Reader Request Week 2015 #3: Raising Strong Women

This question was asked by JRed and seconded by a number of people in the thread:

What advice do you have for raising a strong woman in today’s world*? Our daughter just turned one, and I want her to grow up to know who she is and what she wants, and to not take crap from anyone. But it’s overwhelming when society seems to have 10,000 conflicting messages about what those qualities even mean for women, much less how to cultivate them. I realize this topic might set you up for the haters, but my husband and I would love your thoughts.  *OK, let’s narrow “the world” to the United States.

I can’t give a recipe for this other than what we’ve done with regard to our own daughter, but inasmuch as I expect that’s what you’re asking, here’s how we’ve done it.

(Disclaimers early: I’m not a perfect parent. Neither is Krissy. Any suggestion that we are should be treated with skepticism. Likewise, take into account who we are and the conditions of our life, ie, we have a whole lot of advantages, and by association, so does our daughter. Also, this is not meant to be an exhaustive and complete list. Also, I am not a perfect feminist. And so on. Got it? Okay.)

1. Give your daughter a strong woman as a role model. In our case, this would be Krissy, Athena’s mother. Krissy is intelligent, strong, organized, opinionated, clearly used to being in charge of her own life, and doesn’t take shit from anyone while at the same time being kind and loving. When this sort of woman is your mother, then every day of your life you have that as your primary definition of what being a woman is and can be. This is a good baseline to work from. How Krissy is a strong woman is not the only way to be one, mind you. But she definitively is one. A woman’s role model for a strong woman, likewise, does not have to be her mother (and to be clear Krissy is not Athena’s only role model in this regard). But if you can have a strong woman the house, I think it probably helps. Likewise:

2. Let your daughter see the man in her house treating women with respect and as equals. That would be me, in our house. Athena has always seen her mother and I in a relationship where not only are we loving to each other, but we treat each other with respect, and she can see many places where her mother is the lead in our partnership (because of skill or inclination or other reasons) and I not only acknowledge that fact, but am pleased about it. Nor is this lead role always in “traditional” male/female tasks and roles. Again, in a day-to-day sense, our daughter sees the two of us in our relationship with each other, and that becomes her baseline of expectation of how men and women together treat each other. We don’t treat each other as we do because our daughter is watching — we treated each other that way long before she came along. But our daughter receives the benefit of seeing that relationship dynamic. But while we’re on the subject of men:

3. Let your daughter see the man in her house have good relationships with women who are not his spouse and (again) treat them with respect and as equals. I don’t think it’s enough for Athena only to see the respect with which I treat her mother; it’s also useful to see me interact with other women and see how I treat them as well. The reason it’s important is that Krissy is my wife, and that spousal dynamic is always going to be its own thing. So she needs to see me with my women friends, my women colleagues, and even how I respond to women I don’t even know. Once again, the day-to-day experience of that sets her baseline of what behavior she should expect from men, when they talk to and interact with women. And once again, I don’t treat women with respect because my daughter is watching; I treat them respect because people deserve respect. It’s still important that my daughter sees it.

None of the above points, it should be noted, are things that should be called out for praise or are meant to be cookie-bearing activities — this is simply about what you do with your life on a day to day basis, which your kid will see and pick up on by osmosis. Parents are their kids’ first teachers, and kids watch and learn even when you don’t think you’re teaching them. You’re always teaching them. They’re always watching you.

Moving on.

4. Give your daughter appropriate agency. Here’s a small example, which I’ve noted here before: As soon as Athena was old enough to understand it, I’ve always gotten her permission before posting pictures, or talking about things she’s done, here and other places online. Why? One, again, simple respect, but two, I wanted her to understand from a very early age that she should have a right and expectation that her wishes and opinions would be listened to and followed and taken seriously. You’ve never seen a picture or anecdote here about her after the age of about four, that she didn’t sign off on. It’s a small thing, but on the other hand, it’s also a concrete example to her that she is being respected. From me, a man. In time that becomes a baseline expectation. If it’s not met elsewhere, she’ll know something is off. Related to this:

5. Treat your daughter as a thinking human. This is not the same thing as treating your kid as “an adult,” which is a brag I sometimes hear: “We’ve always treated our children like adults.” Well, that’s dumb; kids aren’t adults and depending on their age, there’s a whole lot of mental and physical development between where they are now and where they will be as grown-ups. What I think is more important is to realize that every step of the way your child has a brain, and it’s working, and you address that brain with respect. Which means your child learns to trust that you are dealing with them fairly, even (especially) when you are being the parent. Again, it’s about the expectations you’re offering your kid: To be taken seriously, to be heard, and to be appreciated.

