I have three daughters I love more than life itself. But when I became their dad, I had a lot to learn about the societal expectations of being a girl. While the expectations certainly aren’t all negative, many are unrealistic, capricious, and can be crushing. And many dads are unprepared for this.
It’s not that boys don’t have their own set of expectations placed on them. Of course they do. But they aren’t the same as expectations of being a girl. Because of this, we need to do some homework so we can prepare our daughters to navigate the challenges they will face. Here are 5 expectations society places on girls—and how you can protect your daughters from being crushed by them.
1. Be beautiful.
Certainly beauty standards vary. Both in the media and in schools, girls often experience social sifting and judgment related to how beautiful they are. While there is no way to shelter our girls from this completely, we certainly can work to call it out as shallow and arbitrary and emphasize that what really makes someone beautiful is the type of character they develop.
Often, we teach our girls to suppress their emotions. Unfortunately, society dismisses any display of emotion by a woman as her being dramatic or out of control. Men, on the other hand, are increasingly encouraged to be vulnerable and in touch with their emotions. Our girls need to be able to bring their full selves to the table. We need to teach our girls to honor their emotions and see them as a gift.
3. Be small.
In some cultures, this equates to “be thin,” but it shows up differently in different spaces. Overall, though, our girls learn it’s important not to be noticed. This is especially true for the majority of girls who don’t land in the “beauty queen” or “brilliant scientist” categories. As dads, we need to advocate for our girls, encourage them to take positions of leadership in school and community organizations, and take pride in who they are and in what they have to say. We need to communicate that we need more of them, not less.
4. Be soft.
If I’m honest, I think this expectation exists because there are lots of insecure men out there. We struggle to deal with anyone, but especially women, who are confident and willing to push back on us. It makes us feel threatened. So our culture tells women they should defer to men. But men, we need to ensure that our girls don’t grow up allowing their sense of self to be determined by some dudes who need to see a therapist. Regularly affirm your daughter’s gifts and teach her to be confident with herself. I’m not suggesting we raise our daughters to be arrogant, but we do want to raise them to be confident and determined.
5. Be passive.
Women are regularly taught that deference is a value. We encourage our girls to be gentle and kind, while in boys we reward determination and drive. Think about how you respond to a woman who asserts herself at work. Do you see her as ambitious and driven, or do you see her as bossy and controlling? In her book Talking 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work, Professor Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University suggests that women who come across as too assertive risk receiving certain socially detrimental labels applied to them.
We need to teach our girls that our world needs them to assert themselves. We will not be all we can be together if they don’t bring all that they are to the table. Encourage them to speak up. Listen to them when they do. Challenge them to stretch themselves in public ways and be there to advocate and encourage them when they hit the inevitable roadblocks.
As a dad, you have a tremendous opportunity to reshape the expectations of being a girl for your daughters. May we do so with courage and conviction.
Sound off: What other damaging expectations does society place on girls?
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