Six nights out of seven, our oldest daughter, now a very proud “five and three quarters,” will fall asleep with a book on her chest. The book often changes—sometimes it’s about Christmas carollers, sometimes it’s a book about Barbie becoming a doctor. Sometimes she reads the same books about animals that I read when I was growing up and sometimes she reads stories she’s helped write herself.
Her mind, at this point, is incredibly fertile, and it’s an amazing privilege for us to be able to watch the many plants start to grow in that amazing young mind of hers. But it’s also terrifying how easy it is for seeds we didn’t plant to take root.
Because for every “I learned to read all by my own,” she says, there’s a “that’s just for boys,” or “that’s just for girls,” waiting for us.
The truth is, my daughters don’t read my posts. At their age, my daughters don’t read A Mighty Girl or Feministing or Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls or any of the many great sites out there that regularly present amazing stories of women doing amazing things unless we share them with them.
As a dad, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I can raise girls to believe they are as strong as I know they are. There is no single way to do this I’ve learned, and it will often feel like everything you do is a failure. But I have found there are a number of small things dads can do to raise strong daughters.
Maybe I’ll use all of these and I’ll be completely wrong. Maybe not though.
Protect them with knowledge, not with your muscles or guns.
Let’s all make the dad holding a gun to his daughter’s prom date’s head a thing of the past. If we want to protect our daughters, let’s make sure we teach them from an early age about consent, teach them that they make decisions about their own bodies, teach them about body and sex positivity. Answer their questions when they have them instead of letting them find out online or from a friend.
Have some female role models yourself.
There are billions of amazing women out there and just because we grew up thinking football players and boy band stars were the most worthy of our emulation doesn’t mean that as grownups we can’t find new role models. Make sure your daughter knows how in awe you are of young women like Malala Yousafzai. And if you aren’t already aware of some of these amazing role models, check out A Mighty Girl to start your education.
Support their efforts.
A young girl will hear many times over their lifetime that they can’t do something because they’re a girl, because they’re not as strong as a man or because that’s not the way a good girl acts. Don’t be part of that noise and be part of the group of people in her life who takes her aside and says “you want to do that? You go ahead and do that and I’ll be right beside you helping if you need it.”
It doesn’t matter what “that” is. If they have an interest, let them know it’s an important one.
If your daughter wants to pursue something you know nothing about, learn with her. If she’s showing an interest in photography but you’re at your picture-taking best, find a class to take together instead of saying you can’t help her. Often you can’t help, but that’s no reason learning can’t happen anyway.
Don’t write off failures.
When they do make an effort and when they eventually fail at something, don’t let them think it was just too hard for them. Don’t tell them not many women have ever been able to do it. Let them know it’s fine that they failed but that it isn’t because of any make-believe inherent weakness and that them giving up simply because they don’t think they can do it is a cop out.
DO NOT tell her something is for boys.
Yeah, no duh, right? Except this still happens every single day in a number of ways. Some things may be dominated by men but that doesn’t make them “for men” or “for boys.” My daughters both love princesses and I think that’s wonderful. But conversely, princesses aren’t “for girls” they’re just “for kids.” And if the princesses also love riding motorcycles and playing with Transformers, that’s great.
Use “she” instead of “he” when you’re talking about non-specific individuals.
When talking about what scientists do, talk about the things “she” does on a day-to-day basis. I tried to take note of just how many professions I defaulted to “he” on and it’s astoundingly bad. Equal representation of women in the media for some professions just doesn’t exist. Girls are asked to think they can grow up to become anything they want but are asked to do this using men as their example.
Stop with the blonde jokes, and sexist talk. Everywhere.
This sounds so damn straightforward and you probably think it’s simple to do. But when you’re in a group with your buds at a bar and someone lobs a blonde joke across the table, it’s easier to laugh it off and think to yourself “I don’t think that way so I’m all clear. But, I don’t want to have to tell my buddy he’s being an idiot.”
But that doesn’t do anything for our daughters. Say something, even if it’s as simple as “that kind of joke isn’t funny.” If you’re pushed beyond that, say it again. Because it isn’t funny, it’s misogyny. It’s sexism. It has no place in front of your daughter and it has no place in a bar at midnight.
Don’t parent believing there are things daughters can only hear from a female.
There may be things you don’t experience—menstruation, shopping for bras, etc. but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn about these things and be confident enough to answer questions from your daughter without making them feel like these are taboo topics or things they should only feel comfortable talking about with certain people. They aren’t.
Sure, there are things they might end up feeling more comfortable talking about to someone who isn’t you, but don’t let that happen because you weren’t welcoming or lacked knowledge.
Fight sexist crap together.
When you’re walking down the toy aisle trying to find a Black Widow toy for your daughter but notice she’s the only one missing from the Avengers toy lineup, don’t shrug it off and tell her “oh well, that’s what happens sometime.” Tell her it’s not okay and then tell more people it’s not okay. If she comes home and tells you she was told she wasn’t allowed to do something because she’s a girl, find out why, fight it if it needs fighting. Fight her being told she needs to cover up at school because her outfit is a distraction to the boys in her school. Fight for her right to choose what she can and cannot do with her body. Fight, together.
Explore beyond the campsite limits, turn over big rocks, swim to the big log in the middle of the lake. Play like you’re a kid again and spend as much time doing this as your daughter would like. There are butterflies to run behind, iguanas to photograph and cannonballs to perfect. Be part of it.
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