6. Point out cultural nonsense as it happens (in an age appropriate way). Culture sends 10,000 conflicting messages, but it doesn’t mean that those messages have to be received unmediated. We very early on taught Athena how to recognize when she was being sold to, when someone was asserting something that wasn’t true, and in particular regard to the question at hand, when she was being exposed to sexist bullshit. We didn’t necessarily make a big production of it — stop everything! It’s time for a lesson! — but calling things out does a couple of things. One, it trains your kid not to uncritically accept what culture is pushing on them; two, it makes them aware that culture’s messages don’t have to apply to them, and that they’re free to make up their own minds.

7. Back your daughter up. Back her up when she wants to try things. Back her up when she succeeds. Back her up when she fails. Back her up when she’s confronted by people who try to make her into something society expects rather than what she’s interested in. Back her up when she needs information. Back her up when she tells you how she’s feeling. Back her up when one of the less pleasant messages society is trying to send her manages to hit home. Back her up when people give her shit, just for being a woman. Back her up when she fights back. Back her up. Be the solid ground your kid plants her feet in to push against all the bullshit. She’s going to need it. She’s going to need it a lot.

8. Do all of the above without needing to get credit for it. Kids are self-centered, in the worst and best ways. They don’t always get what their parents do for them until a whole lot later. That’s fine. The goal isn’t a Parent of the Year ribbon. The goal is a daughter who is strong, capable and her own person. Help make one of those, and it’s a pretty good bet eventually she’ll figure out what you did for her.

So, that’s how we’re doing it on our end. Maybe some of this will be useful for you, too.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2015’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

62 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2015 #3: Raising Strong Women”

  1. So pie is not involved in any way? Seems like pie should be involved.

  2. Echoes how my wife and I are raising our daughter. This is also applicable to raising sons, as I’d attest with our 3yo boy.

    Pie can defo be involved: everybody go to the kitchen and make one together :)

  3. What we’re discovering with our 2.5 year old is that nothing beats modeling the behavior you want. Obviously that’s going to get harder with the more subtle stuff than it is with “please” and “thank you” but I don’t know that you can overstate how well kids absorb from their surroundings. We’re astonished at the things that our little man simply starts doing because he’s seen or heard it.

    John’s answer obviously covers this idea well, but I think it’s worth remembering that we do a lot of this automatically just by trying to be the versions of ourselves we want our kids to see. You can’t totally fake it, I think – they’re smarter than that – but it helps that they make us want to show them our best sides and that they motivate us to be better.

  4. One other thing that I think is super important is to treat boys and girls equally. For example, don’t tell your daughter how cute her outfit is and ignore your son’s outfit, it gives the impression that appearance is something that sets her apart. Another example would be in activities – don’t divide things into boy and girl activities. Bring both kids to little league or soccer try outs, throw the ball around with your daughter, teach them both how to fish or fix cars or do science experiments or whatever. Help her realize getting her hands dirty is nothing to avoid ‘because she’s a girl’. This is just as important with her male friends or neighborhood boys as with her siblings if she has any.

    Nice post, thanks for your ongoing support of women!

  5. Great post! Love hearing parental advice from feminist parents, it’s all going in my brain archive for when I have kids of my own. One thing I think is important to remember with regards to how kids are always watching you is to not hate on yourself in front of them (but be honest about mistakes you make) and not to hate on or shame other people, unless it’s legitimately justified. And obviously that you need no ones permission but your own to eat all the pie you want, whenever you want and however you want it.

  6. So… I think all this advice goes for all kids, regardless of gender.

    People ask “how to raise a strong daughter” and don’t realize that you raise a strong daughter exactly the same way that you raise a strong son.

    Exactly the same way. Gender roles are socially imposed. Every time you impose a “girls do(n’t)” or “boys do(n’t)” you’re sending a particular message and limiting your child.

    And sure, if you live in a place where being able to pass is vitally important for future social acceptance, teach that as a skill… but be sure to teach it as something other people require to deal with their own limited world views, not reality. Your kid might say the darndest things, but they’ll be happy with themselves.

  7. So she needs to see me with my women friends, my women colleagues, and even how I respond to women I don’t even know.

    I hope this question isn’t too derailing. I see this construct all the time, but is it right? I don’t know that I ever see it except with women. If it’s women friends, and women colleagues, is it also men friends and men colleagues. How about cats friends and cats colleagues?

    One solution is to refer to female friends and female colleagues. Likewise one can refer to male friends, or feline friends, but then what happens if you don’t know the adjective. What is the equivalent adjective for wombats?

    It seems to me like it ought to be woman friends and woman colleagues. Surely cat friends is preferable to cats friends.

  8. At my mother’s 85th birthday lunch, my sister-in-law was complimenting us on raising two such wonderful daughters. She asked what the secret was. The older of said wonderful daughters answered, “They lied to us all the time.” This is only half true: Their father lied to them all the time.

