into their brain somewhere, like, "Oh, bossy is bad. Bossy is a negative thing. I shouldn't be bossy." So, that was one of many conversations that we've then had. Adding other words to the list, like, "What do we want nerdy to mean in this house? What do we want weird to mean in this house? What do you want different to mean?" These can be good things, and children absorb all of that. They hear that vocabulary at home and the associations and the feelings with those words, and it leaves an imprint. It really does. And then when they're out in the world sometime without you, and someone comes up with these words, they can sink back into that original definition that you've provided for them.
Rachel: Yeah, you know, I think that that generalization of words that would be attached to a girl but not a boy, if we wouldn't call a boy bossy, we shouldn't be calling a girl bossy, unless it's a compliment. That's another thing we've started doing as my kids have gotten older. When somebody says something like, "You're such a nerd," we'll go, "I'll take that as a compliment. Thank you. I like that one." And that steals the power out of it. We joke around about it, but it sort of startles the person saying it too because they're like, "I don't think I meant that as a compliment." But it gives you the control of that situation, and you don't have to take that on just because somebody else said it to you. So, any language, I think it's a great point you're making, is any language that's associated with a gender, that's language to evaluate. Even phrases, something like, "Be a good girl," always talking about girls' looks, that's a whole topic we'll dive into here in a moment.
That, "You're a sweet little girl," the things that are only said about females, children that identify as female, versus boys, those are all worthy of evaluating and mostly unnecessary, and they put identity on children that the child isn't developing themselves. They tell a child who they should be. And it's not useful, it's not helpful, and it sets them on a path where they then if they don't match up to that...and some girls will, right? And then it'll be fine. But it should be because it's their identity, their personality, who they want to be versus expectations being put on them or them thinking they're breaking some sort of gender rule that they need to comply with.
Claire: Absolutely. Like, that's something that, you know, we think of young girls turning into preteens and teens and young women and that need to have the bow in place, and the pretty dress, and the perfect shoes and looking perfect and behaving perfect. And when you've got a young girl, and you've got...and it's her natural temperament or her personality to get dirty, and be loud and messy, and all those wonderful things instead of trying to contain that or tell her, "That's not how a good girl behaves, you know. You're ruining your pretty clothes," all those things. It's really a wonderful opportunity to encourage those budding exploration skills and who that child really wants is showing you they want to be.
Rachel: Yeah, I think about that with children in general, "Who do you want to be?" Let's get to know this person. This is a future adult. This is a person with likes and dislikes, and interests, and temperament. And instead of us telling them who they're going to be, let's find out, let's be curious about who they are. And we need to get rid of for all children, and definitely, girls have an extra pressure about being perfect and being quiet and fitting in. We need to be really mindful and thoughtful about that and those pressures we tend to put on girls individually or again as a society and not attach things like emotion to being female. That's really important as well. It's okay to be emotional as a female. It's also very okay to be emotional as a male, not only not attaching words, but not attaching emotions to a gender and encouraging expression of emotion for all children. That's a really important life skill to have.
Rachel: And then the whole idea of having to get it right, having to look good in front of everybody else, having to have it all buttoned up, I think you were saying that about let's not worry about being perfect, actually making mistakes and learning from them, giving it a try is so much more important. And we know kids in general stop defining themselves as creative or stop stepping up for opportunities or wanting to take risks less and less as they get older. So, we want to encourage that. We want them to just get in there take some safe, healthy risks, and feel okay about doing that, to try, to be willing to take a risk and not feel like they're going to be judged or that that's not going to be acceptable for them as a female.
Claire: Building off of what you just said, Rachel, in terms of how to behave in an acceptable way as a girl, something that we've been working on with my daughter since she was little was how to handle conflict and speak up for herself. Because I think, again, depending on your cultural and family influences, it may or may not be acceptable for a girl to have a strong voice and dissent in conversations, and it's an important relationship skill. It's an important future career skill. If you're going to have a partner someday, all these...this is just so important. So, this just happened last night with my husband said something, and my daughter disagreed. And she said, "You know what, I think you're wrong, dad." And she gave him a look kind of a fresh, sassy look, which is, again, developmentally appropriate. But I was so proud of her in that moment. Of course, I was thinking about talking to you today, Rachel, but I was thinking, "I'm so relieved that she wasn't worried about standing up and saying I disagree with you to her dad."
