Growing a Girl in Toxic Soil – Part Two: Starting to Clean the Soil

Yesterday’s post introduced the need to find ways to combat girl-toxic culture. Today, let’s talk about ways that we can start turning it into Girl-Healthy Culture.

Know Thy Self

We cannot help our daughters explore the impact of toxic culture if we have not first looked at how it has impacted us. We have to explore how our lives have been shaped by gender roles, norms and stereotypes in our families, religious institutions, schools, hometown, etc. by asking questions like:

  • How were girls and boys treated in my family?
  • What were the expectations for my parents based on their gender?
  • How did I learn about being a man or a woman?
  • What does an “acceptable woman” look like in my family?
  • How did my family, school, religion, culture, etc. treat women who were traditionally feminine in appearance and behavior? How did they treat women who were not?
  • Were women viewed as strong and capable? Were they viewed as needing protection? Were they viewed as submissive?  What happened to women who defied those views? What happened to those who embodied those views?
  • What messages did I get from my religious or spiritual teachings about women?
  • Are there roles that I am comfortable with? Are there ones that I am not?
  • How does what I learned from the world around me influence how I interact with my daughter?
  • How do these lessons influence the way I as a mother or father parent my daughter?

We are all products of our culture. The more we examine how that culture shaped our beliefs and behaviors, the better equipped we will be to teach our daughters to do the same.

Check Your Messages about Other Women

In my work, I am blessed to have been a facilitator for Women’s Groups. It is an extraordinary experience to be with a group of women who come together and learn – some for the first time in their lives – that other women can be a source of support and strength. Most of the women find their way to group after experiencing a lifetime of toxic relationships with other women. They experience them as competitive, mean, vindictive, judgmental and unsafe.

The messages we send to our daughter about other girls and women set the stage for those toxic experiences. When we talk about other women in harsh and judgmental ways, we teach our girls not only to never be like those women; we also teach them that other women who do not meet our standard of “woman” are to be ridiculed and shamed. We create a very narrow definition of what it means to be an “acceptable woman” while also teaching our daughters to push out and reject other women who defy that definition.

Challenge the Status Quo and Teach Her to Do the Same

My daughter likes to tell people about my meltdown at McDonald’s related to Happy Meal Toys. On a rare occasion, I stopped at McDonald’s to give in to the pleas of my kiddo for chicken nuggets. She was beyond excited and immensely happy to get a Hot Wheels truck. Knowing that the inevitable drive through question would be, “Is your Happy Meal for a boy or a girl?” I preemptively said, “I would like a Happy Meal with a truck.” Without missing a beat, the drive-through employee asked, “Is it for a boy or a girl?” What came next was a lecture for the employee that ended in me saying in a less than polite way, “You do know that the gender of person has ABSOLUTELY no bearing on what kind of toy they can play with?!”

Not my finest moment. But when you ask my kid what she learned that day, she will tell you three things:

  • One, my mom needs a nap.
  • Two, my mom stands up for me and what she believes.
  • Three, it’s stupid that girls can’t play with trucks and boys can’t play with dolls.

We are our kids’ greatest teachers. They absorb the lessons we teach through our actions and our words. When your daughters see and hear you asking why things are the way they are or when they hear you explain that it’s unfair that women are not paid equal wages for equal work, they learn how to question what is happening around them. Asking the questions gives her the ability to determine what is right for her.

Be a Hawk with Media

Media is both created by and the creator of beliefs about our culture. I could talk for days about the impact of media on women (and probably will at some point in this blog). Many others have done just the same. The documentary, Missrepresentation, outlines the situation beautiful. I recommend all parents take some time and watch it. Know what your daughter is consuming on TV, in books and magazines, in music, and on the internet. When you know what she is consuming, you can make decisions about how to handle it – removing access to it, talking with her about the content, teaching her to question the content, etc.

Connect Her to Mentors and Other Strong Girls

You as parents don’t have to fix it alone. Girl-toxic culture can be cleaned by introducing her to Girl-Healthy Culture. You can provide her connections to other women and girls who are doing amazing things in the world and who are supportive of other women. Some ways to do that:

  • Joining team sports
  • Books and other resources that tell the stories of women, particularly nonfiction books that tell about histories heroines (they will spend lots of time in school learning about great men but not as much time learning about great women.
  • Use internet resources to provide her with connection to inspiring women.

Find Ways to Help Her Succeed AND Fail. Let Her See You Doing the Same

Success breeds confidence and self efficacy. Failure breeds resilience and perseverance. The more our daughters try things, the stronger they become. They learn to trust in their ability to rebound from failure and learn to celebrate their successes. They learn that they don’t have to be perfect. Perfectionism is toxic to our girls. It feeds the nagging feeling that “I am never enough.” When she fails and you are there to praise her efforts, guide her to consider what she learned, and in the end, tell her that she is okay as she is, she learns to roll with life’s punches.

When she watches you doing the same, it is a powerful lesson.

Remember She is NOT You. Support and Honor HER Truths

The beginning of a poem by Kahlil Gibran strikes a chord for me. It reads:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

Our children come to the world through us. Our daughters may look like us. They may act like us. But they are their own people.

The more that you can do to honor the things that make her unique; the more she will value herself. This is not always easy because often the differences between parent and child are the things that create challenges. For example, I live in a world of grey. I tend to see complexity in situations with no right or wrong answer. My daughter, on the other hand, deals in certainty. The world for her is right or wrong, good or bad, and yes or no. She thrives in structure; I do so in flexibility. You can see where it might cause some conflict. So we work to navigate our life in a way that honors both.

For most of us, love for our children is unconditional. Acceptance, on the other hand, is often less of a given. When we give our daughters acceptance of who they are and of their own truths (even when they differ from ours), we instill value and self-worth. And that is a definite step in the right direction to cleaning up the culture that is so toxic to girls.

Be sure to check back for future posts about helping our sons as well.

Jami Wilder, Psy.D., is co-owner of Wilder Therapy and Wellness in Cranston, RI. She is also a postdoctoral fellow at RWU Counseling Center.

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