Parenting: Raising Strong, Confident Girls (cont.)

"In many ways, media messages have become even more extreme," agrees Fern Marx, a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College. "On television, as well as in movies and in music, you have the strong girl and the girl as object, sometimes in the same breath. And what has happened over time is that these messages are extending to even younger girls -- there are clothes that make them sexual objects in grade school now."

Empowering Your Daughters

So your daughter is probably getting a lot of conflicting signals at school, from friends, in magazines, and on TV about who she is and what she can be. What's she hearing from you? And just as important, what are you hearing from her?

"The time has come to treat girls as people and listen carefully to what they're saying. They're the world's leading experts on what it's like to be them," says Johnston-Nicholson. So, if you want to help your daughter as she struggles with body image, self-esteem, intellectual growth, and peer pressure, listen before you talk. "That's always the first lesson. Listen, and then ask questions. Ask her what she thinks. Look her in the eye and say, 'That's interesting, tell me about that.' Ask a leading question rather than assuming that you know what's going on."

Seek out opportunities for her to be with other girls in communities and activities where they can do what they want to do -- whether they're "good at it" or not. "Think of her interests to guide you: if she's an athlete, great; if she wants to hang out around horses, great. Girls need opportunities to explore things that might lead to strong interests and careers, without the pressure to 'win,'" Johnston-Nicholson says. "Make sure she knows people can be good at any doggone thing." Encourage her to try non-traditional as well as traditional pursuits -- take her fishing, work on the car with her, help her build a soapbox derby car. Girls Inc. and the Girl Scouts of America offer a wealth of ideas.

"Most girls feel that they don't see 'themselves' on television."

The point, says Marx, is to communicate an appreciation for who your daughter is, not who you think she should be. "Don't try to remake her. This is part and parcel of the whole drive to have perfect children, super achievers in school, super competitors in athletics," she says. "That doesn't mean you shouldn't encourage her to achieve, but let your daughter know that you accept her for who and what she is."

That can mean accepting yourself. On that self-esteem thing -- how good a role model do you think you are? "Parents may never have worked through their own concerns about how thin we need to be to be attractive," Johnson-Nicholson says. "If we're not monitoring our messages, we're passing them on."

A Family of Media Critics

Girls Inc. urges parents to become "a family of media critics" to combat negative gender stereotypes on TV, in the movies, in music, and in magazines. "Watch TV together, look at her favorite magazines with her, and deconstruct the messages together," Johnston-Nicholson says. "Ask her what she thinks this show says about girls, what they're like and how they should be. Ask her about the ethics of the show, and if that's how she and her friends treat each other. Talk about the messages about bodies, and if the girls in the magazine pictures look the way people really look."

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