How to talk to girls: 8 ways to improve your daughter's self-esteem

We want to raise daughters who will run the world, but could the words we use be accidentally sending the wrong message?

Photo: Tony Lanz, Illustration: Stephanie Han Kim

Presented in partnership with GapKids

“Listen to my words.” It’s a phrase parents use all the time. But what are we really saying? When it comes to raising confident girls, we may be giving them contradictory messages. We want them to be leaders but criticize them for being bossy. We build their self-esteem and then undercut the message by talking about how fat, forgetful or stupid we are.

What we say and do can inadvertently reinforce the very gender stereotypes we are so keen to dismantle. “Our words and actions have a powerful impact on our children,” says Vancouver therapist Michele Kambolis. So what should we say to bolster girls’ confidence, teach them responsibility and encourage them to follow their dreams—while also helping them learn from their mistakes and instilling a good work ethic? (Parenting really is one of the toughest management jobs out there.) Here are eight rules for nurturing the next generation of leaders.

Rule #1: Let her play
Don’t get hung up on what your daughter wants to play, whether it’s princesses or highway patrol. While we may view one as traditionally female and another as male, to little kids, it’s all the same, so there’s no need to categorize. Just encourage her to pursue her own passions.

Christina Grant, an elementary school teacher, avoids classifying her seven-year-old daughter’s interests—which range from fairies to Greek gods—as being girlie or boyish. (Now if only toy manufacturers would redesign packaging with that in mind!) Whether she’s talking with her daughter or her students, if the issue of “boys’ toys” versus “girls’ toys” comes up, she challenges their thinking. “I ask what they think and why they think that,” she explains. “It raises their consciousness about the issues while also empowering them by communicating that their ideas and opinions matter.”

Rule #2: Give her a say
If we expect our daughters to make good decisions once they reach the corner office, they will need lots of practice. Let her have an age-appropriate say in matters that affect her, advises Grant. Her daughter has weighed in on what she wears and which extracurricular activities she does since an early age. “She is also included in deciding how we spend our family time and on how we divide household responsibilities,” she says.

This doesn’t mean you simply hand over the reins. Talk through all the various factors of making a decision, suggests Beth Malcolm, director of the Girls’ Fund at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “And once she’s made up her mind, she needs to learn to deal with the consequences,” Malcolm says. So if your daughter decides not to wear rain boots on a field trip, don’t go dropping them off at the first sign of drizzle. Later on, however, empathize with her about how yucky soggy socks feel. “They need to know that they aren’t all on their own, that they are supported.”

Rule #3: Let her toot her own horn
Avoid squelching your daughter’s natural exuberance and pride. As they get older, some girls get embarrassed when they’re singled out—whether it’s for winning the 100-metre dash or the science fair—and even try to downplay their accomplishments. And this tendency can intensify over time. (Let’s be honest: How good are you at taking a compliment?)

In the long run, self-effacement can lead to a loss of confidence. So if your daughter shares that she got a great mark on a test, don’t tell her it’s impolite to brag—celebrate her success with an enthusiastic, “Fantastic! All your hard work paid off.” Or if your preschooler proudly shows you her latest drawing, be sure to share in her delight. You don’t have to proclaim her an artistic genius, though—the key is to praise the effort, not the result. “Recent research tells us when we overdo it in terms of praise, we can do more harm than good,” says Kambolis.

Rule #4: Resilience must be earned
While we want the best for our kids, sometimes the best thing we can do for them is to let them struggle—even if it’s just enduring soggy socks (see Rule #2). “We want them to be happy at all times, and we do a tremendous amount of work to make things easier for them,” says Jennifer Kolari, a child therapist and author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid. “But if you create a perfect, carefree childhood, they aren’t going to be able to handle adversity when it happens.” This is doubly important for girls, who often see themselves portrayed in books and media as damsels in distress. Knowing that you’re capable of handling difficult situations on your own can be a very powerful lesson.

Rule #5: Avoid the B-word
As ambitious women have learned for generations, Type A women are “bossy,” while Type A men have “leadership skills.” And since bossy isn’t exactly seen as a desirable quality (last year Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg launched a social campaign to #banbossy), it’s time to scrub it from your vocabulary.

That doesn’t mean your daughter deserves a free pass on rude behaviour, though. “When I see my older daughter acting ‘bossy,’ I don’t slap a label on it,” says mother Sonia Giampietro. Instead, she talks about better ways to communicate ideas and collaborate with others.

Julie Freedman Smith, one of the co-founders of Parenting Power, a Calgary-based coaching organization, encourages parents to practise assertiveness. “Kids who are constantly bossed around by their parents will learn that way of speaking.” She suggests using respectful language, like “I feel that” and “It would be great if you could” as opposed to “Do this!” and “I want that!”

Rule #6: Be nice, but not to a fault
Despite how it might look in the school lunchroom, most parents do try to teach their kids manners. But the importance of being nice is really emphasized for girls, and this kind of gendered encouragement can lead to girls putting themselves last, pleasing others instead of themselves and becoming pushovers. Plus, having to “act like a lady” leaves no room to be loud, strident, funny, and so on. “It’s tough for girls to find the right balance between respecting and helping others, and being assertive about what they think and want,” says Malcolm. We need to model the behaviour we’d like see them exhibit. “If our daughters see us standing up for ourselves, speaking up when we don’t agree with others or asking for help when we need it, they will learn they can do that, too.”

Rule #7: Go beyond “you look so pretty!”
We’ve all done it: At a party or family gathering, we’ve gone up to a little girl and told her we like her dress or said how pretty she looks. It’s an easy icebreaker. Beauty can be tricky—it feels natural to compliment a child, yet it can reinforce the message that looks are what matter most. One solution is to keep talking. Ask follow-up questions—“How high can you kick?” or “How far can your dress twirl?”—so it’s more about how she feels in an outfit than how she looks. “I tell my five-year-old it’s her heart that makes her friends want to play with her, not the dress she chooses to wear,” says Giampietro.

It’s not just what you say to girls but also how you talk about yourself. Pay attention to how often you criticize your appearance. Nix the fat talk. “As women we are often horrible to ourselves,” says Kolari. “Our daughters are watching us, and they’re listening. And if we are judging ourselves that harshly, the natural assumption they make is that we are judging them as well.”

Rule #8: Ask questions, then listen
It’s estimated the average eight-year-old is exposed to some form of media (TV, billboards, magazines, online videos, etc.) for close to seven hours every day, and much of it plays off stereotypes. That is an enormous amount of information to make sense of. Use it as an opportunity to talk to your children, and to help them practise their critical thinking. “I like to ask questions rather than lecture,” says Kolari. “I’ll ask, ‘What else do you think that girl can do?’ or ‘What is that singer saying?’ You don’t want them to tune out or feel ashamed that they like to play princess or like pretty things.” And then really listen to what they have to say. Validate their opinions and their experiences. At the end of the day, as Grant says, “it’s important they know they are loved—no matter what.” One way to do this is to provide a daily dose of undivided attention. By being fully present when talking with your daughter, you send a clear message: When she speaks, you’re listening—and her voice matters.

A version of this article appeared in our September 2015 issue with the headline “How to talk to girls,” pp. 102-4.

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