Raising strong daughters: How to boost girls’ self-esteem

We spoke with Plan International Canada’s Caroline Riseboro to get her advice on teaching girls how to be confident and how parents can model positive self-esteem.
Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

If you have a daughter, you’ve probably thought a lot about what it takes to raise a strong, confident girl brimming with positive self-esteem. It can definitely feel like a daunting task when you consider that by age 11, only 36 percent of girls say they are self-confident (and that number drops sharply as girls enter the teenage years). But raising a strong daughter is doable, says Caroline Riseboro, the president and CEO at Plan International Canada, a not-for-profit charity that works to improve the lives of kids around the world through programs such as Because I Am a Girl, which aims to end gender inequality and promote the rights of girls. We chatted with Riseboro about how parents can be good role models for their children, how we can teach girls to challenge stereotypes and why “You’re so pretty” shouldn’t be the default compliment for girls.

TP: Mom is often a girl’s first role model. What should moms know about the impact our words and actions have on our daughters’ self-esteem and sense of self?

Caroline Riseboro: Sometimes we can underestimate just how much our kids are watching us and looking at our actions. So I think it’s so important that, first of all, if we want to impart this sense of healthy self-esteem, we’ve got to have it ourselves. And the other thing is that sometimes we underestimate the very subtle gender cues we make, and sometimes those gender cues are not always very positive. A great example is we’ll praise our daughters for being sweet or kind and not praise them for their leadership or the fact that they’re so smart. Often, girls are taught to be nice and boys are taught otherwise. It’s just little things like that.

TP: There’s a fine line between being nice and respectful and letting people walk all over you. That’s where assertiveness plays a role. How do we teach girls about the value and power of their opinions?

CR: I think this is where we need to encourage girls to share their opinions even if sometimes those opinions are different, or may be harder to hear, or may even be a bit controversial. We have to make sure we’re engaging our daughters, nieces, even people we mentor, and tell girls that they have to have an opinion. When I mentor other women, I remind them that they just need their voice to be heard. Even if they’re agreeing with an opinion or just reiterating something, they have to make a point of getting their voice out there.

TP: I have a seven-year-old and a five-year-old, both girls, and self-esteem does not come easily to me. I’m worried that I’ll funnel this down to my girls. What are some of the ways that parents like me can model self-esteem in ourselves for our girls?

CR: I think part of it is being passionate about something and I think it’s so important to be able to model that passion. My son knows I’m passionate about justice and I’m passionate about making sure boys and girls have rights because that creates a much better world for my son. So I think showing that we can be passionate about something and we can contribute to that thing we’re so passionate about is important. And everybody has something to offer. Because girls and women are told that they have to be quiet or nice, it’s often hard for us to feel like we can make a contribution. So that’s why I think it’s critical that we make a contribution. One of the things we’ve been doing at Plan International is setting up Because I Am a Girl clubs all around Canada, and we’re engaging girls and talking about their self esteem, but we’re also engaging them to speak about what they’re passionate about. That’s the way we help build self-esteem, because then they feel like they’ve made a contribution.

TP: When we’re looking at the pressures from our kids’ friends and the media to act and look certain ways, how can we celebrate our daughters’ uniqueness so they know diversity is something to be celebrated and not something they need to be self-conscious about?

CR: First of all, we need to celebrate the diversity within ourselves and the unique traits that we have. As mothers, it’s so important to be able to model that. I think people around us see that and they pick up on it, and then they feel more comfortable to be able to celebrate unique characteristics within themselves. And I go back to the fact that we all have contributions to make. Being able to model a different way of thinking—so it’s not just about how we look—is a better contribution. I’d really encourage young people to get involved with something they really love because when you’re making a contribution, you don’t feel the need to worry about the other things so much. You realize, “Wow, I do have good ideas; I’m contributing something here.” That builds self-esteem and makes you want to do more, and the cycle keeps going.

TP: I don’t know how to make my daughters aware of stereotypes and then teach them to challenge those stereotypes. What are some tips that parents can use to start that conversation?

CR: Part of the way to change stereotypes is to realize that there’s so much diversity in the world. If we keep our world small, it’s really hard to see that diversity. So this is where I’d encourage mothers and fathers to make sure they’re always showing their kids how diverse and how big the world is. Doing something that will show them that the world is much bigger than beyond our Canadian borders, this is really important to challenge stereotypes. You realize the world has so much more to offer than perhaps this one image of beauty or one image of success that we see all the time.

TP: It’s hard for us to see our kids fail, struggle or make mistakes, but it’s obviously important for them to learn resiliency and to problem solve on their own. What are some lower-risk ways for girls to learn that it’s OK to make mistakes?

CR: We have to reposition failure. Failure is not an end—it’s really just something that happens on the journey to success. And so this is where I think we have to change society’s mentality toward failure. Girls in particular take failure really hard. I’ve noticed that boys kind of just dust themselves off and get back up and keep going, but girls really take it to heart and they really think failure is a reflection on their self-esteem. I think what we have to say is, “You know what? Failure is something that happens on the way to success. Failure isn’t actually a failure until you stop trying.” It’s interesting, I was reading a study about the one common trait that you see in the top self-made billionaires in the world and the study was looking at all kinds of issues: Is it education that makes someone a billionaire? Is it social status? Is it intelligence? The only common trait that they could find was that billionaires were more resilient, which basically meant they failed more and they dusted themselves off and got up and tried again.

TP: Praise is something else that many of us struggle with. I find myself saying things like, “You’re so pretty” or “You’re such a good girl” more than I say things like “You’re so smart.” Is there a better way to show our daughters that we’re proud of them in the way we praise them?

CR: Absolutely. We praise girls for being nice, obedient, docile and quiet. It’s interesting. Being the mom of a boy, I can totally see the difference. Boys are rambunctious balls of energy—they’re running around all the time and they’re getting into all kinds of mischief. I notice that sometimes girls are much more quiet—they go play with their dolls or whatnot. I think we need to praise them for being equally as rambunctious. How are we going to create the next generation of women entrepreneurs if we don’t encourage them to challenge the status quo?

TP: We talked about the roles moms play as role models, but dads obviously also play a role in shaping their daughters’ self worth. What can dads do to support self-esteem and what should they avoid doing?

CR: I would answer this based on the work that Plan International has done with boys and men all over the world. Often, in terms of trying to work with communities and achieve the rights of girls, we work with boys and men in challenging wrong senses of masculinity. I think what’s important for dads and brothers is to build a right sense of what it means to be a girl, a boy, a man and a woman. Often dads are perpetuating wrongful gender stereotypes and we have to challenge those. I would say it’s the same thing for dads and moms—they have to rethink those gender stereotypes, and I think dads play a critical role.

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