March 06th, 2017
On Wednesday March 8th it will be International Women’s Day. This is a day that marks the huge advancements made by women and also is an opportunity to pause and look at where change still needs to be made. In the developing world of course there is much work still to be done in lifting women out of poverty, in healthcare, education and in improving the rights and status of women. But in the developed world also there is still a way to go before gender parity will be achieved.
I feel that those of us who are bringing up young women have a responsibility to educate our daughters to regard themselves and others with respect and to fight for equality for all, whether on the basis of gender or any other difference.
My daughter is my first born child. Before she was born my mother had warned me that boys were straightforward and that girls were much more complicated. To be honest that was not my experience. My boys taxed my parenting resources much more than my daughter. Perhaps I understood her better? Perhaps it was just personality differences? She is now, I hesitate to admit, old enough to be getting married. And as she is poised on that threshold I pause to reflect on what I want to say to her as she enters the next phase of her adult life.
As if that doesn’t make me feel old enough my son and his wife are expecting their first child in a few weeks, a daughter. As we wait to welcome her into the world I’m thinking about what I’d say to her too about being a girl.
What do you want to say to your daughters? What messages do you want to give them about being women? If you are their mother what does it mean to you to be a woman in the 21st century? If you are their father what do you hope for on behalf of your little girl?
Mums, being a girl today is not the same as when you were growing up. Some things have improved. Attitudes toward women are generally different and there are many more legal protections against gender-based harassment and discrimination. Domestic violence is now being talked about whereas it used to be a ‘dirty’ secret. But your daughters are also subject to different and more intense challenges and pressures than the previous generation. From about the age of 10 a girl’s self-esteem often goes into decline as she becomes more focused on herself, who she is and who she’s becoming; the pressure to achieve in the academic, sporting and arts arenas today is enormous. While you will also have gone through the process of recalibrating your identity and working out friendships, what you believed in and how you fit into the world, you will have been able to do it in the privacy of your own home without the full glare of the spotlight that is social media to hinder the process. Young girls are sometimes behaving in a way they feel they ‘should’, rather than in a way they would like. Peer pressure has taken on new meaning.
The stresses in a tween and teen girl’s life are so great now that eating disorders, self-harm and depression are more prevalent than ever before. Girls are growing up much faster. They are exposed to far more media and with it relentless messages about how they should look and behave. For girls how they look has become a constant obsession.
Girls tend to suffer much more from perfectionism than boys. Many believe that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. They can think that if they are not perfect they are unacceptable. We, as parents, may think that aiming high is a good thing but not if it turns into nothing is good enough. Perfectionism is a real problem when it prevents your daughter from taking risks, when she plays it safe, won’t put up her hand, won’t risk trying anything unless she’s sure she can excel at it. It stifles ambition, wastes her potential and causes anxiety and loss of performance.
Nowhere is perfectionism more obvious than in relation to body image. This reaches a peak in the teens but starts much earlier. Studies show that 3 year olds are very aware of their bodies and talk about being fat-some kids insult each other by calling others ‘fat’. We know that body dissatisfaction significantly affects feeling of self-worth and engagement with life. We also know that mums, as the same gender parent, can unwittingly pass on attitudes of dissatisfaction with their bodies to their daughters.
So what can parents of girls say to their daughters on International Women’s Day? Well this is what I want to say to my daughter (and my granddaughter):
You may have many other things you’d say to your girls. Let us know what you think they need to hear.
If you’re interested in exploring issues relating to girls come along to our Raising Girls Workshops.
November 23rd, 2015
This is a question that parents have understandably been asking in our classes this week. What has happened in Paris and in Beirut recently is a very shocking and terrible thing and how you talk to your children about it will vary a lot depending on the age of your children and their temperament and your own values. While everyone will be appalled by what has happened there may be different aspects of it that you would want to highlight to your children.
If your children are under the age of 3 then hopefully they are unaware of what is going on. I would always try to make sure that this age group are not exposed to the adult content of news programmes and the pictures on the front of the newspapers.
