Do you ever fear your home is too much of a haven from the “real world”? As a former stay-at-home dad of two daughters now approaching young adulthood, I sometimes wonder if our family bubble of gender equity has prepared them adequately for the larger culture’s reduced-but-still-entrenched sexism.
Fortunately, What Girls Need, a new book by Marisa Porges, offers tips about how parents can serve as a bridge for their children between home and the larger world. While her tips are focused on raising daughters, many apply to raising sons as well.
Her foundational advice is to help each girl develop her voice. “Owning your voice is a personal superpower that every girl needs to succeed,” she writes. “The ability to turn inward confidence into action by speaking out is one of the most crucial life skills your daughter will rely on, as a young adult and for years to come.”
Porges is a former U.S. Navy aviator who has worked in counter-terrorism at the Pentagon. But she admits it took her “years to appreciate the role that self-advocating, negotiating, and competing, among other skills, play in the real world.”
So how can parents help daughters and sons practice using their voices in age-appropriate ways? Whenever possible, let them do the talking.
Let girls speak for themselves
For example, “when you visit a museum, amusement park, or hotel, ask your daughter to speak to the concierge or desk attendant — to ask a question, give feedback about something during your visit, or perhaps provide a suggestion.” Also, have her practice speaking on the phone appropriately. Regarding school, rather than asking “how was class today,” maybe ask “what did you ask your teacher today?” Encourage your daughter to say at least one thing in every class so that she becomes heard and not just seen.
Porges explains that “for many girls, particularly in elementary school, these are among the first instances in which they are pushed out of their comfort zone to test the power of their voices outside the home. For both introverted and extroverted children, these real-world moments are essential proving grounds for how to assert yourself confidently and respectfully.”
It can be hard for parents to sit on their hands and bite their tongues, but Porges recommends resisting the urge to intervene when problems arise. Instead, provide scaffolding when needed by role-playing and rehearsing situations and scripts with your children. Perhaps establish non-intervention ground rules like waiting 48 hours before helping to solve a problem or only getting involved after a problem arises three times. Porges notes that “these sorts of guideposts won’t always apply” for larger problems, but “girls should be given the time, space, and support to practice self-advocating” as much as possible.
As children become teenagers, they approach an employment culture that is increasingly changing. Porges states that today’s youth “will change jobs more often than any previous generation and navigate ever more flexible work situations, including working from home, working part time, and consultancy-oriented work. All of this will require more frequently negotiating their salary, title, benefits, roles and responsibilities.”
Help daughters now to shape culture later
So how can we help daughters practice asking for raises in the future? By learning the art of pitching, which usually includes sound reasoning and some research. As Porges suggests, “the next time your daughter asks for something big — a special toy or privilege, like a sleepover on a school night or a change to her curfew — make her persuade you, and think through her request and the context in which it fits into your family. Even if you’ve already decided to agree with the ask, have her share three reasons why her request deserves your support.” Other “asks” that could require a pitch include those for a pet, a first or new cell phone, or a new app. In addition to cultivating a strong voice, each pitch fosters skills like eye contact, self-confidence, and empathic listening.
It is important to note that encouraging girls to develop their voices at home does not excuse the larger culture’s entrenched sexism. Porges states: “I do not discount the importance of continued systemic change, including ongoing efforts to adapt institutions and policies that remain barriers to entry for women and girls or for minority groups.”
While large-scale changes often require a long process, parents can contribute right now by developing their children’s voices at home. After all, systemic changes frequently begin via individual voices and small groups. Ideally, together we can continue changing the “real world” outside into something closer to our family bubbles of equity at home.