During a walk home from school not long ago, my first-grader was pretending to chat on the phone. I asked whom she was "talking" to and when she replied "My boyfriend," I immediately got that feeling. It was the same foreboding knot that I felt in my gut when I recently let her 4-year-old sister pick out a new coloring book and she (once again) chose the sparkly "fashion girl" one. While there's nothing inherently wrong with my kids' behavior, I know exactly why it triggers my anxiety. It's rooted in what I know as a woman, which is that seemingly innocuous things—talking to a boy, beauty, and appearance—have the potential to become thornier issues as my girls get older. I love having daughters. I honestly feel like I was born to parent girls, which is why nothing annoys me more than someone doing the whole "Ooh, two girls? You are so in for it!" thing. But it can feel like walking a tightrope. On the one hand, I'm thrilled for their future. Women are graduating with more advanced degrees than ever before and have more female role models in just about every public sphere you can think of. Empowering ad campaigns such as Always's "Like a Girl" series go viral in minutes.
Unfortunately, all of this high achievement comes with a downside. "It's true that girls are doing great on paper, but when we look at what we call the 'internal résumé,' we don't see the same success story," says Simone Marean, cofounder and executive director of Girls Leadership, a national nonprofit serving girls in grades K–12, as well as their families and educators. While girls' levels of academic achievement have risen to the point that they now outperform boys consistently, their rates of stress, anxiety, and depression have risen as well. A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found the girls to have three times the number of depressive episodes as the boys, and the rate at which girls reported feeling depressed nearly tripled in just one year. In other words, while girls are doing everything possible to be all that they can, they're not enjoying it. And this "wellness gap" is what parents and teachers need to focus on, says Marean. Like you, I want my daughters to have boundless opportunity. But more than that, I want them to be happy—and a big part of that means making sure that they're ready for whatever challenges they'll someday face. In that spirit, I spoke to some of the biggest change-makers in our country—people who are leading the charge to make sure girls enter adulthood feeling good about themselves—to find out what parents can do to help their daughters thrive. Now I'm sharing what I learned.
It can be easy to forget that parents, particularly mothers, are a powerful influence. Even teenagers, whom we assume are easily swayed by peer pressure, say that their mom matters most: 63 percent of girls who report that they have a role model say it's their mom, and 48 percent turn to their mother for support when they have a problem, according to a survey of nearly 1,100 girls ages 13 to 18 by Keds and Girls Leadership. Only 15 percent go to their friends first for advice. Younger girls are even more reliant on Mom: "Gradeschoolers may get into the mix with their friends during the day, but their mother is the safe haven," says Robyn Silverman, Ph.D., a parenting expert in Morris County, New Jersey, who presents workshops on how to raise confident kids. Chances are you're everything to your daughter—including her biggest role model. Report after report finds that the way a mother acts in front of her daughter largely influences the child's behavior, and there are ways to model a healthy self-image that benefit both of you. First, watch what you say, especially gossip.
"Bullying doesn't stop after childhood," says Stacey Radin, Psy.D., coauthor of Brave Girls and the CEO and founder of Unleashed, a nonprofit for adolescent girls in New York City. "So-called 'mean girls' grow up, and how you treat other people—or talk about them—is a good predictor for how your daughter will too." And it's not just what you say, but how you say it. "Women often speak in questions or begin with a caveat like, 'I'm not sure this is right, but ... ,'" points out Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.org, the organization that created the Ban Bossy campaign with the Girl Scouts to encourage leadership. "Speak with conviction and encourage your daughter to do the same. My 8-year-old uses baby talk when she's unsure about something, and I remind her that she has important things to say and people may not take her seriously if she uses that voice. Even at LeanIn.org, we call one another out for second guessing ourselves when we speak." The unsaid things you do matter too, particularly things related to body image, since research shows that how a girl feels about her appearance is largely determined by how her mother regards her own. In a recent United Kingdom Dove survey of 2,000 moms, girls as young as 7 were reported to mimic moms' behaviors like sucking in their stomach or describing themselves as fat.
One way to flip the script? Get active. When your daughter sees you go out for a run, or you dance in the living room together or help her scale a rock wall at the playground, you're teaching her to love her body. Finally, as important as Mom is, the significance of Dad or a father figure can't be understated. Meg Meeker, M.D., author of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, says that girls take cues from the men in their lives from the time they're little, and the attention they receive (or not) influences everything from seeking boys' approval to finding their career path. "In my experience, kids typically believe that Mom's love is nonnegotiable and expected," says Dr. Meeker. "But for whatever reason, Dad's love is not the same, even if he's a great dad, so it's powerful when he communicates to his child that he loves her." Dads should praise their daughters' character rather than solely compliment their appearance. "When you mention how patient she is with a younger sibling, for example, it shows that you see who she is," says Dr. Meeker. One-on-one time is crucial: "Lots of dads, and particularly single or divorced dads, think that an outing with their daughter needs to be sensational. But pulling her into the menial—grocery shopping together, washing the car—shows that you value her company in the context of your life."