    He would tell them things that might or might not be true. They had to figure out which it was. (This was in the pre-internet days, so it involved a lot of trips to the library.) Needless to say, we have two thoughtful yet skeptical adult daughters who do not believe everything they are told.

    He would also mute the sound on sporting event commercials and have them guess what was actually being sold. They figured out pretty fast that it wasn’t the scantily clad women.

    We also pointed out bad male behavior when we saw it and told them that they knew how good men behaved (their father, uncles, his friends). They were to settle for nothing less.

  9. What I think is more important is to realize that every step of the way your child has a brain, and it’s working, and you address that brain with respect.

    Well that’s what we did and do and so far everything is coming out good (two boys, one twelve, one seventeen).

  10. As a father of two young boys (who are turning out pretty well, when they’re not acting like coked-up monkeys), I’ll simply second what Kel said.

  11. Great post.

    I see you are raising a fine overlord (or should that be overlady) for manginas like you and me.

  12. Kel:

    “So… I think all this advice goes for all kids, regardless of gender.”

    Possibly, but that wasn’t the question I was asked.

    Also, I find the temptation to say “works for all kids,” while not incorrect(!), points out the problem that any discussion of women has to immediately make room for the discussion of men. It happened almost immediately on this thread. It’s not meant badly or even intentionally, but it is a thing in itself, and worth noting.

    This discussion is about raising daughters; I’d like to keep the focus there.

  13. You are spot-on, sir. Had me nodding my head in agreement all the way through the list, and I am the parent of a strong-willed, independent, intelligent, educated, highly paid adult woman who takes No Shit From Anyone.

    One thing that I’d emphasize is hinted at in #7, but I think it bears a bit more focus.

    Don’t be afraid to let your daughter experience failure. Don’t rescue her from the consequences of her choices and decisions; by all means, have her back, support her right to make her own choices, and if she asks you to, help her review/analyze those choices after the fact to find ways to improve them next time, but DON’T prevent her from experiencing failure in the first place.

    We all fail sometimes. We need to own our failures, take responsibility for them, pick ourselves up afterward and move on to the next challenge – and teaching this to our daughters is an essential aspect of raising our daughters to be strong, independent women.

    Thanks for choosing this one to discuss, Mr. Scalzi. I’ve got it bookmarked as a reference to share.

  14. Oh, gods, #7 is SO DAMN IMPORTANT. And, I would add: they have to SEE you backing them up. Justice must not only be done, it must be SEEN to be done, or it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

    And I would add to your #3: Not only should your daughter see her father treat other women with respect, but she should also see how her mother deals with other men who treat her with respect or NOT. She needs a role model in how to deal with jerks, and with people who aren’t jerks, and how to tell the difference. If all she sees are good people treating other people well, she doesn’t have the script for the day when bad people treat other people badly, and she needs above all to know how to handle that.

  15. I know it’s implicit in what John has said, but I would underline the fact that backing up your daughter does not cease when said daughter departs to college, graduates, launches into her career and so on.

    It can be even more important when she’s out in the wide world, where there are people who hate the very idea of a strong woman and will try to drag her down to their level; giving her the tools to tackle it is the starting point, but giving support and encouragement when one or more idiots have made a long hard day even harder is also a vital part of the package.

    Of course there are parental benefits in this; three weeks ago my daughter was rowing me around the lake at Versailles. Those oars are quite heavy, and as ornamental lakes go, the one at Versailles is pretty big…

  16. I appreciate your thoughtful post. While the scientist in me immediately wants to start a new mental category for “parenting gap analysis”, suffice to say that it has immediately given me food for thought as to where I may want to improve some of my own parenting skills.

  17. I would add give your child responsibilities. Nothing makes a kid feel independent like accomplishing things on her own.

  18. Raising a son and a daughter here. Raising a daughter has extra challenges due to the pressures which keep women from exploring their full potential. Right now we are in the middle of the math challenge — the idea that women aren’t good at math because they’re women. The daughter’s math scores took a dive this year (8th grade). We are actively seeking out ways to counteract this as the daughter is otherwise interested in science. This was not an issue with our son. Unfortunately, I had the same issue, which means I can’t role model good math behavior — and even though I am interested in and understand the issues involved in science, I had no choice of a scientific career due to my math issues. It is a conundrum as I try to figure out how to break this cycle.

  19. I’m curious what if anything Athena would add to this list that you may not have consciously done or consciously realized was contributing to your daughter’s development but that she felt influenced or helped her? Or did she read this and say basically “Yup, looks good.”?

