Raising Confident Girls

A special report on how girls are growing up today -- and what they need from you.


Monica Skeisvoll

Monica Skeisvoll

Anyone still clinging to "sugar and spice" notions about girls might be dissuaded by the all-girl Plas household in Round Rock, TX, where Diane and Jim are raising four daughters. At age 4, rambunctious Samantha is "always hogging the upstairs computer," says her older sister Remy, 10. As for sister Sydney, 7: "All she wants to do with me is practice passing the soccer ball," sighs Diane with a smile. And her youngest, 2-year-old Tatum, "wants to do everything her sisters do." Diane had hoped that one of her daughters would express a yen for dance classes as she had as a girl; so far, she's 0 for 4.

It's certainly no accident that the Plas girls defy stereotypes. From early on, their parents worked hard to employ girl-empowering techniques ranging from Jim's ritual of father-daughter bike rides after work to a ban on talk about diets. The latter is especially important to Diane, who suffered from eating disorders as a teen. Although she has been recovered for more than 10 years, she and Jim take no chances with their daughters. "We never talk about size and shape of bodies," she explains. "Instead, we focus on health and nutritious foods."

Cautious Optimism

After nearly a decade of "girl power," many experts say that today's girls, like the Plases, tend to reject limits that hampered previous generations. "Girls say they feel they can do anything," says Whitney Roban, Ph.D., citing a recent study of 1,100 8- to 12-year-old girls conducted by the New York City-based Girl Scout Research Institute, of which she is the senior researcher. "Over 93% of girls we surveyed told us they intended to go to college, and 76% said they're going to have careers."

This is a different picture from the one painted in 1992, when a widely publicized report from the Washington, DC-based American Association of University Women (AAUW) documented plummeting self-esteem among girls as they entered middle school, along with gender inequities in the classroom that ultimately prevented many girls from accomplishing education and career goals. Shortly after, the bestselling book Reviving Ophelia detailed drooping self-confidence among girls who spoke of powerful pressure to be thin, pretty, quiet, and compliant.

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