All right, brace yourself: Between elementary and high school, a girl's self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than a boy's does, found the American Association of University Women, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and their families through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. The antidote? Encourage your young daughter's individuality, and you'll lay a foundation that will be her emotional scaffolding as she enters the trickier tween and teen years. "Adolescence is when girls truly start to understand their identity as separate from their parents, so they will experiment with various types like the 'class clown' or the 'renegade,' " explains Dr. Radin. "But if they already have a strong sense of self, they have a much easier time navigating adolescence."
Cast a wide net when encouraging your daughter to discover her passions. During a trip to the library, don't nudge her toward Pinkalicious. Even if she's the girly-girl type, who's to say she wouldn't also love a world atlas? Instead of signing her up for gymnastics because it's the popular choice, present a range of options and see what she picks. Once she shows an interest in something, give her lots of chances to explore it. It's key to help her hone her interests when they're different from the rest of the family's. "Some girls have obvious gifts, but others (like, say, the child who isn't so coordinated in a family of natural athletes) need help drawing them out," says Dr. Silverman. "I once worked with a soccer-player mom whose daughter had no interest in the sport, but she loved swimming and flourished once her mom put her on the swim team. It seems obvious, but it can be hard for moms when they aren't the mentor. Instead, realize that sometimes you'll be the bridge who connects your daughter to the expert."
You might be surprised to learn that letting your daughter screw up is one of the best ways to build her confidence. The theory: Girls are inadvertently groomed to become perfectionists by being praised for "good girl" behavior, so they quickly learn that making mistakes means "not good enough." This becomes problematic because researchers have found that it's the very process of taking risks and messing up that builds confidence, explains Katty Kay, lead anchor of BBC World News America and coauthor of The Confidence Code. "We tend to make our kids' lives easy by doing things for them because we're so desperate for them to succeed. But then when you tell a child she can do 'anything,' she has no evidence to support that because she hasn't had to work hard at anything," says Kay. Show your daughter that mistakes are a normal part of life. Speak up (often!) about your own missteps, even when it's something as minor as dropping your phone, and give her opportunities to make little flubs. Kay calls these "frying an egg" tasks: "Make a list of small things you can teach her to do on her own, like frying an egg. The process of learning through trial and error will build her confidence." Or try something new together—a baking experiment, a martial arts class— where you can "mess up" together for the fun of it.
Right now, the highlight of your kid's social life is being the line leader, but tough social situations start earlier than you think. Research from Penn State Erie, The Behrend College shows that on average, half of kids and adolescents, a disproportionate number of them girls, experience "relational aggression" (when kids intentionally exclude a child or coerce other children to leave someone out) at least monthly from grades 5 through 12. Even more troubling: A State University of New York at Buffalo study shows that the behavior starts in kids as young as 21/2. "Conflict is inevitable in a kid's life," says Rosalind Wiseman, author of the best-selling book Queen Bees and Wannabes. "And for that very reason, you need to teach your daughter how to handle it." Showing her that it's okay to express a full range of emotions is the number-one way to do this. "Because girls frequently show a lot of emotion, we mistakenly believe that they are emotionally intelligent," says Marean. "But girls learn very early to take care of other peoples' emotions first. They think they are always supposed to feel happy and excited, and they push down so-called 'bad' feelings like jealousy, anger, or insecurity."
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) expands on this. "Emotions are an incredibly powerful tool, and we need to teach moms and girls that when you feel angry or upset, it's a signal that something is important to you, and you should express it," says Senator Gillibrand, who credits her grandmother and her mother with teaching her how to make her voice heard. Normalize anger, first of all, by telling your daughter about the (kid-appropriate) things that have upset you. With young children, look for opportunities to build their emotional language, says Marean: "When you're reading a book or playing with dolls or stuffed animals, ask, 'Why does X feel this way?' or 'Do you think X needs a hug?' " When your daughter runs into trouble socially—let's say she's not invited to a birthday party—don't shrug it off and insist it's not a big deal. This only communicates that her feelings aren't valid. The same goes when boys are involved: "I can't stand when parents tell their daughter that a boy is being mean to her because he likes her," says Wiseman. "It sets a terribly unhealthy precedent by teaching a girl that being treated badly means the person likes her and therefore she should accept the behavior." Instead, discuss it. Consider getting your daughter involved in a group, whether it's a sports team, Girl Scouts, or friends who get together for a weekly art class. Girls are especially likely to express independence and pride when they're working with other kids on a common goal, even if it's as simple as making a collage, says Dr. Radin. Team sports can be particularly beneficial for girls because winning and losing teaches resilience. In fact, in a recent online survey of 400 female executives worldwide, a full 94 percent of them had participated in sports, and 74 percent said that they had influenced their career potential. Finally, as trite as it may sound, for all the challenges a girl may face and all the effort you put into helping her find her way through them, there is nothing more grounding or powerful than your unconditional love. "More than anything, kids need to know the answers to three things," says Dr. Meeker. "What do you think about me? Do you understand me? What are your hopes for me?" Express those to your girl, and her future will be brighter than ever.