  20. If your daughters have any interest at all in sports, encourage them. I’ve read that girls who do sports tend to have better tools for dealing with all the appearance-related crap the culture pushes at her. I’m a klutz who hated organized sports and could pass out from sheer boredom watching games, and my husband had visual issues that made any ball coming toward him a potentially lethal weapon, but we encouraged both our daughter and our son to play sports (as recreation, mind you, not “do this so your doofus parents can bask in reflected sports glory “). Our son was kind of “meh” about sports, but our daughter thrived on them. She’s almost frighteningly healthy and competent, and while we’d like to take ALL the credit, I do think years of team sports have something to do with it. Of course, the downside was her father and me sitting on sidelines in rain and sun, smiling brightly as we pretended that the fate of the world depended on which set of kids could kick a ball harder. But it worked!

  21. Laura W

    I don’t think you should worry about your maths; nobody can be good at everything, and feeling that you should be, in order to be a good role model, seems to me to be setting your sights impossibly high.

    I am good at maths and absolutely lousy at languages beyond English, notwithstanding the fact that I passed exams in Latin, French and German. I’m sure that you have strengths, and that you can support your daughter in many ways.

    Do you have friends with maths skills? In your shoes I’d be looking for someone who could help out with a bit of coaching, which may well be all your daughter needs to get her over the bump in the road.

    It doesn’t matter whether they are male or female; it’s the skills which matter. And showing your daughter, by example, that it’s the skills that matter seems to me to be a worthwhile goal…

  22. Laura W. I second what Steve said — my kid, too, has recently had a bit of trouble with math — so much so that she was talking about quitting AP, dropping down into the non-AP classes. We found a friend who was good at math to tutor her. Now she’s sailing right along.

  23. This worked with my Aunts (5 strong woman); my grandfather was conservative and I remember my Mom saying that I would get my mouth washed out if I used the words he did about other races. But Grandad also remembered that he promised to love, honor and respect in his marriage vows, and meant all of those in the fullest manner. Respect was to be shown to all women. The first thing that he asked my Grandma after supper was ‘How was your day?’ And he listened. A grandchild who interrupted was in trouble.
    Grandad whatever he said, got a lot of respect from temporary farmhands; they ate at the same table he did and came in the same door and got paid the same for the same work, even in some of the times when he was losing money on the crop.
    Oh; I was also told not to correct my grandad about his opinions because He was to respected. Mom was a feminist, but learned to treat all with love, honor, and respect from her conservative parents.
    I went a little off subject except that a good example is a great way to raise a strong woman.

  24. I’m not a parent, but I have been a child (like everyone), so my two cents would be this:

    Start with the premise that your daughter is already strong (because she is – everyone has some kind of strength), and do your best to keep people from tricking her into thinking she’s not.

    Being very conscious of this, I try my best to model good personhood/womanhood for my young niece, who’s almost three years old. Even though I don’t often get to see her more often than once a month, I always respect her preferences if she doesn’t feel like giving me a hug. I have never forced her to show physical affection to me, and her parents (my brother and sister-in-law) are on board with this, too. They want to reinforce to her that she gets to decide when, how and to whom she wants to express affection. They don’t shame her into thinking she “owes” anyone physical affection.

    She is allowed to say, “No.” She says it all the time, in fact, because she’s still learning things. I hope that she always feels that she has the right to say this word.

    She’s fearless. I hope she stays fearless, albeit in ways that don’t involve flinging herself off of furniture like a base jumper.

    Right now, she has a wide variety of interests, which include things that are traditionally coded for girls, and things that are traditionally coded for boys. I hope she never feels like she can’t stay interested in everything, no matter what people say about who should be interested in what.

    I know that she has good role models in her parents, her grandparents, and her aunts and uncles. I hope that she continues to feel loved and supported by all of us, no matter what.

  25. Something that was really important for me:

    Don’t show your body insecurities to your daughter. Be outwardly positive about your body because that modeling is incredibly important. So many women I know inherited their body issues and eating disorders from their parents.

    Model healthy eating, not diets. Model good exercise habits, not weight loss goals. Don’t talk about what you hate about your body, talk about what you love. Emphasize the positives, not the negatives.

    Your daughters are watching–even if you’re talking about yourself, they’ll hear it and translate it to themselves.

  26. 1) Fantastic points, that I wish more parents could understand and use.
    2) Does Athena have points to add? Things that were obvious to her, that you were oblivious to? “The hidden parenting.”

  27. Perhaps this is a stupid question, but does she have asthma? I was wondering about the remark on her arm.

  28. What my parents did well: A wide range of activities without regard for which gender was “supposed” to do them. Lots of encouragement to read, imagine, be creative, and do well in school. Lots of training in practical life skills, from cooking to changing a tire to keeping a budget.