Using those powerful words, she was respectful, but she was being strong and confident, and I just felt great about that. I know we're talking about words we use in our home and things we can do at home. But I think we also need to talk a little bit about the whole wide world as I call it and what's going on with media influences and social media and magazines and movies and TV and how can we dissect this for our girls.
Rachel: Yeah, I think that's important. I have...you know, having older girls, the media influence is intense. One thing, all the way back to a childhood that I did, and I hope it's helping now as they're older, is to think about some of the words that are really important to have power and words. If my children said no or stop to something, that meant no or stop. There was no...if they were getting tickled or playing a game, and they said it, and they didn't mean it, they still caused everything to stop, because they needed to know those words had a lot of power, and that people would listen to those words. Of course, we want all children to feel empowered with those words. But as girls get older, and there's a lot of media influence, a lot of pressure in the teen years to do different things, having things like that ready to take use of and to believe in are really important equal to what you just said, Claire, about girls feeling like they can say something and speak up. And what you shared is a perfect example of what a parent can do is let them do that, do not quiet them down.
If they have a point they want to share, great, let's hear your point, especially what you want to do is not stop them from sharing their point. You want to help them learn how to share a point in a way that will be heard. What an amazing life skill. And that's something so easy for parents to switch that thinking and help their child build that skill so they can be a future adult, future leader and however they decide to lead versus not listening to them because they're a child, and just the difference that will help. And, again, all of these things lead us to being able to handle media in a more healthy way. I mean, social media influence is obviously stronger than it's ever been. It's hard to tell the difference between what is actual news versus what is...I was going to say op-ed, but we know most teenagers aren't listening to op-eds, but more of an opinion influencer type of media. I get a lot of, "Oh, I saw this on TikTok. Let's do this on TikTok." And I would say, "What's the source?" "From TikTok."
So, that's a question I ask all the time. "Where are you getting your source? What's the source of this? Where are we getting our information from?" So, we're not influenced by someone who doesn't have a real level of expertise, who's getting paid to influence. We also have started paying attention to which companies have committed to not covering up or making any adjustments or I'm thinking the word airbrushing, but I know that's out of date, probably any photoshopping or anything of models, using models of all different shapes and sizes. We're paying attention to that. We're looking for that. So, that's an activity I've suggested in other places, too, is when commercials come on, or when many of us aren't even seeing commercials anymore, because we're watching streaming. But if you see commercials or ads when you're out and about, billboards, or looking at magazines or anything together, critique what's going on, critique those models, take media apart, and look at what's happening and how you're being influenced. And those skills will really help when kids get older because they'll have that mindset, right?
They're running into on social media these ads or TikTok, and they'll be able to at least have that critical mindset, "Where's this coming from? How I am being influenced, do I know how I am being influenced? And that can just separate them just a bit from taking it on personally, feeling judged, feeling like they are not meeting that standard and that there's something wrong with that. They can have a bit of a different perspective on it if they're coming into it with that critical mindset.
Claire: Absolutely. I think asking your child, "What is that advertisement selling?" Sometimes my kids, especially on YouTube, if they're watching, like, a crafting video or a paper-airplane-making tutorial, it'll bleed right into the commercial, and YouTube is fantastic at this. They don't differentiate between the show and the commercial. So, they don't even realize, and we will press Pause and say, "What are they selling? Is that a healthy choice? Like, what's the messaging here?" just giving them that pause. And for my daughter, it's a matter of... I know that some of our parents have younger girls, they're not probably on social media yet, but you can still practice these skills of paying attention to commercials and also practicing how to give someone a compliment. Because what happens is these young girls will end up on social media someday or even face to face. Practice complimenting someone not on their appearance, but on their effort. You can still say, "I love what you're wearing. I love the colors you put together," you know, instead of saying, "You're so pretty. You're so pretty. You're so pretty."
We have a neighbor who's got a YouTube channel, and he likes to do Lego creations, and we think what comment can we leave for him so that he knows we appreciated how hard he worked on this, not just a surface-level compliment. All these things will go into building your daughter's confidence someday, helping her build up other girls'...the confidence in other girls and women in her life. So they're not just focusing on that exterior, superficial, you're so pretty fallback compliment that our society is really...it's just everywhere. It's very pervasive.
