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.
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.)