    What they didn’t do well: Mitigate all the negative influences from the larger world. My mom, unfortunately, actually infected me with them. I was probably 25 before I realized that my body is my own, and that I am in no way obligated to be feminine or pretty or sexually attractive. Moreover, I never got the message that I wasn’t obligated to follow through on any interest my efforts to be attractive generated.

    This is something I still see parents missing even now. They don’t realize how many messages their daughters get telling them that their highest (if not only) purpose is to be something pretty to look at. Sure, all the pink and fluffy dresses and Barbies may not seem like a big deal when your kid is 3 and undeniably adorable, but what happens when she’s nine and gawky and yet still keeps getting bombarded with the idea that it’s critical for her to be pretty? Girls are people, not decorative objects. And while it’s fun to play dress up and wear something sparkly and pretend to be a fairy (and boys should be allowed to do this, too) it has to come within a context that makes it clear she doesn’t owe it to anyone to be pretty herself.

    Beyond that, the best advice I can give is to model consent as much as possible. We’re doing that with our 27-m/o son: We ask if he wants hugs, kisses, tickled, foot rubs, etc., and respect when he declines. We never force him to show affection or tell people he loves them. And we also explain that we have the right to say no, too. It’s tough sometimes, but worth it.

  29. @ Laura W

    I’m a scientist who suffered a pretty terrible math phobia that largely developed at around your daughter’s age (and which I did not feel that I had put behind me until… graduate school). Quantitative skills are important, but there’s a heck of a lot more to enjoyment of (and success in) science than that. More importantly, like all skills, they come with practice and effective teaching that meets you where you are. You’re allowed to struggle with all sorts of technical stuff — it doesn’t mean you’re “not cut out for” a related pursuit, and the message that it does is deeply damaging, I think. I hope you can find resources to support your daughter through her current struggles!

    Something that’s resonated with me as a recovering math-phobe is Jo Boaler’s work on math education ( — I’ve found her online course for teachers and parents helpful in rewriting my own scripts for how I approach math with young people I’m mentoring. (Many of us absorb some fairly insidious cultural messaging about math along the way, IMO, and a fair bit of my math-phobia was rooted in it)

    @ mythbri

    Start with the premise that your daughter is already strong (because she is – everyone has some kind of strength), and do your best to keep people from tricking her into thinking she’s not.

    This! So much this. Sometimes I hear people talking about how they want to make sure their daughters will be “strong women who don’t take crap from anybody” and I worry about how restrictive their definition of strength might be. (To be clear, I’m not including OGH in this group!)

    What if she’s not the organized, hyper-competent type? What if she’s not particularly sporty? What if she’s quiet, or dreamy, or wears her heart on her sleeve, or in a thousand other ways doesn’t align with conventional stereotypes of “strength”? Will you be able to help her see herself as strong because of, not in spite of, those qualities? I want there to be room for all kinds of strong women.

    I’m not a parent, but I have acted in a parental role (families can be complicated!), and I feel that helping a child grow up strong begins with acceptance of their unique self as inherently worthy of all the hoped-for adjectives.

  30. This was incredibly moving.

    I’m a bit jealous of Athena, actually – there are ways in which you clearly have her back that my parents, despite their best intentions and all-around pretty decent job at parenting, didn’t have mine. Sometimes it was on accident, an oversight; sometimes it was a deliberate choice on their part, which hurts to think about to this day.

    It helps to have other role models in the world besides ones parents. Parents can mess up. Teachers, the school psychologist, and friends’ parents, can help take up the slack and provide counterexamples. I was lucky to be surrounded by a lot of the above on most of the occasions where my own parents fell through.

    I think you’re modeling really healthy parenting not just to Athena but to the world. Thank you.

  31. “Back up your daughter” sounds appealing, but I’m afraid I’d be too reckless if I knew we had a backup waiting.

  32. I want to second what Julia said about the math phobia thing, because I also had it and didn’t really kick it until grad school. I remember reading a paper a while back that showed that girls and women are more likely to assume that struggling with something, particularly something where women and girls have been underrepresented, means they’re not cut out for it.

    I have a male friend who failed his first semester freshman engineering calculus course three times before he got through it, and he took seven years to graduate with his engineering degree. He’s been working successfully as an engineer ever since. Sadly, the rising costs of college and institutional restrictions intended to squeeze students through faster have made his level of persistence less feasible today, but it does show that initial failure doesn’t mean one isn’t capable of success.

    Anecdotally, my husband, who teaches engineering physics for freshmen, has noticed that female students are more likely to drop if they perform poorly on the first test. It’s something he’s struggling to change in his own classes. Parents who teach their daughters to struggle with things and to get back on the horse after they fail at something are doing them a great service, I think.

