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Video: The pressure to be a ‘Good Girl’

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TODAY contributor
updated 9/1/2009 10:37:01 AM ET 2009-09-01T14:37:01

In her book "The Curse of the Good Girl," author and educator Rachel Simmons writes that girls are taught by society not to share their voices and opinions. Here, she offers tips for how parents can counter those messages to raise girls who are able to reach their potential.

Q: How can I help my daughter be more confident?

A: A girl can gain huge boosts of confidence in two ways: feeling capable in her world and connected to others who affirm who she is.

The feeling of mastery — the sense of "I can do this" — can be fostered in girls in lots of everyday ways. Think about small moments for her to contribute to the family. I don’t mean chores here, but little ways you might need her help: anything from ordering the takeout to calling the plumber. These experiences give her the chance to develop new skills, exercise her independence and be recognized for her contribution to the family. By the way, she doesn’t have to be perfect at any of these tasks; she just needs your patience and support.

Being loved for who you are, no matter what you wear or how goofy you get, is a priceless dose of self-esteem. Friendships mean the world to a girl, and they play an incalculable role in her psychological health. If your daughter doesn’t have healthy friendships, take this back-to-school time to brainstorm opportunities to expose her to new connections. Meeting that new girl on the soccer team who lights her up will give her the security to express herself fully — and a standard for friendship that she’ll apply in her other relationships.

Q: My daughter is too nice and can be a pushover with her friends. How can I help her assert herself more?

A: Watching your daughter give up her power to a friend can be agonizing, and it’s one of the first moments you realize as a parent that you can’t solve all her problems. To help your daughter assert herself in friendship, try these three strategies:

1. Build her emotional vocabulary. Knowing and expressing your feelings is crucial to holding your own in a relationship, and it’s a muscle girls need to build. Use emotion words around your daughter (“I’m so nervous about seeing so-and-so tomorrow” or “I’m so excited to go to the movies”), and ask her to name her feelings. This will give her the permission and skills to express herself in her relationships. By the way, make sure you keep these “feelings conversations” as casual as possible. If your daughter says she’s “fine,” try asking, “Are you fine-happy? Fine-sad?”

2. Role-play. Let her practice confronting that friend by role-playing what she might say with you. Keep a positive vibe with gentle feedback; if you think she should try something new, suggest a “different” way of doing it, not a “better” one. Remind her that practice will increase her courage and comfort in the moment. If she’s hesitant, let her dip her toe in by role-playing a conversation you’d like to have.

3. Affirm moments of assertiveness. Acknowledge when she does a good job asserting herself at home. If she tends to express her power by yelling at a sibling, be sure to explain the difference between being assertive and aggressive.

Video: The pressure to be a ‘Good Girl’ (on this page)

Q: My daughter worries a lot about making mistakes. How can I help her go easier on herself?

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A: Girls are under lots of pressure to do everything right and be liked by everyone. It’s unreasonable and self-defeating, and it sets girls up to feel like mistakes are earth-shattering. Here are some things you can do to help your daughter have a more balanced self-image:

1. Ask her to pick three words that absolutely describe who she is as a person. Once she names these qualities, ask her to think about a time when she didn’t show one of these qualities. The lesson: No one can be anything all the time (do this exercise with her to set an example), and it’s futile to try.

2. Encourage her to name her strengths and vulnerabilities regularly and calmly. At a meal, ask her what she liked about her performance on a test or in an activity, and what she wishes she might have done better. Keep the conversation light. This exercise diffuses the intensity around mistakes, builds the psychological muscles to think about and name her strengths, and teaches her to think about both sides — not just the errors.

3. Reflect on how you handle mistakes. The next time you mess up, listen to yourself. Do you label yourself (“I’m so stupid, I can’t believe I did that”) or say pessimistic things (“I’ll never get that promotion now”)? Your daughter is watching and listening. Try reframing the mistake: responses like “Well, you can’t win ’em all” or “I’m just going to have to try again” will coach your daughter by example.

Q: How can I best support my daughter when she’s having a problem with her friends?

A: When a girl comes home with “The Face” — you know, the despondent look that can only mean “Something is wrong with my relationships” — the instinct of most parents is to try to fix it. It’s completely understandable, but it puts you in charge of fixing what’s wrong, which means your daughter’s not getting the chance to develop coping skills of her own.

Here’s what I suggest: Empathize first. What girls want more than anything is for you to affirm their feelings. They want you to hug them and say you’re sorry. Remember that empathizing doesn’t mean freaking out in front of them. Not only does it make girls uncomfortable, but it can send the message that you’re the one who really needs to be taken care of right now.

After empathizing, try this: “How do you want to handle this?” About 95 percent of the time, the answer will be “I don’t know.” Don’t give up! Ask her to think of two or three things she might do in response to what’s happening, and then ask her to consider the possible impact of those strategies. See if you can get her to pursue a choice (doing nothing is a choice, too) and name a time when she’ll try it. Even if you disagree with her choice, and even if she doesn’t succeed, you’re letting her take responsibility for her choices and relationships. Questions that encourage her to name her choices and potential outcomes are crucial to building her resilience. Over time, these will become the questions she learns to ask herself.

Q: How can I set an empowering example for my daughter?

A: It’s not just girls who face pressure to be nice at all costs; Moms face Good Girl pressure of their own — except it’s the pressure to be a “Good” or perfect Mom. Our culture expects the perfect Mom to sacrifice her needs for her family, keep a spotless house, have flawless kids — you get the picture. But Moms who try to be Good can unwittingly model Good Girl behavior for their daughters. In my workshops with parents, I coach parents to set some “Real Girl” examples:

1. Speak up and tell the truth. It could be anywhere — a restaurant, the carpool lane. Allow your daughter to observe you expressing your needs respectfully to another person. It’ll embarrass her, but do it, anyway; she might not be ready to emulate you now, but these are vital coaching experiences that will always be with her, and available to her to use herself when she’s ready.

2. Do something for you. Whether it’s saying no to carpool because you’ve got plans, or asking the kids to make dinner so you can go to a yoga class, demonstrate to your daughter that you’re a woman who takes care of herself. Again, it won’t be easy, but keep in mind that some of the most powerful teaching you do as a parent comes with short-term pain and long-term reward. This is one of those moments.

To learn more about raising confident, resilient girls, check out "The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence." Rachel Simmons is a best-selling author and educator who empowers girls and adults all over the world. Visit her Web site and follow her on Twitter.

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