Raising Confident Girls

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Parents who've aimed to give girls wide experience say it's simple to do: Just let your daughters stay at your side. "We shovel dirt in the garden, rake leaves, even fix things with a screwdriver together," says Terry Gryting of Eagle River, AK, mother of 3-year-old Kelsey. "If she tries something and fails, I don't do it for her -- I have her try again." In the McGee household, Cheyenne, 4, has been allowed to operate equipment such as a CD player, VCR, and TV remote control "since she could walk," says her mother, Karen, whose family now lives in Tokyo. "We ended up with a few scratched CDs, but she's confident about mechanical tasks and can load her own DVDs into the computer." Patricia Campbell, an author of several AAUW equity reports, points up the value of this: "When girls do something as simple as fix their own bicycle, they see how science and technology are useful."

Marly, 7, and Eliza, 3, have been trailing their father Ken Bresler, a Newton, MA, consultant and one-time political candidate, since birth, and it has clearly paid off. "Both of my daughters go with me everywhere, and Marly's even been to political rallies," he says. Last November, she happily accompanied him on door-to-door voter education -- and was delighted to meet and get an autographed picture of New Hampshire's female governor, Jean Shaheen.

When Gender Lines Blur

Not all parents realize the need for this kind of exposure, however, and some may even push both girls and boys toward traditional toys and activities. This may be because they're not comfortable crossing gender lines or because they're concerned that their child may be teased for nontraditional behavior. "It seems as though some parents are still stuck in that 'pink is for girls and blue is for boys' mode," says Tom McGee, vice president of Doyle Research Associates, a Chicago children's-product marketing firm.

These unsubtle directions are a clear road map for children, particularly if they know that an important person in their life considers "cross-gender" playing a no-no, says Tarja Raag, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Colby College in Waterville, ME. In her recent studies with 4- and 5-year-olds, Dr. Raag noted that girls more often shrank from playing with toy tool sets and boys from playing with toy dishes when they believed that important adults -- such as parents -- would disapprove. Overall, girls were more likely to play with either, but those boys who believed their fathers would disapprove of their choice were least likely to even touch the dishes.

Parents Are Talking

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