by Jessica Baumgardner
May 19, 2013 (TSR) – My daughter is 6 and stronger than me in many ways. She’s the first one in line for a scary roller coaster, the loudest singer in any group, and doesn’t give a rip if her floral top doesn’t match her polka dot pants. When we had to switch schools in the middle of her first-grade year, her response was, “I’m excited!” (As for me, I break out in nervous sweats on the way to a cocktail party.) I don’t know where she gets the spunk, but I’m terrified it’s going to disappear—that one day, I’ll wake up and my daughter will be too timid to raise her hand in class or worried about the size of her belly.
Is there something I can do to keep her self-esteem high and her outlook upbeat? For guidance, I talked to experts, as well as other moms (and one dad) to find out how they’re making sure girls develop—and keep—their confidence.
1. Put Princess in Perspective
When your girl clamors for a product that makes you cringe (Hello, vampy Monster High dolls), have an honest conversation about what you see. “We don’t participate in the Disney Princess industrial complex,” says Lorelei, mother to Elle, 5. “But sometimes she’ll bring princess books home from the library, so we’ll read it and talk about the message—like how Ariel gave up her voice for a guy and Belle fell for someone who doesn’t treat her nicely.” Joyce McFadden, author of Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women, says that sharing your values is crucial for a child: “It helps her to think critically about her world, which is ultimately the most helpful lesson.”
2. Look Beyond the Mirror
Women are largely measured by their appearance, says McFadden, and even little ones get that message loud and clear. Try to dilute its power by praising, noticing, and validating her other attributes, like “Great job with your homework” or “You were so kind to share with your friend.” That way, being pretty won’t take center stage. “Whenever Elle gets new clothes or shoes, I try to point out how it’s going to help her accomplish something: ‘Wow, I think that’s going to make you dance even better/jump even higher/run even faster,'” says Lorelei. It’s also important to be a role model for these other virtues yourself: “I had an amazing day at work today, I’m so proud of myself!””
3. Don’t Put Yourself Down
When a kindergartner starts talking about dieting, you can bet that idea is coming from the grown-ups in her life. “Women are raised to be self-deprecating, and mothers unintentionally play into low self-worth with critical comments about their looks,” says McFadden. “Saying ‘I hate my hair’ or ‘I was bad today because I ate cake’ seems innocuous but it has an effect.” We all have moments of piercing insecurity about our bodies—particularly after pregnancy— but for the sake of your girl, try to keep the negative self-talk as an internal monologue.
4. Find Positive Role Models
“I like to expose her to the strong women of rock like Blondie, Regina Spektor, Cyndi Lauper, and Aimee Mann,” says Pete, dad to Allie, 10. “Her first concert was Joan Jett—and the image of this totally in-charge bandleader with her own style and loud guitar, stuck with her. She’s not sponsored by a cosmetic company and not tottering around like a stick figure. Allie has learned to likes what she likes.”
5. Keep It Real
Kids are absorbing ideas about sex from the cultural ether, whether we like it or not. (Case in point: My 4-year-old asked me what “sexy” meant after dancing to LMFAO.) That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting to talk about sexuality at 18 months by using correct anatomical terms. “If they are old enough to know what an earlobe is, they are old enough to know what a vulva is,” says McFadden. Don’t wait to talk about sex until they are teenagers. “This should be a lifelong, ongoing dialogue, beginning when they’re young,” says McFadden. Lorelei uses proper terms (yes, like vulva) with her daughter, and is frank about her menstrual cycle and how babies are born. What does Biology 101 have to do with confidence? “I want to make her feel comfortable in her own skin so that, down the road, she’ll enjoy her body and not let it be a source of shame and constant focus.”
6. Be Brave Together
It’s never too early to give your daughter a hands-on lesson in standing up for herself. Kati, mom to Ani, 7, ad Zoë, 6, says, “Recently, women’s rights protestors were arrested for sitting on our state capitol steps, so I took the girls with other moms and kids to have a ‘picnic-in’ protest. A bunch of cops with riot gear came. We talked to the kids about doing things that can be a little bit scary because they are the right thing to do. We tried to do it in a child appropriate way, and it was really empowering for them. We rode the bus there and talked about Rosa Parks and the teenager who inspired her actions.”
7. Just Do Something
Anne saw her 6-year-old daughter, Emma, start to lose her confidence due to some schoolyard bullying. So she decided to take the bullying by the horns and fight it on several levels. “I orchestrated playdates with the girls who were kind to her, and to boost confidence, I signed her up for Odyssey of the Mind (an educational program that teaches creative problem solving). After a month of fun practice, she was able to speak in public and work in teams; it really helped her be less shy. And next year she’s starting tae kwon do!”
First published in Glo MSN.