How to Raise a Daughter with Leadership Skills

My 8-year-old daughter is a lot like me. More often than not, I experience flashbacks of my own childhood when I watch her play. Many of those flashbacks are positive. I was a young 8, as she is, and I enjoyed plenty of free time spent playing Strawberry Shortcake or climbing trees with my best friend. If my daughter could bring her Strawberry Shortcake dolls to the top of a tall tree and stay there all day, I think she would.

Some flashbacks, however, are unsettling. If I could give her one thing that I didn’t have as a child, it would be confidence. I was athletic, inquisitive, bright, and playful. I had plenty of friends, though I preferred to spend time with my brother. I can’t recall ever feeling “bored.” But, I didn’t have confidence. I wasn’t a leader. I wasn’t the one who commanded attention on the playground or organized the group play. I was always on the outside looking in, waiting for an invitation.

My daughter tends to do the same.

As a therapist I know that all kids learn and grow at their own pace, and I’m careful not to push her beyond what she’s ready to conquer on any given day. But I do work on confidence and assertiveness as much as possible. We have mantras that we all recite (my son, too): “Whatever you do, do it with confidence,” “Never be afraid to fail out loud”, “Don’t let perfection stop you from taking chances,” and “Take a chance on you today.” 

I don’t know where life will take my daughter as she grows, but I do know that I want her to step up and lead. I want her inner voice to be strong. I want her to have the confidence to take charge.

As it turns out, many girls need a little help in this area. The latest data from the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education shows that gender bias can be a significant barrier to teen girls’ leadership. In fact, the report shows that 40 percent of teen boys and 23 percent of teen girls prefer male over female political leaders. 

The report cites several reasons for biases against girls, including highly competitive feelings among girls, girls lacking confidence and self-esteem and projecting that onto other girls, and girls being viewed as too emotionally “dramatic”. Wow. It’s 2015, and we seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

Leadership skills are more than just commanding a room or taking the lead on a project. If we can empower young girls to become leaders and take on the role of change makers, we can increase empathy, kindness, and altruism among kids. In her new book, Tomorrow’s Change Makers, author Marilyn Price Mitchell highlights the importance of empowering our children to become positive leaders. “We not only need to develop empathy and altruism in children, we need to provide the situations and experiences that enable them to turn empathy into positive social change,” explains Mitchell.

It’s easy to talk about raising strong girls, but harder to put into practice. Confronting that level of competition and low self-esteem takes time and patience, but it can (and should) be done. Here’s how:

1. Empower your daughter to build other girls up. Building girls up begins with the messages we send at home. Telling your child she’s the best player or the best at math or the best at art ignites competition. Although praising hard work or pointing out a great play in a game helps build self-esteem, calling one child out as the best can backfire. Instead, talk about teamwork. Talk about embracing differences. Ask your daughter to name the strengths of her friends and teammates. If we want girls to become strong leaders, we have to nip unhealthy competitive behavior in the bed.

2. Teach your daughter to confront stereotypes. Talk to your kids about the stereotypes they see in the media, in books, and even in song lyrics. Dissect them. Talk about how it feels to see girls portrayed as helpless or weak or in need of a rescue from a strong male. Use magazines to look for ads that include stereotypes and help your kids pick them apart and rebuild them in a better way. Give your daughter the language to confront stereotypes out in the world. Use role play at home to practice how she might respond to comments that include gender bias or make her feel like she’s incapable of doing something because she’s a girl. Watch your own words in front of your daughter. Send the message that you believe in her ability to be a strong leader and a change maker.

3. Talk about fears. It can be hard to speak up. It can be hard to take the lead. It can be hard to be a change maker. Talk about that. Fears and worries can hold girls back. When girls are afraid to fail or afraid to be different, they hold themselves back. Open and honest communication empowers girls to make change. Talk about your own insecurities as a child and what kinds of negative thoughts held you back. Then practice the art of self talk together. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones and create some family mantras to remind everyone to take a chance on being a leader.

Raising strong girls doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, practice, and frequent conversations. The sooner we start empowering our girls, the sooner we’ll raise a generation of girls who have the confidence to speak up and take action. 

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