If they are 3-5 then I wouldn’t raise it with them unless they ask questions and then try to do it without scaring them unnecessarily. We don’t want our children to be assuming that people they see in the street are ‘terrorists’ or even ‘bad people’ and we don’t want them to be afraid to go to sleep or to go out or to be terrified of you travelling. Calmly ask them what they know and don’t add to the list of horrific facts. If you can see that they are afraid then admit that this was a shocking thing to have happened and that it is natural to feel frightened at first. You will have to find a balance, determined by your child’s nature, between not promising them they will always be completely safe which is unrealistic, and making them jump at their own shadow. We face this balancing act already when we talk to our children about ‘stranger danger’. You could try something along the lines of “sometimes people get very angry and they do very terrible things and they hurt others. They forget to use their words to sort things out. That’s why it’s very important to learn to talk about problems and not hurt anyone.” This is putting it into words that they can relate to.
This theme can be used with older children too but they may be able to handle more information about what happened and they may be seeing for themselves some of the details in the media. School aged children will probably be hearing it about it at school so it’s good to discuss it with them. Ask your aged 10+ children for their ideas about why it happened and what world leaders can do about it. What can we do about it?
Some of you will have kids who are oblivious to what’s been going on and you’re surprised to find that they knew about the attacks at all. Others may have been asking you questions endlessly and worrying about how it happened and being tremendously concerned for the families, for the people of Paris and Beirut, and perhaps for themselves. You may be despairing of how to handle this barrage. You may have an example of both approaches within your own family.
This doesn’t mean that the first child doesn’t have any compassion or doesn’t care. But it is an indication of different temperaments. The more relaxed child may not be able to relate to something that’s happened far away and is beyond his experience and understanding. The latter child is just more sensitive than the former. It’s not good or bad –it just is. And we need to adapt our approach for each temperament.
For the former you may try to raise awareness a little if it feels appropriate whereas for the highly sensitive child you may be trying to temper it a little and to help him deal with his feelings. If you’ve got both in one family you may have to help one understand the other.
It will help to name the feelings overwhelming your upset child. Don’t try to brush it under the carpet or your child will not be able to tell you about his worries in future. “You are really upset, aren’t you? These events overseas have really worried you. You’re a person who feels things in a big way and sometimes that is lovely and sometimes it can be burdensome for you. I know you felt really sad for those families of the people who were killed. I’m glad you care. Sharing your worries makes them a bit easier to deal with.” It may help to use some kind of ritual to acknowledge the lives of the people who have passed away such as lighting a candle. This will give your child something practical to do.
If your child is very worried that something similar could happen where you live don’t tell her there’s no need to worry but acknowledge her worries and tell her about the steps that are being taken by the authorities to protect us. Sometimes it can help for children to have a worry box. Get them to write their worries down on a piece of paper and screw the paper up into a tight ball and then put it into the box. Then put the box away somewhere (not in the child’s room) until the end of the week. At the end of the week unfold the worries and see that they have not come to pass. You can put them back in the box or throw them away –whatever the child chooses.
You may wonder why I’m mentioning values here. Surely we all have the same values –that this was a terribly wrong thing to do? Well, yes. But there is an opportunity here for us to teach our children something about difference.
As we know this atrocity was committed in the name of an organisation calling itself Islamic State and even though they do not represent the majority of peace-loving people who practice Islam many negative words have been and will be said about Muslims. Those of us who are not Muslims can teach our children that most Muslims are good people and that they don’t need to be afraid of anyone wearing a hijab or otherwise looking a bit ‘foreign’. We can teach our older children that the aim of organisations like IS is to make us afraid and to stir up dissension between faiths and that is exactly what leads to conflict. Encourage them not to give these bullies the satisfaction. Tell them that you will be going about your daily lives and will not alter what you do because you are not afraid and that you will be kind to any Muslim person you see who must be feeling very uncomfortable.
I was brought up as a Catholic so I can point to the troubles in Ireland and say to my kids that they know full well that not all Catholics are terrorists. If your children have Muslim friends say to them “Ahmed is not a killer is he?” If you meet a woman wearing Muslim dress smile at her and tell your children why you’re making a point of that right now.
If you are a Muslim parent you may be feeling anxious for yourself and for your children. You may be feeling very angry about what is being in done in the name of your religion and tarnishing you in the process. You may have experienced prejudice. You may be clear what to say to your child about these events but wonder how to explain bigotry. It must be very difficult to explain to your child that others may judge and treat him unfairly because of his religion. I can’t tell you exactly what to say but I would acknowledge his pain and fear.
