Listen to her. Affirm her talents, strengths, and passions. Encourage her to pursue leadership roles and development opportunities. These are three powerful ways that we can practically support and empower the young women in our lives.
As we discussed last month, listening to the young women in our lives is an important way to combat the “loss of voice” that many adolescent girls experience. When a young girl is truly listened to, it grants her the value and respect her “voice” deserves. It teaches her that what she has to say matters and that she was given a voice for a reason. It’s one of the first steps toward building her sense of confidence and self-worth. The second step is to affirm her talents, strengths, and passions.
Growing up, girls are most often complimented on their looks. It starts from the moment she’s born – “Look at those eyes! She’s going to be a heart breaker!” and continues throughout her childhood and adolescence. In contrast, research shows baby boys and young men are more likely to be complimented on their actions & behaviors – “Look how aware he is! He’s going to be an explorer, isn’t he?” Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to tell the young women in your life that they are beautiful, but I am saying it is wrong to exclusively or primarily only compliment young women’s – or any women’s – physical appearance.
You see, when all you hear growing up is how pretty you are, or how nice your dress is, or that you have a great smile, you begin to get the message that those are the most important things about yourself. That how you look and whether or not others think you are beautiful defines – at least partially – your worth.
Again, I’m not saying to never tell your daughter, niece, sister, etc. that she looks pretty. Rather, makes sure you also tell her how smart she is, or how much you admire her work ethic, or that she’s great at communicating and building relationships, or that you love her passion for animals, etc. While this may seem like a small thing, it can have a big impact.
The sad truth is the young women I work with through Blossom & Flourish often have a hard time articulating their strengths, and they’re hesitant to communicate their passions.
I regularly ask my students, “What is one of your strengths – something you are good at and enjoy doing?” And, unfortunately, the most common response I hear is, “I don’t know” with “I don’t have any” as a close second.
So, let’s help the young women in our lives identify their strengths. Catch your daughter while she’s doing something she enjoys with excellence and comment on it. Point out the strengths you see in her. Encourage her to pursue her interests and research her passions. Ask her about what she enjoyed doing throughout the week, and why that activity was meaningful for her. (Read, "Are You Living a Strong Life?" for more ways to identify one's strengths.)
One other note on this topic, this is not about false flattery or empty compliments. That only encourages the young women in our lives to have an unrealistic perception of themselves and unrealistic expectations for how others will respond to them. For example, do you remember the terrible singers who auditioned on American Idol? And how flabbergasted some of them were when the judges didn’t like them because “my mom told me I’m a great singer!”
When I was in 5th grade, I remember being upset because I didn’t get a solo in the choir concert.
I told my Mom about how unfair it was because, “I’m a great singer! Listen!” To which she promptly replied, “No honey, you’re not.”
While I was a bit upset with her at the time and tried to convince her otherwise, she remained adamant that while I could enjoy singing, it was not my gift. My Mom wasn’t just being mean; she was being honest. And she encouraged me as much as she spoke truth. For example, whenever I asked her whether I could be a lawyer/teacher when I grew up, she would tell me,
“Valerie, you are talented and smart, and with practice and patience, you can do anything you set your mind to.”
Again, while it’s not about fake flattery, regularly remind your daughter that you believe in her and her abilities. By the time all of us get to adulthood, the things we heard our parents and our mentors/coaches say to us a thousand times become the voices in our heads – for better or for worse. So, be thoughtful about what that voice will sound like for the young women in your life, and make sure it is one that affirms her strengths and her worth.