Social and cultural norms can be deceptively powerful in conditioning both our girls and boys in ways that are unhelpful. The ‘boys are tough’ message is one I have been challenging for a number of years because there is definitely a fragility factor in our boys, especially young boys.
The flipside of this social norm implies that our girls are weaker, and need more help from grown-ups (and boys!). Often the tone of voice that adults use to speak to little girls when they fall over or graze their knee, for example, is much more tender and full of concern than when a little boy has the same experiences.
We mustn’t raise our girls to believe that this unpredictable ride called life will always be a peaceful field of daisies without any prickles and that there will always be a safe grown-up to help them. That is simply not true. We need to prepare our girls for getting the odd prickles and teach them how to find where the daisies grow.
If resilience – which is the process of growing in one’s ability to manage life experiences and to adapt to stressful events and adversity – is equally as important for all children, then we need to challenge the unhelpful conditioning that exists around our girls’ ability to be resilient and capable.
In my book Girlhood, I share research that shows that our girls are struggling with feeling more vulnerable, unhappy with themselves, feeling unable to achieve their goals, or deal with things that can happen unexpectedly in life, especially after eight years of age.
Resilience matters to every child
If we recognise that no one is born resilient, and that gradually we can build that capacity, then there is no need to toughen children up. At the same time, parents need to be mindful of overprotecting their children, especially young girls, from experiencing life’s normal bumps and bruises. It is through real experience that children learn the greatest lessons on managing life. It is a sad irony, that with the shift towards more connected, responsive parenting – compared to the punitive parenting of the past – our children have become less resilient and less capable of taking care of themselves. Not that we want to go back to punitive methods…
We all want our children to be happy – and yet it is in those moments when they may be struggling with feeling excluded, disappointed or just plain angry that the real learning about life takes place.
In the first five years of life, our children are learning how to respond to experiences with the help of their parents. Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett in her excellent work, shares that our children construct their emotional responses based on how grown-ups help them to understand them.
Given that most little girls experience more emotional intensity than most little boys and they have incredible memories, this is a window where we can shape future resilience.
We must allow them to stretch and grow with the same freedom that we allow little boys. I have had a number of experiences with my granddaughters where other adults have suggested they were climbing too high as though they were about to attempt something that girls shouldn’t attempt.
Children will take themselves to the edge of their own fear in play experiences, and we need to learn to trust this, especially with our girls. When we become frightened and tell them that they can’t trust themselves, we can set up a fear of being brave and having courage. Yes, there will be moments when they may make poor choices and hurt themselves –managing this is also a part of learning how to overcome adversity.
Be very careful not to swoop in and rescue your girls in these moments. Simply pause, assess and ask if she is okay and if she needs a grown-up’s help or not?
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in their excellent book The Confidence Code: The science and art of self-assurance – what women should know argue that one of the reasons that girls’ confidence plummets after the age of eight, is because of a lack of openness to taking risks and stretching themselves.
Given that young children are wired to explore, to climb, to question, and to discover through their senses how the world works, they are going to make some poor choices. They will make messes, draw on things like walls, and smear your favourite night cream all over the carpet! These are fantastic learning experiences, not a sign that your child is deliberately being naughty. They will fall over, graze their knees, bump their heads, and the more calmly you navigate these moments, the better your daughter will navigate similar experiences as she grows older. Please do not clean up the messes she makes as she needs to learn about being accountable for her choices.
Obviously, you may need to help her, however, learning to be responsible for the mistakes we make in life is a really incredible part of developing a coping capacity.
The perils of people pleasing
Sadly, girls learn very early in life the importance of people pleasing, especially pleasing their parents. Making mistakes and poor choices comes at a higher cost for many girls as they know they have let their parents down and disappointed them.
If there is one area that I could encourage parents of little girls to focus on to build resilience, it is in the area of overcoming setbacks and disappointment without shame.
This is the way we learn emotional buoyancy, which is a key component to being a resilient adult one day.
I have often spoken of my concerns around the changes to the party game ‘pass the parcel’. (Incidentally, if you’d like to hear me talking to Bluey creator Joe Brumm about this very issue, take a listen here.)
Traditionally, the game had one good prize at the end of all the layers of the parcel. The modern version means everyone gets a prize. Some well-intentioned person has started this trend to make sure that none of the children playing the game miss out and feel sad and disappointed. Unfortunately, it’s also a missed opportunity for young children to learn that ‘it sucks’ when you don’t get the prize and that disappointment feels really yucky.