  33. John: Wonderful post. You and I are of an age, but I wish that you could have time traveled back to give my dad some tips.

    Laura W: There’s a significant amount of research that shows that girls who have previously done very well in STEM subjects take an academic nosedive in middle school from which few recover. There are a lot of social pressures for them to do so. John’s ideas for the raising of a daughter can help counteract that, if that’s what your daughter wants, as can your support.

    I was told by a teacher to, “not worry so much about math, that’s what boys do,” and a few years later ended up declining a request to join my high school math team because I clearly couldn’t be good enough (cognitive distortion, anyone?). You have a chance to help your daughter short circuit whatever negative message she’s gotten, and if she’s truly lost interest to help her find her “next thing.” Good luck!

  34. One thing I’d suggest (as a way of avoiding potential damage) is you respect who your daughter *is*, rather than who you’d prefer her to be.

    In many ways, kids are sort of like a grab bag – you get what you’re given, and you don’t get to choose much of their characteristics. So work with what you have, rather than what you were hoping for, or what you expected. Because kids pick it up, and it hurts, so very deep, to know your parents would prefer you to be someone you aren’t.

    (From a solid, chunky, clumsy girl, whose parents were hoping for either a boy, or at least a petite, wispy, graceful girl).

  35. Great post and comments. Key points:

    #4 agency – I get so frustrated when parents try to force their children to hug/kiss me. They need to know that it’s ok to say no – they own their bodies & their parents support that stance. One reason so many don’t tell parents they’ve been abused is they’ve been given a message from early on that they don’t have agency over their body and suspect parents won’t support them (and too many times their right if it’s a family member/close friend/someone with community standing).

    #5 treat as thinking person – this, this so much – treat your kids, age appropriately, as able to participate in discussions, give explanations. Talk about the consequences of speech and actions.

    #6 talk to them about advertising/books/comics/movies/music and the subtle messages in it. These can be fascinating.

    #8 I’d add: keep your cool when your kid tells you they hate you. Don’t take it personally. It’s something kids say when they are angry and frustrated but they get over it. I used to respond to it with an “I love you too, I think we could both use some alone time to cool off”. I didn’t always get an apology that day but eventually I did.

    Over 25 years ago when I raised a stepchild my then husband and I did many of the things Scalzi mentions. I have an incredible stepchild who is confident and respects others.

  36. I’m not totally cool with some of what I see here focusing so hard on “encourage her if she doesn’t want to do girly things.”

    I played with Barbies and had people give them to me all the time, but there is a home video of me leading a whole array of Barbies wearing my favorite Barbie clothes, from a sparkly ball gown to jean overalls, fighting Lego robots to rescue my one and only Ken. I had a whole series of imaginary games where I pretended to be a princess detective. I loved princess stuff both because they got the great dresses, and because princesses were always the ones in stories who got to have adventures and have things happen to them. I literally thought that’s what it meant to be a princess for a large part of my childhood – doing cool things and wearing pretty clothes.
    Yes, I loved getting pretty dresses and took ballet and had dolls. But I also had about 50 pet caterpillars every spring, loved to run around in the woods, read all of Nancy Drew, asked a million questions, played soccer, rode horses, wrote stories and plays and did a thousand different things that my parents never taught me shouldn’t co-exist.

    Avoid passing on expectations about gender. Just let your kids be your kids and show them every day that is a wonderful thing to be.
    Even when you’re a kid, if the belief that you’re fine the way you are is a part of you, a given, it’s much easier to let the voices that tell you otherwise fall away.

  37. I think your points are all excellent ones John. I would also add to teach your children (both boys and girls) to be critical thinkers and to speak up (both how and when).

    I don’t have any children of my own sadly, but I am a school teacher and really reinforce the idea of being a critical thinker and taking an active role in the choices that impact you as a person.

  38. Awesome answer, thanks so much, John! And thanks for the thoughtful follow-up comments, everyone else. I’ve saved the entire post to Evernote to refer back to. :)

    To clarify one point, I agree that the premise requires a broad definition of strength. Our goal is to raise our daughter to find and develop into her own definition.

  39. Our own take on parenting and raising two daughters is that sometimes you are a role model, and sometimes you are a cautionary tale. (And our daughters love to be able to call us out on it.)

    Now you made several point that fit into the role model theory, but do you also have experience with the cautionary tale part?

    FWIW, I think the important point is that we as parents are very open about where we fail, therefor our daughters can learn effectively from that as well.

  40. [Deleted because pointing out grammar errors doesn’t come with a license to be an ass about it — JS]

  41. Erose: “encourage her if she doesn’t want to do girly things.” doesn’t mean “discourage her if she does want to do them.”