Rachel: So, yeah, I love that you brought that up because I have asked some friends and family members to go deeper on comments about my girls if they're doing it in person or they're doing it in social media. And I've asked my girls to do that as well. And it does lead to those conversations, and they're still doing it. It's still happening. But, again, just giving them that critical mindset where they're thinking about it differently. And not all your friends and family members are going to comply, and some of them are going to think you're crazy, "Why are you asking us? You're taking it too far," but you're not. And you'll get some people thinking about it differently, and that will make a difference. It doesn't have to be everybody. Some people thinking about it differently. And when they're young, I love what you just said, Claire, is we're thinking about what we know is going to happen, and who knows what social media is going to be like in 10-15 years, right? So, we know there's something to prepare them for. And so, having those conversations when you're, you know, watching a commercial or something on YouTube or see a billboard and having those conversations, they'll be much more mindful of it, and it will lessen the impact on them and just in general in being influenced by consumerism in advertisements.
The other thing I think is important is the questions we ask girls. A lot of kids especially my younger daughter's age now is getting asked, "What do you want to go to college for? What do you want to do?" We know when girls say something in the STEM world or sciences or math, there's often a lot of surprise about that. Oh, things like, "Not many girls go into math." Well, that's true, and there's a reason why, partially because that's the response that we get. So, we can help with asking questions more like, "What difference do you want to make in the world? How do you want to contribute? What do you want to be good at?" Those kinds of questions get them thinking differently, and less risk, less, "I'm going to say I'm going to go into math, and then I'm going to judge for it," or, "I want to teach young girls, other young girls. I want to help the missions in space. I want to cure a disease." That's very different than, "I want to major in math. I want to major in science." And it really opens up a whole different conversation as well.
Claire: I love that. I love the idea of asking not just my daughter, but every child I know, "What difference do you want to make in the world?" and get them thinking about that.
Rachel: Yeah, it's my new graduation question. And it's just a much more enjoyable question. And at least you're not asking them the same question they got the last 20 conversations.
Claire: I'm going to take that to kindergarten graduation. [crosstalk 00:22:26]
Rachel: We have fun with that with little kids too, right? We say, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And they have grand visions for themselves. And we can add these other questions about, "What do you want to solve? What do you want to do? Who do you want to be?"
Claire: I love that. I want to touch really quickly on the topic of gender stereotypes, which I know, you know, compared to 40 years ago when my mom was raising me, such a different world already just in the last few decades. And, obviously, in our centers, we've talked a lot about this. We want to address stereotypes head-on. We want to be a very inclusive classroom setting. But at home, we can do the same thing. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about Mirrors and Windows and how we can set our homes up to tackle gender stereotypes.
Rachel: I think that's a really good point. And this is another place we're talking about girls, children that identify as female. But this is relevant to boys and children that identify as male as well as we can all help each other. Mirrors and Windows is this concept of reflecting yourself and what you know about yourself and who you are and learning about others, breaking down stereotypes, not in a...we don't have to say, "Okay, boys and girls, sit down here. We're going to talk about stereotypes today." It is more in the curiosity, the, "Let's learn about it. Let's find out from this individual what they're interested in rather than make assumptions about what we might know about them." It's also in allowing for people to show who they are as young as they are. So, we want all the girls to be playing in blocks and with trucks and running around outside and getting dirty. And we want boys to feel comfortable dressing up and playing with things that are pink and just kind of eliminate that there's a gender connection to those things. And reading books is another really great way to do it.
And just having the sense of curiosity about others versus an assumption of knowledge and certainly an assumption based on your own experience. In addition, be proud of your own experience. So, you brought this up at the very beginning about my role and my professional career. And every step of my career I've thought about how it's going to impact my girls and what I'm saying to them about it. I work a lot. I travel. In many cases, I travel a lot for work, therefore I'm leaving them, and so I've thought a lot about what that means for them. And we always talk about it in that I'm doing something I feel is very important to me, and why I make the decisions I make, and how I hope it is affecting them. So, I think just being really...when you're thinking about yourself and your own identity as a parent and then with the identity and how you want children to think about what their choices are, just reflecting and talking about it. The curiosity I'm encouraging to have about others, have it about yourselves too and all of us, right?
We're all... As society progresses, again, looking back at my teenage years, there was a lot of pressure on being a girl, and, you know, this is a couple decades ago. So, there's a different pressure, a different level then, and this is a different time with... I didn't have social media influence. And so using that critical mindset about yourself and your children, and not assuming it's the same experience, and getting to know them, you know, really reflecting on yourself and others is the best thing you can do.
