Girls now outperform boys at every stage academically. Surely bringing up girls is easy?
But more girls than boys lose their virginity before the age of 16, and men are still far more likely to earn more than women and be at the top of businesses. Something is not quite right.
As their parents, we have a responsibility to help girls to grow up into happy, self-confident and balanced women, able to make an effective contribution to the world.
Nature, Nurture and Culture
A recent study suggested that men and women do not, as popular culture would have it, process information differently. There were, in fact, very few differences between men and women’s brains.
But boys and girls do develop differently, and nurture, and popular culture gives girls and boys very different cultural models and ideas to live up to. Culture also affects the way that we parent children.
This therefore has a huge effect on their development, and how they feel they have to behave.
The way that we raise our children determines not only the sort of adult that they become, but also the sort of society they forge for themselves.
Sue Palmer, 21st Century Girls
Consider signs designed to go inside car windows, to alert rescuers to the presence of a child in the event of an accident.
‘Baby on Board’ seems relatively harmless. Its counterparts for older children, though, tend to read either ‘Little Princess on Board’ or ‘Little Monkey on Board’. Girls, it seems, are to be cherished and valued; boys are a playful nuisance.
Some commentators, including Sue Palmer, have raised real concerns about the ‘princessification’ of little girls.
Before you say ‘Oh, playing at princess is perfectly harmless’, ask yourself:
Do I want my daughter to grow up as a strong woman who believes that she is the architect of her own destiny, or do I want her to believe that the key to happiness is a handsome prince who will provide for her?
Even Walt Disney Studios, characterised by some as the arch-villain largely responsible for creating the ‘princess culture’, seems to be moving away from it now.
A More Modern Approach to Princesses
In Disney’s blockbuster Frozen, the handsome prince turns out to be a bad guy who is eventually punched in the face by Princess Anna and thrown out of the country.
On top of that, Queen Elsa shows a radically different approach to love and marriage from any previous Disney heroine, telling her sister “No, you can’t marry him, you’ve only known him ten minutes!” This sensible view is also endorsed by the male hero.
A far cry from Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
A princess culture can also be created by loving parents who buy their girls pretty clothes and then tell them how pretty they look. This gives these girls the impression that they are valued for their looks and not themselves.
Princesses, however, are not the only problem facing parents of girls.
The Sexualisation of Children
Anyone with children will have noticed that children’s toys and clothes are getting more sophisticated and adult, especially for girls.
It may be a generalisation, but the vast majority of small boys just take the shirt at the top of the pile. Girls, on the other hand, are more selective, and more likely to notice what other children are wearing.
Clothes available for little girls now include ‘sexy’ tops, bikinis, high-heeled shoes, and the like. Girls are also encouraged to wear make-up and lipgloss at ever younger ages.
Parents may not like it, but neither do they like the idea of their daughter being left out of her peer group.
This leads, though, to creeping sexualisation of ever younger children.
This, in turn, may lead eventually to teenage pregnancy, lack of self-respect, the objectification of women and other undesirable consequences.
Developing Social Skills
Research shows that girls tend to develop social skills earlier than boys.
Girls are often better at making and maintaining eye contact as babies, and therefore start to mimic their carers earlier, which can lead to better motor control and language development.
There is also evidence that girls are much more likely to look for, and be able to assess parental approval from an earlier age.
Girls are, in other words, keener to please the adults around them, and therefore to conform to what is expected.
In a way, this is a good thing. Girls tend to be ‘good babies’ and do not try to push the boundaries as often. But it also means that they are likely to try to live up to your expectations of them, and be less likely to rely on their own assessment of their ability.
When you add this to the ‘princess’ culture, girls may well develop a view that they are valued for the way that they look and not for themselves.
This will lead them to try to look ‘better’: perfect hair, skin and fashion sense, as well as being more conscious of their weight, so as to be ‘worthy’ of you.
Later, they will look for perfect grades and, when they fall short, may feel that they have let everyone down.
Fortunately, there is a bright side.
Well-being is more important to psychological health than material excess.
Much of our potential for well-being (‘happiness’) and getting the most out of life (‘success’) is shaped during childhood.
Sue Palmer, 21st Century Girls
Sue Palmer argues that well-being depends on:
- Satisfying relationships with friends and family;
- Getting involved in activities which we enjoy; and
- Feeling that we are in control of our day-to-day lives.
She further suggests that, as with boys (and see our page on Parenting Boys for more), the most important thing that we can do for girls is to love them, and show that they are valued for themselves, and not for the way that they look, or even what they do and how they behave.
You can demonstrate this practically by:
- Giving your daughter space to play and become absorbed, just like her brother, without worrying about her clothes. Dress her in comfortable, practical clothes that don’t matter and allow her to wear them out and make them dirty without complaint;
- Help your daughter to explore the world physically, just as you allow your son. Climbing trees, wading in streams, making mud pies, are all as important for little girls as boys.
Above all, allow your daughter’s personal development to guide your activities with her, and look out for her developmental needs. Responding to her as an individual is vital.
For more about being ‘present’ with your children, see our page on Mindful Parenting.
The Weaker Sex?
Despite cultural stereotypes, girls are very much NOT the weaker sex.
Male foetuses are far more likely to be miscarried; boys are more likely to be born prematurely, suffer from development disorders, and other illnesses.
However, parents of girls are significantly more likely to underestimate their physical abilities than parents of boys. Is this a matter of cultural expectation?
Tuning Into Your Own Issues
Many mothers will admit that parenting girls is a real challenge because of their own issues.
Whether they struggle with food and diet, or with the idea that they should be able to ‘have it all’ without feeling guilty about either work or their children, women face a huge range of challenges, stereotypes and their own past history.
Men seem to be less prone to this, but are also affected by their own past and by cultural stereotypes.
To be able to accept and love your child, you also need to be able to accept and love yourself, which means being aware of your weaknesses, and accepting them, even as you try to improve yourself.
It is important to just give yourself a break. You don’t have to be ‘super-mum’ (or, for men, ‘super-dad’). You are your child’s best parent because you are you.