I’ve written about disappointment before but basically, we can help our girls better understand disappointment and how to manage it. If we are able to allow our children to experience as many authentic moments of disappointment as possible with our guidance and support, they will gradually create neural pathways that will help them manage and cope. Yes, from not being allowed a biscuit before dinner, not being able to get a pony, not having yet another story before bed, not being allowed to go naked in public… the list goes on from toddlerhood to teenage-hood. So many wonderful opportunities to practice understanding and navigating disappointment.
The more that our girls practice overcoming setbacks in mucky moments of disappointment, the better they get at it. Rather than avoiding disappointment, we need to embrace these moments as a form of training for life.
The sooner we start doing this, the better for our girls especially before they start big school. This will not only help them with the endless testing that soon happens, but it will also help them navigate the ups and downs of the friendship world as well.
Beyond our control….
One of the key messages we need to teach our girls about disappointment is the difference between the things that we can control and the things we can’t control. We can teach our girls that if it is something in their control then they can set a new goal following a moment of failure that can help them refocus rather than staying stuck in a pile of disappointed muck. But for the things that are out of our control, we need to recognise that there is nothing we can do and that is an important step in overcoming that setback.
Remember that learning what it feels like to lose or not get what you want is a part of becoming emotionally competent. Avoiding this lesson can definitely impact your ability to overcome adversity later in life.
Life skills and a toolkit for life
In my 10 resilience building blocks model, one of the most important ones about building strengths in children is building life skills. Life skills are more important than we might realise.
The early years are when children begin to build a toolkit of life skills. As children grow older we simply put more and more life skills into their toolkit. The more tools in the kit, the more resilient a child will be. Dressing themselves is an early life skill that may sometimes challenge you as a parent when they come out with clothes you wouldn’t have chosen, or wearing things that don’t match, are put on back to front, or full of holes.
Please celebrate these moments because they are building an enormous capacity within your girl that is about having a choice and a voice.
Expectations really make a big difference in how your girl develops life skills so aim to have high, yet realistic expectations, for her. She is always watching and modelling herself on others, not just her mother or father.
She can learn both good and bad habits by watching children around her. One of my granddaughters was taught how to tie her shoelaces by another little girl at her daycare – she was only four! The more things that little girls can do for themselves, the more it builds a belief in their self-efficacy and capability, which tends to build an authentically positive sense of self, or self-worth. They can set the table, they can help fold washing, put their toys away, and clean their teeth. Please keep in mind that even though they can do these things, there will be some days they simply don’t have the energy to do it.
It can also be helpful to assist your daughter to learn how to be a good listener before she goes to big school – as well as teaching basic organisational skills like putting her coat in her bag, opening her lunchbox, and managing water bottles. Manners and being thoughtful towards others while also maintaining her own boundaries are just a few more life skills that can be helpful.
Life skills can differ a little, depending on your daughter’s temperament because often our confident, feisty girls do not need to learn about courage, however, they need to learn about patience and consideration for others. Our more sensitive little girls may need some help developing their ability to be brave and to speak up for themselves.
The bigger the life skills toolkit, the better for your girls and the better it is for you as parents. Focusing too much on passing tests and exams, –which is just another set of life skills, and these obviously matter as well – can make other things more challenging. Life skills help our kids feel confident, capable, and able – they will manage this strange dance called life much better than the kids who don’t have them.
Becoming problem solvers
An incredibly important part of resilience is teaching our girls to be their own problem solvers. Rather than rushing to fix things, solve things or make things better because their discomfort makes us feel uncomfortable, ensure you give them opportunities by asking simple questions like:
How do you reckon you could fix this?
How can we make this better?
What do you think needs to happen now?
Looks like there is a conflict here. Do you need my help to sort it out?
What could you do when your friend tells you she doesn’t want to play?
Seriously, please seek some input from your daughters around some of your parenting challenges –you may find them incredibly wise and insightful. I frequently ask my granddaughters for their help and they never cease to amaze me!
Children who are surrounded by positive, optimistic language that encourages thinking and decision-making have the opportunity to become resilient when managing setbacks and challenges.
They are much less likely to succumb to ‘learned helplessness, where they expect adults to always be there to do things for them. However, there is a line between doing too much for your children and having expectations that are too high, and possibly inappropriate.
We can raise our girls to be capable and resilient despite the social norms and with a toolkit full of life skills they will manage this unexpected ride we call life with knowledge and wisdom. They definitely still need safe loving grownups, however, they need to be allowed to learn about the prickles as well as the daisies!
Image credit: ©️ IgorTishenko / Deposit Photos