We see girls being brave in our world, in huge public ways and smaller ones as well.
Who among us isn’t motivated by the incredible courage of Malala Yousafzi? The young Pakistani girl who loved learning, loved school, and became an outspoken opponent of Taliban efforts to restrict education and stop girls from going to school.
So Taliban leaders voted to kill her.
And nearly did.
But she survived. To fight louder, stronger, advocating for the rights of girls to become educated.
Our daughters and nieces and all the young girls we know won’t (we hope) be faced with such choices.
Yet and still, day-to-day life poses huge obstacles to girls trying to be who they are.
Faced with enormous pressures to conform to beauty standards, to don the latest fashions and be the most popular, to fight off peer pressure and that from a body-obsessed media, how can a girl maintain the core sense of herself and be the best person she can be?
It takes help from all the women and men around her. Malala’s love of learning came from her father, who ran a school next to the family’s home, and became an outspoken critic of the Taliban restricting the education of girls.
Ah, powerful stuff indeed, that love of learning.
Girls in childhood tend to be brave. According to Martin Seligman, M.D., girls, at least up to puberty, are more optimistic than boys.
But this changes dramatically in adolescence.
These very formative years, however, will determine which women become leaders (which always requires bravery), and which don’t.
After years of research as a psychologist and consultant for women struggling in the professional world, Dr. Stacey Radin in her book, Brave Girls: Raising Young Women with Passion and Purpose to Become Powerful Leaders, made a groundbreaking realization: It all begins in middle school. At a pivotal time in their lives, girls learn to advocate for others, think critically, and, most importantly, gain confidence in their abilities to create change.
So how can we help our girls be brave? To learn to think for themselves and be who they are, in the face of constant pressure to conform? Many ways exist, but here are a few:
֎ Focus on the Intellect.
When my nieces were quite young, I was living on the farm, writing. Not a very conventional lifestyle, and the family thought me a bit of an odd nut. But my nieces found me to be magic.
And when we visited, I never focused on what they were wearing (their mother always had them dressed so cute, even when out at the farm), or how pretty they were (both were and are just beautiful). Instead, we talked about what they were reading. What they learned in school that week. Which subjects they liked best, which were a struggle.
For a time they could forget about trying to be the cutest, and winning in that manner. And instead, focus on who they actually were becoming.
1. Ask her opinion.
Kids and pre-teens especially are inundated by family and authority figures with what they’re supposed to think and do and be. But what often gets lost in the mix is what the girl herself thinks about the world around her. And while of course all the former is necessary, learning is a two-way street, a back and forth of the ideas and concepts she’s passing through.
So often people say their kids won’t talk to them. Which I often find amusing, as most of the time, girls never shut up around me. Because I don’t tell them what they “should” be thinking or doing, but instead ask them their opinions.
And kids have opinions. Lots of them. All you have to do is find the questions that unlock the keys to their thoughts, and off they go. And then, don’t pass judgement unless asked.
I’ll never forget one of my niece’s friend’s saying to me when they were teenagers, and we were having a deep conversation, “We can talk to you, Aunt Sue, ‘cause you’re not really an adult.” I still chuckle at this. But it just meant I listened more than I preached. And found out far more about their world than the other “adults” around them . . .
2. Become a media critic.
And not about what the latest celeb was wearing, but rather, about why that was the entire focus. Questions as simple as, “I wonder what that actress thinks that they only talk about her butt?”
After a few giggles, the conversation will grow deeper . . .
Or, question the motives of a movie or advertisement. Questions as simple as, “Wonder why she needs to be saved? Her life must be really boring!”
Not accepting the figure-blasting or waif-promoting images opens a new place for girls to consider.
3. Encourage girls to participate.
I grew up in a time when girls weren’t really playing sports. Once we got past the elementary years where softball and tetherball were played by both sexes, boys kept playing and girls, well, girls cheered them on.
Thank God this has changed. Yet, so many of the young girls I know still watch from the sidelines. Which is all fine and good—as long as they participate in some sort of endeavor.
Because that’s where you learn your strengths and weaknesses, and how to master tasks, how to be a good sport, win or lose.
How to jump in and be part.
As Amelia Earhart said, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”
4. Encourage them to dive in even when they’re afraid. Because fear is a part of any process, of taking on a new thing and running with it.
And there’s no better time to learn to face fear than now. Whenever that now is.
Fear is a great teacher. Until you participate in something that scares you, that fear can lie dormant until a time comes when you have no choice but to participate. And then it bites a huge hunk out of your backside. When a girl faces smaller ones as she goes, she builds courage to carry her on.
I love what author Caroline Myss says about this:
“Always go with the choice that scares you the most, because that’s the one that is going to require the most from you.”
And what better place to learn that than when making the crazy transition from childhood to womanhood.
Girl empowerment grows our next generation into empowered women. Into women who can change their own lives, and the ones around them. Ultimately, courageous, strong, intelligent women change the world.
And uncovers early on what author Marianne Williamson says about fear, so our girls can go beyond it:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?Actually, who are you not to be?
Award-winning writer and editor Susan Mary Malone is the author of the novels, "I Just Came Here to Dance" and "By the Book," as well as four co-authored nonfiction books, including "What’s Wrong with My Family?" and many published short stories. Forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers.