"I want to be a writer when I grow up," my daughter said to me recently. Clearly, the scribe gene runs deep in our family, I thought to myself. But then I paused. Or...maybe Charlotte's just copying my career choice? The moment was poignant; it made realize that how I behave and navigate choices are her first lessons on how to take on the world.
"Children learn good behaviors by copying good examples—and moms play a huge role in that," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., parenting expert and author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. And it's during the regular, everyday moments when our children pick up on what we moms do or say. The problem is you never know what they're tuning in to. "That's why it's important monitor your own behavior and intentionally start to model the type of behaviors you hope your daughter copies," says Borba. Ready to set a good example for your growing girl? Here's how:
1. Put on your oxygen mask first. This emergency flight mantra is the perfect metaphor to describe how moms need to take care of themselves before being able to properly take care of others. Sure, you'll be a happier mom if you take the time to enjoy activities you love like yoga, bike riding, reading, or jogging. But you'll also show your daughter the importance of taking care of herself. "There is so much pressure to put other people's feelings and needs ahead of our own—and we need to change the messaging for the next generation of women," says Simone Marean, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Girls Leadership. "Simply put, you have to have empathy for yourself in order to teach it." So book that massage or manicure or sneak off to the library or coffee shop for an hour or two. Just be sure to tell your daughter where you're going and why: To be happy and healthy.
2. Take off the super-mom cape. Trying to tackle everything on your own not only leads to burn-out, it shows your daughter that it's okay to run yourself ragged. So ask for help—including from your girl. "By asking your daughter to help you, you're not only getting much-needed assistance, but you're also showing her that it's okay to ask for help and to speak up for what she wants and needs," says Marean. Teaching self-advocacy might mean making things harder for your daughter today (say, by doing chores), but in the long run it will free her of the expectation that she has to do everything herself, ashamed of asking for help, says Marean.
3. Get comfortable with your bad-self. Most of us grow up thinking that to be a cool, good girl, you've got to have lots of friends—as well as conflict-free relationships, says Marean. "For many of us, we were raised avoiding conflict and we pass this mentality on to our daughters," she says. The danger: when girls don't learn to express disappointment, frustration, anger, or embarrassment constructively, they often turn to toxic behavior, such as gossiping or social media bullying, to deal with their emotions. "Conflict in our family, at work, and in our personal lives is going to happen so it's important that we show our daughters that dealing with it head-on can actually bring about positive change," says Marean. If you have a disagreement with your partner, let your kids hear you calmly talk it out. "You have to be able to show your kids that you you're not always happy and that you sometimes make mistakes," says Marean. When's the last time you told your child that you were sad, felt embarrassed, or left out? "Share some of your negative feelings," advises Marean. "That gives your girl permission that she doesn't have to be happy and pleasing all the time."
4. Have courage and be kind. It's important to show your daughter that you treat and talk to your friends and peers with respect, says Borba, who is working with Beech-Nut on an anti-mom-shaming campaign. "Avoid gossiping or shaming other moms—especially in front of your daughter." Borba adds that we also need to stand up for other moms who may be facing a mom-shaming incident. "Mom-shaming cascades down to children—and then they learn that judging or bullying others is acceptable when interacting with their peers." Being kind also applies to how you speak to and about yourself. Mumbling self-depricating comments is a form of self-shaming. "Teach your daughter to love herself," says Borba, who suggests making an effort to replace comments such as "I need to lose ten pounds before the reunion" with comments such as "I love my hair and makeup today."
5. Put down the phone. Our girls are learning how to navigate technology by watching us. When you're having a conversation with someone, be mindful to put down your cell phone. "Your daughter will see you having deep, face-to-face conversations, and she will replicate in her own life," says Borba. And be sure to practice self-control and social media etiquette. When you receive an irritable email or read an upsetting social media post, instead of instantly responding in an angry tone or shouting at your phone, count to ten or walk away from it for a minute. "This will help teach your daughter not only patience but to not fight fire with fire," Borba says.
6. Lose the mom guilt. We want our daughters to find their future path that will bring them joy and fuel their passion, says Marean. Whether we stay-at-home, work full-time, or something in between, we should share our successes with our daughters. Talking about what you love about your life—whether that includes a career or not—can reduce your guilt or conflict surrounding it. Plus, it will help your daughter recognize that girls have choices. And that might be the most important lesson yet.