Most moms I know would agree with the sentiment of raising strong, brave girls. We women understand that the ways in which we were raised are not serving us as full-fledged adults. We know that perfectionism is an ideal we can’t live up to. We know that people-pleasing has led us down the wrong road many a time. We have made so many decisions based on other people’s expectations of us that it’s hard to recall them as actual autonomous choices; it felt more like we simply followed the path that someone else had laid out.
In her book “Bravery Over Perfection”, Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, talks about how girls are trained from a young age to suppress anger and to internalize negative feelings rather than stand up for themselves. “Praised on one hand by parents for being polite, agreeable, and ‘well-behaved’ and, on the other, punished by their peers for speaking out, the docility girls are rewarded for as children translates directly into a lifelong habit of suppressing their instinct to speak up and take a risky stand.”
Do we want to raise daughters who are afraid of trusting their instincts? Do we want our daughters to be afraid of speaking their opinion? I think most of us would shout, “Heck no!” If we understand that the ways of the past are not going to serve our daughters’ generation, then it makes sense that we would want to change things. Figure out new ways to parent. Break free from the old molds.
In my experience mothering a daughter for over a decade, however, I’ve often observed the opposite. Girls speaking up and speaking out makes us, as a society, uneasy. The people most uncomfortable with young girls breaking social norms in real life: moms of girls.
My ten-year-old daughter was born brave and outspoken. She has challenged me on everything from what she wears to how far away she can ride her bike. She doesn't just test boundaries, she flies across them with arms raised high in victory and a war cry flying out of her mouth. One of the qualities I admire most about her is that she unapologetically knows exactly who she is, even when that means standing out (or alone) from her peers.
She did not inherit these qualities from my husband and I. I got in trouble in school exactly once. I still feel a flush of embarrassed heat in my chest when I think about it. I am rule-follower to this day. The tension between the rule-following mom and the rule-breaking daughter plays out in ways big and small. A small example: The other day we arrived at the Dick’s Sporting Goods entrance, where customers are met with three doors marked with “Do Not Enter” and three additional doors with “Enter”. Can you guess which door my daughter sailed through? As she walked in through the exit, I took an additional 15 steps over to the entrance. When we met inside, she had a huge smile on her face. Now the queen of allowing natural consequences I asked, “Did you get in trouble?” She said, “Nope, just some weird looks.” Writing this now, I see how this demonstrates that I’m still afraid to ruffle feathers and this keeps me playing small in many areas of my own life.
It has taken me a long time to come around to the idea that it’s ok for girls and women to be seen and heard - even when it’s not their turn or they weren’t asked. It’s taken trial and error, many parenting mistakes, therapy, good friends and family to lean on. My mindset is still a work in progress, as I’m sure my daughter would attest.
This is both the problem and the hope. Women can’t simply change their programming overnight. Women who have not been introduced to concepts like Saujani’s “Bravery Over Perfection” or Kate T. Parker’s “Strong Is The New Pretty” are still adhering to the stand-still-look-pretty model for themselves and their daughters. Be smart, but quiet. Look beautiful, but appear carefree. Win the race, but don’t brag. Take care of everyone else, but find time to get to the gym to get skinny.
So, what happens when a girl (my girl) who breaks the mold enters the world filled with many women who have this conditioning? Tension. It is this inherent tension that I see play out with other mothers who interact with my daughter. Sometimes, they reprimand her. "You need to sit up, stop kicking the chair, and start listening to your mother." Sometimes they stick their pointer finger up close to her nose while reprimanding. Sometimes they tell her to be quiet when she voices her opinion out of turn. These are just some of the occasions that I know about. Then there are the more subtle measures. Fewer invites to birthday parties. Looks exchanged between other moms on the sidelines of the soccer field.
Strong girls are vulnerable too, in case you thought they might be invincible. At home, after one of these incidents, the tears come. I remind her that some people don’t get her. They have a vision of how girls should be and it’s upsetting to them that she doesn’t fit. But that is not her problem. Her job is to be herself. Outspoken. Loud. Courageous. As long as she’s being kind and respectful, we try to let the opinions of the other moms slide off our backs.
As her mom, I intentionally bring people into her life who adore her strong-willed nature. Her swim coach sees her fire as pure potential and a key to being team-focused. Our neighbors, who have very young girls, rave about her outward friendliness and caregiving qualities.
I believe she is a pioneer working to cast off good girl conditioning for both her generation and for mine. She has been knocked down before and knows it will happen again. Let’s all of us moms help her get back up.