Whatever our faith, colour, physical abilities, social standing or level of education we can teach our children to respect themselves and others by how we interact with them and others. We can teach them not to fear difference or the unfamiliar by our modelling and by exposing them to different experiences and people.
Fear comes from lack of understanding and from feeling powerless. We can help our children to see that they can make a difference by taking small steps to build trust between different peoples. Taking positive action to address these problems and make the world a better place helps empower kids. When people of minority groups feel a sense of belonging in their community they will have no reason to act out their disaffection and they can feel accepted enough to speak out against prejudice. Whether Muslim or non-Muslim talk with your child about how he or she can take a stand against intolerance. Talk to them about how this may be difficult to do if their friends are bad-mouthing Muslims. Practice with them how to say something like “I don’t believe that.”
This was a terrible thing to happen but perhaps out if it will come a generation committed to not fearing people who are different and to talking through problems. This may be a learning process for you too if you’ve grown up in an environment with little exposure to difference races or faiths. Let your children know that you are expanding your own horizons!
May 13th, 2015
Some kids talk more than others.
If you’ve got more than one child chances are you’ve noticed this. Some of that is down to temperament and some may be attributable to gender. I have a daughter who is very extroverted. She used to come home from school and tell me everything that had gone on in her day in the first 2 minutes. I had to gear myself up for the onslaught the minute she got home. I became really grateful when the kids got home at different times so I could focus on all their different needs. With Gemma my challenge was just to listen, not to jump in with advice. When I buttoned my lip and let her know I was listening the storm would blow itself out and often she would find her own solutions. She would talk in order to work out what she thought about things. She just needed to be heard.
I also have two sons who happen to both be introverts. They like to think through things before speaking. When they got home from school they liked to chill out and wouldn’t offer anything about their day until the evening. I had a friend with a son with a similar disposition and she used to say she only found out what was going on in her son’s life through what I told her I’d heard from my boy.
Many boys don’t talk about their feelings. Traditionally men weren’t encouraged to and perhaps unwittingly we still give boys messages that in order to be a man they need to manage alone. Sometimes parents still say “big boys don’t cry” or we tell them not to make such a fuss or to be a big boy. If we tell our children to ‘man up’ what do we mean?
If dads model talking about how they feel about stuff then boys learn that it’s ok for men to do so.
The best way to get a boy to talk is not to sit down for an eyeball to eyeball conversation but to do an activity together. This is what Steve Biddulph calls ‘sideways talk’. Some of my best conversations with my sons have been while we’ve been walking or even doing the washing up together. When I picked them up from school we were more likely to get a conversation going if we were walking home. Usually pumping them for information about their day didn’t work. We all know that the answer to the question “How was your day?” is “fine”, with all the information that doesn’t convey. Young children live in the moment and often can’t be bothered to dredge up what happened earlier in their day. Some will actually want to keep their school world separate from home. They certainly won’t tell us anything if they think we’re going to judge, criticise, or perhaps even advise them.
You start the conversation. Tell him about your day. Tell him about age-appropriate things that you care about. Thank him for listening and maybe tell him you feel good talking to him. If you think he has something on his mind tell him you think he might be a bit worried about something. You can tell because of his body language or facial expressions or because of what he has said or done. Try to put yourself in his shoes. If you think you know what he’s feeling describe what that might be like for him. He might not talk now but you’ve opened the door for a conversation. If he does talk don’t say much, just nod a lot. Don’t judge and DON’T offer advice.
I remember when my older son was preparing (or not) for exams he started being mean to his younger brother. He used to do that a lot when he was younger and I was afraid we were slipping back into old patterns. In my anxiety and frustration I was tempted to tell him off or punish him but I realised in time that it might be connected to the exams that he showed no signs of caring about. I talked with him about how he might be feeling, detailing his anxiety, wondering whether he was afraid of letting us down, speculating that it might be difficult to follow in his academically able sister’s footsteps, even that he might be cross with himself for not having worked harder earlier. He didn’t say much…but his body language changed –his shoulders were less slumped and he made more eye contact. And his behaviour toward his brother changed.
I’d like to say he aced those exams but that would be fiction. But he developed better habits for the next set and, more to the point, he learnt to process his feelings well and find appropriate outlets for his frustrations and fears. This son still doesn’t talk a lot about his emotions but he is a great conversationalist and has good emotional awareness - he knows how to manage his feelings.