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You Can Make a Difference
My daughter was one of those little girls who never seemed to have any questions about her own value and importance. She was headstrong, confident, assertive, always knew what she wanted, and was never shy about letting you know. My image of her as a small child is wonderfully captured in a beautiful photo taken when she was five years old. She is wearing a cornflower blue dress, staring directly into the camera with a beautifully smug smile on her face, and casually holding a plastic machine gun across her body. Even though I struggled with the toy gun issue, I have to admit that photo tells the whole story—she was all right there, nothing held back, and you'd better not get in her way. So what happened seven years later came as a complete shock to me. She was twelve, and she had been acting out of sorts for a couple of weeks, kind of moping around sniffling. When I finally asked her what was going on, she burst into tears and melted down in a puddle of self-doubt, saying she didn't like herself, didn't think she did anything right, that everything she said was stupid, and even her feelings were dumb. I think I must have just stared at her in shocked silence for at least five minutes. I just couldn't comprehend how my tough little amazing wonderkid had so suddenly and so completely lost her moorings.
Over the past ten years or so, parents, educators, and other concerned adults have become increasingly aware that a strong sense of self-esteem in girls is a necessary component to their healthy development in our society. Studyafter study shows that self-esteem is correlated to success in school and to decreased risky behavior, such as having unprotected sex and taking drugs. And, through books such as Reviving Ophelia, we have become acutely acquainted with the crisis of self-esteem that hits many girls around puberty. Indeed, the issue has become so popular that we are in danger of becoming so tangled in jargon that we lose track of the incredibly personal nature of the problem. As soon as we try to talk about it, we are forced to generalize. We start using phrases like "some girls" or "most girls" and "we should" or "we shouldn't," or, even worse, "you should" and "you shouldn't." Before we know it, we have drifted so far from the very real and personal dynamics that set our children up for success or failure that the discussion becomes cold, clinical, and one-dimensional. Even the term self-esteem is taking on code-like connotations that invite us to type and judge in record time—as in "She has `self-esteem' issues."
While much has been written about the problem, there is precious little offered by way of solution, which tends to leave parents and other concerned adults in the dark—we know we want to do something, but we don't know exactly what that might be. This was certainly true for me that night when my previously confident twelve-year-old daughter melted down in front of my eyes. In the eight years since then, I have been reading and thinking about the problem and trying to finding practical solutions.
One of the reasons the books on self-esteem stay theoretical is that self-esteem is much easier to generalize and talk about in theory than it is to approach practically. And while a theoretical understanding is to some degree helpful for understanding the framework we live in, for our daughters, and for all the beautiful girls we are privileged to have in our lives, theory is not enough. Unfortunately, a strong, healthy, and appropriate sense of self-esteem is not something you can produce at will by simply following a set of rules, or guarantee by always remembering to say the right thing at the right time. How could it be, since it is a complex set of beliefs and attitudes that ground us strongly in our own sense of self-worth, of competence, of being loved and loving, of knowing we belong, that our life has purpose, and that we are confident in the unique and valuable gifts we bring to this world?
That being said, it is not true that there is nothing we can do to combat the problem. Healthy self-esteem is the result of being raised, loved, and mentored well. Therefore, everything we do as parents, teachers, and other significant adults in the lives of young girls—how we behave, what we say and how we say it, the quality and character of our interactions, the degree to which we stretch to create learning experiences for them, even the often unconscious attitudes we hold—will positively or negatively impact the shifting core of girls' sense of their own self-esteem.
In creating the framework for our girls' sense of self-esteem, we need to remember that it is ultimately their lives and their task to put the pieces in place for themselves. Our love alone is not enough, being a powerful role model is not enough, the right words are not enough, and our supportive actions are not enough. Our daughters need to live the experience of being loved and loving, of being challenged and responding, of taking risks and blossoming. They need to be able to see themselves as competent, confident, and valuable contributors to the whole. We cannot do that for them, but we can create opportunities for their own exploration.