Claire: Yeah, I really identify with a lot of what you said, I think I've had to do some talking with my daughter about that in terms of career, and also just in something I'm still kind of grappling with is something from my childhood. I was not encouraged to do a lot of physical play. I was not an athlete as a child. I was raised with brothers. There were a lot of boys running around the neighborhood doing all kinds of rough and tumble play. I certainly loved being outdoors as a child. I still do as an adult. But I never told myself that I was an athlete. I never thought of my body as strong as a girl. So, that is something I really, really made a priority when raising my own daughter. When I talk about my body now, I talk about it being strong, I talk about... She sees me exercising almost every day. I make it clear that I'm doing that to feel strong and to stay healthy. I talk about my body feeling comfortable in the clothes that I'm wearing. I talk about being grateful for my body, and I'll say, "Oh, I feel tired today. I feel kind of sluggish. I think I need to get some more sleep and drink some more water and, you know, have some healthy foods," but I no ever want to talk about my body in a way that I'm trying to shrink it or make it skinnier.
And just all those gender stereotypes that are... This is not brand new information. Our American society is really big into the particular female body type as the model. And I think that's changing. I really do. I know a lot of major companies, like you said, are doing a better job of showing all different types of female bodies in their media. But it starts at home with me. I feel like I can be a role model for her, that she can see me enjoying the strength of my body. I go outside and get dirty. I do my gardening. I go for hikes. I get muddy. I'm not afraid anymore to be that strong, athletic woman. So, I also am really careful when I get new makeup or I change my hair that I say, "I decided I wanted a change. I wanted to do something different. It's for me. It's for my joy," and I want to make sure that she knows that I'm not doing it to please anybody else. I'm doing it to make myself happy. It brings me joy to get a haircut, and I love this dress, and I feel comfortable in it. And I think I look great. It makes me feel great. I do a lot of that.
If I like what my daughter's wearing, I'll say something like, "Wow, you look great today. Do you feel comfortable on that? You look like you're ready for the day. Do you feel great?" I'll make it about how she's feeling and what she's wearing instead of how she looks and what she's wearing.
Rachel: Yeah, and those types of compliments are really valuable for children to talk about their effort, how they feel, not just what's on the surface that they look, whether it's, "You look so pretty," or, "What a cute smile you have." That's nothing that they're doing that requires their effort or their strength or how they're thinking or growing or learning. So, anything that is about, "Wow, you really worked out that. Wow, I see how strong you are. You put so much effort into that." All those things, we want to encourage in children. And the things that are usually not encouraged or haven't traditionally been encouraged in girls are really important. I think we've had a mostly all-girl household for most of my children's upbringing. And we've joked a lot about who's fixing things, right? In the traditional stereotype of we're doing the housework because there are only girls to choose from, but to have...my dad is a great role model for the girls as a male in their life and shares gender roles with his partner, the stereotypical roles like he's cleaning, and she's fixing things.
And so they're seeing that model of things. We've talked about in our house who wants to learn how to fix things. It's not my favorite thing to do, but that's just because that's my personality, not because I don't think I should or can do it. We do really reflect on all of those things, and I think it's important to keep. But I find myself sometimes falling into the traditional roles, and I question that, "Am I doing this because I want to do it, because I enjoy doing this, or because I feel like I have to do this?" So, doing that out loud, we talk about that as advice to parents for most things, is sharing out loud your process and admitting your own mistakes and talking about how you might want to do something different is really valuable for children. And to hear girls see that or bring it back all the way to the beginning is to have your daughters hear that just because you don't always feel confident in something or you don't know if you're going to do it, you're still going to try anyway.
You're going to still keep learning and do the best you can and contribute at the highest level you can that's right for you. Because we want everyone to be fulfilling their full potential and not feel like there are any doors closed in their way that stops them from being the best they can be and to thrive, you know, in a way that is just kind of their true self, their full self, exactly what they want to do, what they want to do in the world, how they want to contribute.
Claire: I love that, Rachel.
Rachel: So, thank you everybody for listening. I hope this was a helpful conversation. I know it's making me want to go spend some time with my two daughters and have some good conversations even though we do it all the time. And I hope it does the same for you. Thanks, Claire. Nice to talk to you today.
Claire: Thanks, Rachel.
Words from parents can go a long way when building a positive mindset in children. So, we hope this episode gave you some great ideas on how to build that strength and self-confidence in your daughters. We've got fantastic resources on both moms and girls. You can check it out at brighthorizons.com/women.