Little girls often learn how to behave by picking up on gender bias through the cues and norms that are part of everyday life. Despite Wonder Woman’s best efforts, that means that televisions shows, toys, and clothes still push girls toward emotional support roles — especially in the context of interactions with boys. Luckily, parents can start pushing back on this sort of gendered gravity sink at the beginning of their daughter’s socialization, helping her find a more confident voice. The best way for parents to teach strong communication skills and leadership? Play.
“Play in which they get to be leaders, expressing themselves fully – this empowers young children,” says Karlyn Rawlinson, a licensed preschool teacher with Total Child preschool in Chicago, Illinois. She notes that children don’t have a tendency to feel a strong sense of control in the “real” world, but when parents follow their lead in a world of play, kids begin to understand their ideas are valued.
“Encourage your daughter to share her ideas,” Rawlinson stresses. “Ask her open-ended questions about real and pretend scenarios.”
And whether those questions are about a scenario being played out with stuffed animals or a real-life observation, Rawlins notes that parents have to actively listen to their kid and show them they are heard. That’s how parents can foster security: Putting away the distractions and really listening. It pays dividends.
“When children’s feelings are validated, they feel heard and are more likely to express themselves more,” advises Rawlinson. “When children feel their caregivers listen to and respect them, they are more likely to carry that confidence into their social interactions with the world at large with playmates, friends.“
Parents and caregivers can further foster a sense of security and confidence by demonstrating the value of consent and boundaries. “We want our daughters to feel safe and also know how to protect themselves,” says Rawlinson. “It is imperative for all children to understand their bodies are theirs and theirs alone. Consent is just as important for young children as it is for adults. For children to learn consent, their caregivers must practice it as well.”
How to Raise a Confident Girl
- Let them be the leader: Play is how kids process and practice for the real world. If parents want their daughters to be leaders, they should let them play as leaders.
- Earn their trust: Kids can really push their boundaries when they are playing with a trusted parent – and parents earn that trust by listening and validating their kids’ feelings.
- Teach them the foundations of consent. Sometimes a kid doesn’t want to hug their parent, or kiss their grandma, or have a tickle fight. Let them set reasonable boundaries, and respect them.
- Don’t teach them to be ashamed: If parents are embarrassed or weirded out talking about common body parts or bodily functions, those kids are going to be weirded out too – making it harder for them to set boundaries.
Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a board-certified pediatric emergency physician specializing in treating abused children, agrees. “Teach your children that it’s ok to set boundaries for their own bodies,” she suggests. “No, you don’t have to give your parent a hug and kids every night when they get home from work. No, you don’t need to hug all the relatives at the holidays.” Part of setting and supporting those boundaries means children and parents being able to speak about bodies without embarrassment or euphemisms. “Every child needs to learn the correct names for body parts,” explains Dr. Murray. “Being able to speak confidently about your body helps you to set limits for your body as well — you become confident in all parts, instead of feeling weird about some.”
Importantly, confidence in one’s body can translate into confidence in words and actions. A girl who has a strong sense of her boundaries and others will know, and be able to articulate, how others can and should treat her. That’s a huge step in being self-determined and independent.
Perhaps, most obviously, the key to raising a confident, capable girl is not to discourage a daughter from pursuing something simply because she is a girl. Parents can push back against a society’s worth of expectations and limitations by giving kids the space to explore, respecting their boundaries, and being proud of who they are.