  42. Reblogged this on Davetopia and commented:
    This article by John Scalzi sets out a his thoughts on how to raise a “strong woman”; and I can see the merit. However, as I favour both cross-fertilisation of knowledge and avoiding unnecessary gender bias, I wondered if they held if references to female children were removed.

    Promote good role models.
    Always treat family whose privilege is less as if they were your equals.
    Treat others with the same respect as you would family.
    Respect others’ agency.
    Treat others as thinking beings.
    Point out cultural nonsense as it happens.
    Support others’ rights and aspirations.
    Do all of the above without needing to get credit for it.

    To my mind, not a bad set of guidelines for any situation.

  43. chris y, I was going to make that point too. I didn’t see anyone advocating discouraging girly things. But I do think it’s worth talking about those girly things.

    I never had a daughter, but if I had, and she was girly, that would have been a special challenge for me (I am a decidedly non-girly woman). I like to think I would have risen to it, but it would have taken a lot of mindfulness not to subtly discourage girliness in the guise of encouraging her non-girly interests. Ditto a daughter who was very athletic, extraverted, not interested in books, or very unlike me in a number of other ways. I would at least have had the experience of growing up female, and I hope that would have helped. A particular challenge for fathers is not having had that experience. So to some degree, I think fathers have to think a little harder about their own biases and consider how these might unconsciously come out in their behavior toward, and expectation of, their daughters. Just as I would be biased to want a child of mine to love books (because why wouldn’t she? books are the best thing that exist in the world), a man might have expectations of what girls are like (or what they like) that he has never considered before. For example, he might not notice how many more times he compliments a daughter for being pretty than for being an artist or an athlete, even when he does compliment her for both. It might seem natural to him to compliment a girl on her appearance, especially if he was taught from an early age that this is a very good thing to do. This is not to say he should never compliment her on her appearance, just to think about whether he’s giving her more praise for her looks than for other aspects of her self. If so, he’s subtly telling her what’s more important to him. It’s hard to catch ourselves out in some of this stuff, because it feels so natural and normal (we’re swimming in it, after all). But it’s worth trying.

  44. Dave Higgins

    The problem with your suggested list is that it contains no recognition that parenthood in general, and the parenthood of girls in particular, has to be a great deal more specific than reciting a list of anodyne remarks worthy of the ancient publication known as the Readers Digest.

    Or, to put it another way, you are answering a question which wasn’t asked with a string of platitudes, presumably because you are uninterested in the question and consider it should have been about something completely different i.e. what you think about the world in general.

    Unfortunately girls and young women are only too familiar with people spouting platitudes at them in response to serious questions; that part of the market is already saturated. Scalzi did what it says on the tin; he took the question seriously, and responded seriously. For those of us endeavouring to assist our daughters in navigating the world as it is his observations have value…

  45. Very nice! I have a fifteen year old daughter. I don’t think I was nearly as good a Dad as the picture Scalzi paints. (As T.G Crammer says “cautionary tale”.) But the good news (for other parents who are likewise less than ideal.) is that kids are pretty resilient.

    Re: Math and girls. We had similar issues around 8th grade. (8th grade math is so boring!) Things came to a head in 9th grade with algebra. I’m not sure how much good it did, but I bought a math book, (Life of Fred, Algebra… this is used by many home schoolers and has some bible references, didn’t bother me, but some might take offense.) She worked through ~1/2 of the book. (I would read ahead, help, and then check her answers and answer her questions.) I found the story nature of the book much more interesting. One of the big problems I see in high school math is that it’s boring with no application to the real world.

  46. Regarding math, we have three approaches in our home, for keeping our 10-year-old daughter interested.

    1. We emphasize that what you learn by rote in school is not math. It is necessary for doing math. (Learning the alphabet is not the same as reading. It is just a necessary and sometimes boring prerequisite.) Plus, it isn’t optional. Sometimes you just have to trudge through the current topic and hope the next one is better.

    2. We point out that there is more than one kind of math. Struggling with algebra or disliking arithmetic doesn’t mean you aren’t potentially amazing at geometry, or formal logic, or topology, or statistics. This is similar to music. If you don’t like the clarinet, try drums, or do some singing.

    3. We play with math like a toy, and use it as a set of tools. Real math is figuring out things you don’t already know how to solve. It is a language that goes beyond national boundaries. It includes recreational mathematics. It can describe the natural world as well as abstract beauty. It is something humans created for ourselves and it is our birthright. It is fun and powerful, and it isn’t separate from everyday life.

    Now, things might go badly when she gets to 8th grade. But lots of things are awful in 8th grade. As I recall, in 8th grade I hated my English class, and Social Studies, and PE, and Home Economics, and in fact all of it. Why should Math be any different?

