I feel like if you ask any mom with a daughter if she's trying to raise a strong girl, she'd say yes. At the very least, I don't think anyone has a daughter and thinks, "How can I make this one as frail, helpless, and co-dependent as humanly possible?" But let me tell you some things moms raising strong girls never do, at least those of us with a mind to do everything in our power to ensure that our little ones grow up resilient and self-assured.
Now, could a girl grow up in demoralizing, misogynistic conditions and still grow up to be a strong woman? Of course! A lot, in fact, do. And there's something to be said about the kind of strength that blossoms as a result of adverse experiences. But there's also something moving and beautiful about the kind of strength born of growing up with the knowledge that you can be strong. Unfortunately, so often, girls are told (explicitly and tacitly) that much of the world is closed off to the; that there are things they can't and shouldn't handle, or that being society's version of a "good girl" or "good woman" is more important than being a strong, smart, or ambitious one.
So what can we as mothers do (or rather, not do) to counter that? Here are some of my personal no-nos that I think every parent (regardless of their gender, because this isn't just a mom's responsibility, my friends) of a daughter should adhere to:
Don't Limit Her Interests Based On Gender
Strong girls need to know that they can conquer the world, not just the parts of it we deem suitable to be their territory. That means presenting a variety of opportunities to develop a variety of interests. That means not just waiting for her to express an interest in (stereotypically) "boy things," but giving her a toy toolbox along with a a Barbie doll, or signing her up for a robotics class and ballet. Because society will get to her before you do if you're not quick, and before you know it she's already internalized the message that certain things aren't for her.
Don't Discourage Questions
This is how strong little girls become strong, smart women. As everyone on Sesame Street is fond of saying: "Asking questions is a good way of finding things out!" And, as with everything ever said on Sesame Street, it's true!
Little girls should be encouraged to ask questions in order to get a better understand of the world around them. Yes, even the hard questions (perhaps especially the hard questions). I'm firmly of the mind that just about everything can be explained at an age appropriate level. Sometimes that means breaking something down into a series of ongoing conversations over the course of months, or even years, but it can be done!
Don't Limit Her Fashion Sense Based On Gender
So go ahead and feel free to go shopping in all size-appropriate sections of the store. No matter what she chooses, your strong girl will rock it.
Don't Solve All Her Problems For Her
This can be super hard for moms who, of course, don't want to watch their children struggle. But struggling is not always suffering and, in the end, she will learn as much from the process as she will from the outcome. So when she's a damsel in distress, give her the tools to slay her own dragon instead of rushing in on your white horse to do it for her.
Don't Step Down From A Challenge
Because when it comes to raising strong girls, leading by example is tremendously important. So, maybe you don't know how to put together Ikea furniture on your own: step up to the plate and try. Seeing you try, fail, and ultimately succeed will give her a good role model to look to when times are hard for her.
(And, selfishly, this way you can throw this in her face when she tells you something is "too hard." Like. "Well. Mommy didn't know how to do X, but you saw how I tried anyway.")
Don't Encourage Her To Put Up With Bullying
"Just try not to do anything to provoke them." Or, "learn to deal with it" or, "Have you considered not reading your comic books on the bus so they don't tease you?" are not options for your strong girl. You will help her to be proactive about making sure she and everyone else feels safe and supported.
Don't Tell Her To "Be Nice" When She's Merely Being Assertive
Tale as old as time, unfortunately: men and boys who speak up and speak out are lauded as leaders, whereas girls are considered impolite or "abrasive" or "shrill." You're going to do everything in your power to check your biases to avoid similar shut-downs and shut down anyone else who would use their biases against her.
Not her, not you, not some lady on TV or some guy walking down the street. All bodies are bodies that are worthy of respect. Your strong girl is less likely to feel strong if she feels the weight of other people's judgement on her for taking up physical space out in the world (which, really, is a huge part of what body-shaming is, if you think about it).
Don't Allow Her To Be A Bully
Because you know there's a difference between a "strong girl" and a "mean girl." It's not a fine line, it's not a slippery slope, it's a huge difference. Bullies, ultimately, are weak, and they draw strength from making other people feel weak, but it will never eradicate their own weakness and feelings of insecurity. And if your daughter ever mistakes bullying for strength, it is your job not to tolerate it.
Don't Downplay Your Own Strengths
Because, again, we're leading by example! How can we accept our daughters to embrace their strength if we can't accept (and display) our own? You don't have to be smug or braggadocious, but you don't have to dim your shine for the sake of modesty. Yes, modesty can be a virtue, but far nobler is the virtue of showing the next generation that women can kick ass.
Don't Discourage "Girly" Things
Just because something is stereotypically feminine does not mean it is synonymous with "weak." Girls can be strong even in their daintiest, frilliest iteration of gender expression. Yes, princess culture has been a tool of female oppression, but it doesn't inherently have to be. We can take it back! So don't feel like you have to make your girl strong by eliminating any trace of femininity. Instead, let her express her strength however she feels most comfortable.
Don't Expect Perfection
Because perfect doesn't exist. Our daughters will make mistakes, so let them! Mistakes are valuable! Strength requires the knowledge that we can learn and move on from our mistakes. We need our girls to know that, and that our love for them is as strong as we want them to be.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.