My daughter bounded down the stairs for breakfast this morning, beyond pleased with herself for doing all of her chores without being asked. Less than five minutes later, she was sobbing. The reason? Her brother had two pancakes on his plate and she only had one. I explained that I gave him two because he had to leave for school. But it wasn’t just about the pancakes, she told me through her tears, as she spilled the other issues behind her heartache:
“I just wish my hair looked like London’s hair.”
“I miss Daddy.”
“I’ll never be able to draw ponies.”
I tried to listen sympathetically as I flipped pancakes, nodding my head silently while she listed her grievances. Then she added in the kicker:
“I wish I had a different face.”
Instantly alarmed, I racked my brain trying to think of an appropriate response. As I wondered where I’d gone wrong for my cute girl to have such low self-esteem, I casually asked her why she wanted a different face. Her response?
“I just really want to look like the Cheetah in ‘Madagascar 2.’”
Did I mention my daughter is 4 years old? Yes, 4 going on 14, a cheerful delight one instant and a river of despair (or sometimes rage) the next. To an adult, her desire to look like a cartoon Cheetah is almost laughable, but if you saw the sincerity on her sweet face and the giant alligator tears when she said it, you’d know she really wants to look like that cheetah.
I grew up the third of four girls, so I’m no stranger to the emotional highs and lows that come with being a girl. I love my sisters dearly, but I remember near-daily battles about clothes and makeup. I’m pretty sure that at any given moment one of us was crying about something: boy drama, friend drama, piano practicing drama. I’m not sure how my mom managed to stay so calm when she was surrounded by so much emotion. But I do know that she is grateful now for four adult daughters who try their best to love and support her no matter what. And she’s also really glad for our younger brother, too.
To help me navigate the vast emotional landscape that comes with raising a girl, I reached out to a handful of moms I know with girl-powered households. I asked for their best tips for raising happy girls. Here are the takeaways from our conversations:
1. Don’t constantly compliment their appearance
Girls are just so darn cute. It is tempting to want to continually compliment them on their pretty hair or stylish outfit. But if you only remark on their appearance, you risk raising a daughter who thinks the way she looks is the only thing that makes her special.
2. Give specific, deserved praise
Instead of complimenting your daughter on her hair or outfit, praise her efforts and abilities. Be as specific as you can be with your praise. Instead of simply saying, “Good job,” try, “That took a lot of patience and determination to master that song on the piano.”
3. No body talk
Most girls are highly sensitive to comments about their appearance — perhaps because they grow up being praised for how cute they are. Clothing and hair are one thing, but please, please don’t comment on your daughter’s weight or body. This is especially important for dads. If you tell your daughter the pants she is wearing make her look fat, she will never forget it. With four daughters, my mom chose not to have a scale in our house. She never tried to put us on a diet (or went on a diet herself), never made comments about what we should or should not be eating or made us feel bad about second helpings.
4. Choose your words carefully
One word can be the difference between smiles and sadness, so choose your words carefully. Try to think before you blurt out something that could damage your daughter’s fragile sense of self. Also, guard what you say about others and how you say it — your girls will quickly adopt your attitude towards people and situations. And, perhaps most importantly, talk kindly about yourself. If we focus constantly on our faults, our daughters will think that is what they should do, too.
5. Give the gift of confidence
Support your daughter in hobbies and interests that will make her life more fulfilling. Encourage her to take a karate class, join the debate team or learn how to play guitar — anything that will make her feel accomplished. Point out her talents, encourage her to do her best and help her seek mastery so that she has confidence in her abilities.
6. Be OK with meltdowns
Don’t tell your daughter it is wrong to feel the way she does — even if it seems like an obvious overreaction to you. Encourage her to slow down and talk it out. Try to sympathize with her. If emotions are running too high, you don’t have to engage in a debate. Sometimes it’s better to take a time out from the problem — and sleep on it if you can.
7. Encourage good friendships
Girls have an innate ability to nurture, and relationships are a big part of their life. Try to support and encourage good friendships, and model the ways she can be a good friend in return. If you’re concerned about your daughter’s friends, don’t be afraid to respectfully voice your concerns.
8. Love, love, love
My sister-in-law has a friend who works in a rehab facility for girls. When she asked her friend what she has learned from these troubled girls’ stories, she said most of their problems stemmed from not feeling unconditionally loved. We all need to know we are good enough to be loved just the way we are. Show and tell your daughter you love her as often as you can.