To that end, 200 Ways to Raise a Girl's Self-Esteem offers a wide variety of suggestions for activities to do at home and school to greatly enhance the possibility that future generations of girls will be bursting with an exuberant, self-confident sense of themselves. Some of the suggestions are about attitudes, others about behaviors. All will have an impact. No matter the age of the girl in your care, it is not too early, or too late, to start.
This book begins, as does everything of value and importance about children, with love. Chapter 2 establishes the foundational and essential role that communicating our love plays in laying the groundwork for all that can follow.
Chapter 3 is also about love, but a kind of love that is too often feared, misconstrued as selfish or simply misunderstood: the love of self that allows us as adults to appropriately and powerfully model for our daughters the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that will open the doors to the world. Regardless of what we say or do in the raising, teaching, and mentoring of our children, it is who we are that counts the most. For it is how we live our lives that our children will always refer to, and that impacts them to the core of their identity.
Chapter 4 is about the power of words: the power to wound, the power to devastate, the power to bolster, and the power to elevate. Language is the symbol of our place in nature. Our ability to articulate abstract concepts places us at the peak of evolution, and that same power is at play in the life and self-concept of every single one of us. We have all at times been both victim and beneficiary of that power. How we are talked to and spoken about, the words people choose to use, all possess the power to expand or contract our sense of self-worth. How much more potent this power is with our children, who have not yet learned how to deflect and discard harmful and inappropriate language!
Chapter 5 goes beyond words to actions, the ways we demonstrate through our actions and our inaction, our attitudes, motivations, passions, sincerity, and commitment to our daughters and the other girls in our care. Often what we do sends a much more powerful message than the words we speak, particularly if our actions are at odds with our words. If we want our children to grow up grounded in their own uniqueness, then we must prove to them by our daily actions that they are indeed deeply loved and extraordinary precious and valuable.
Many theorists argue that it is not self-esteem that is so important to girls, but self efficacy—the belief that you can take action in the world and have an effect. Chapter 6 is an exploration of the ways we can create the circumstances and situations that will provide girls with this experience of self-discovery and the experience of being capable and accomplished individuals. This is an essential and often neglected part of caring for children, precisely because it takes time, energy, thinking, and planning to do it well. But it is extraordinarily important, because as central a role as parents, teachers, and other significant adults play in creating the framework for our girls' sense of self-esteem, it is ultimately the girls' responsibility and task to put the pieces in place.
Chapter 7 is a reality check, a reminder for us to be sincere in our words and actions. Raising children, teaching children, mentoring children can all too easily be turned by task-oriented adults into just another job, and when that happens, we begin to operate on automatic pilot. Then all our efforts can come crashing down in the blink of an eye. We need to remember that, for better and for worse, children by definition have not been fully socialized and, unlike the jaded adults in their life, they can spot a phony or even mildly distracted interaction in a heartbeat. And that is all it takes to turn what was intended as a good effort into a disastrous undermining experience. In every way, at every encounter, we need to try our utmost always to deal with our children with the highest level of integrity possible.
Chapter 8 is a reflection of the many ways we have been blessed by playing such an important role in these young lives, and the awesome responsibility that accompanies that gift. From our socially defined role as caretakers, it is an easy step to begin to think of this as a job, and often a difficult and arduous one at that. So easily we forget, especially in the precious flush of their growing up, what an extraordinary honor it is to be given this opportunity.
I promised you two hundred ways to raise a girl's self-esteem; you will find them here, and more, in practical detail. The constellation of qualities we call self-esteem is perhaps the most important gift we can give our daughters. And what a worthwhile undertaking! There is little in life to compare with being witness to the glorious unfolding of a stunningly beautiful, confident, self-conscious, and self-contained young woman.
|1 You Can Make a Difference||1|
|2 Loving: Building the Foundation||9|
|3 Modeling: Who You Are and What You Do Matter||45|
|4 Articulating: Using the Power of Words||91|
|5 Showing: Demonstrating Respect for Her||123|
|6 Healthy Risk Taking: Creating Experiences to Help Her|
|Spread Her Wings||159|
|7 Having Integrity: Living and Teaching Values||219|
|8 The Honor of Stewardship||253|