  47. I really enjoyed this post. I found it particularly interesting because over the years of reading Whatever, the dynamic of the Scalzi family (as viewed through the particular lens of reading about it in a blog) has often reminded me of my own family growing up. I am certain that my father’s response to the original question would be quite similar to John’s. Speaking as a strong woman who was the recipient of this style of parenting, good on you. Athena is very fortunate.

  48. Seconding what a couple people have said here: also it’s not the end of the world if your daughter turns out *not* to be interested in math, or science, or sports.

    My parents were complete hippies–I can still, goddammit, recite large parts of Free to Be You and Me from memory–Dad was a math teacher, they met because they were both involved in Outward Bound, they both encouraged me and my sister to do math and sports and science if we wanted, and…I’m an English major who took nothing past precalc and whose idea of roughing it is, as the nineties saying goes, a motel without room service.

    To the extent to which self-knowledge is possible, I don’t think this is because of sexist messages on their part: they always encouraged me to do whatever, Dad brought home math games, and they dragged me up about five different goddamn mountains in my youth, half the time in the rain. I just…like physical comfort, see no reason to go without it, and hate having to pay attention to detail (which rules out math, science, and team sports–as well as eyeliner, French braiding, and a lot of cooking). I don’t think this is a problem for either me or my parents; when Dad was going in for heart surgery last fall I kind of wished I’d taken more of an interest in math and/or nature walks, but that’s different.

    Sometimes your kids will turn out not to defy the stereotype, and that’s fine too.

    Also: it’s not the main reason for my decision, but man, youth sports league games just fill me with so much validation re: being childless by choice.* Can you guys at least smuggle in booze like in Trophy Wife?

    *”Went to” my sister’s soccer games, by which I mean that Mom watched from the bleachers while I stayed in the car and read D&D books. And even so they took about five years each.

  49. Really late to the discussion, but would like to add a couple of thoughts from the perspective of a single mom.

    I like this list and I tried to use a similar approach with my kids (girl, 18, boy 15 atm.) Unfortunately, their father does not agree with this approach. (big part of the reason that we are divorced.)

    I really worried about the effect on my kids, but especially on my daughter, of having a father who did not give them agency, did not back them up, and did not treat women with respect. But what I’ve found is that by giving her the tools to recognize respect (and trying not to trash talk their dad) she figured it out for herself. She has maintained a friendly relationship with her father, but is clear that she is not prepared to put up with his behaviour from those she voluntarily associates with. She is a little more hesitant to embark on romantic relationships than I would like, but at her age that’s probably OK.

    I also found that as a single parent, it was clear that we had to work together. It was clear that they made an important contribution to the household when they did chores, etc. I have tried not to stress them beyond what’s age appropriate, but as they have grown into their teens they understand that their choices affect what they can do in life and actively seek to help the family. I’ve had a couple of surgeries in the past 2 years and they did a great job of taking care of me. I always worried that I couldn’t do everything I should, but giving them appropriate responsibility has actually been good for them.

    I’m far from a perfect parent but my kids are turning out great. (They are both Scalzi fans, so clearly I’m doing something right!)

    And regarding the math, my daughter is currently doing a double major in math and history, while my son is getting Cs in math and planning not to take any more than he has to.

  50. I haven’t read all the comments yet, just so you know.

    The phrase “strong woman” bothers me. It seems to imply the existence of weak women, and the idea that every woman who is not labeled as strong, is actually weak. That thought irks me to no end. How do you deal with that thought, John?

  51. nathreee: The phrase “strong woman” came from the question asked by a reader. I interpreted it as meaning “how to raise a woman who is strong,” not “how to raise a woman who is labeled as strong.” I don’t see how it logically implies that “every woman who is not labeled as strong, is actually weak.” The label isn’t the point, and not everyone is strong. I have known women (and men) who are not strong. I have loved many of these women and men. I generally don’t condemn them for not being strong–some of them are not strong because of the way they were raised. I think it’s helpful to consider, as parents, how to raise children to be strong and especially female children for reasons that are discussed in the post and many of the comments.

  52. As the mother of a teenage daughter, I want to say that there were some “girly” things I discouraged her from. I didn’t want her to ever buy into the “pink” is the only acceptable color for “girl” toys things…or even that there was such a thing as “girl” toys. I never encouraged her to buy into the “princess” thing, either…told her early on that it was much better to be the queen, but if she had to be a princess, pick one she liked for a good reason. (In Disney speak, this meant she picked Mulan. She, after all, had a sword and saved China.) I consider myself lucky, though, because she was amenable to this…maybe I was following her lead more than she was following mine. If she had loved pink everything and wanted to be Cinderella, I would have supported her because that’s what mom’s do. But I didn’t push it on her the way so many mothers do, as if there are no other options and she better adhere to those gender stereotypes really quick!

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