Raising my daughter has historically felt like a heavier responsibility than raising my sons. I even built my career on empowering girls. But in their adolescent years I’m beginning to realize that so much of parenting tweens and teens is actually irrespective of gender. Thirteen years ago, when I gave birth to a baby girl after having two sons, my mother was thrilled for me because I finally had a daughter. As a proud alumna of a women’s college and all-girls camp, people assumed I was holding out for a girl, but I honestly I didn’t care what the baby’s gender was as long as she was healthy. And frankly, raising a daughter felt very complicated to me and so many women I knew. A friend confided in me that when her own daughter was born, her initial reaction was sadness because she knew firsthand the challenges her daughter would face as a female in our world.
My own gut response to having a daughter was more of an awareness of the burden in trying to raise a confident girl when the deck felt stacked against her. It felt like it was up to me to protect her unique spirit against forces larger than her. Even when she was a baby I was already wondering: How can I prevent her from hating her body? How can I stop her from quieting her voice as she grows? How can I keep from projecting my own experiences as a girl onto my daughter?
Little did I know when she was born that my professional life would be dedicated to answering those questions. And now she is 13, trying to stay afloat in the tumultuous waters of adolescence, the years I have feared since she was little. Research tells us that girls’ self-esteem plummets after age nine and never recovers to it’s original levels, ever, in their entire lives. In response, I have spent the better of a decade trying to prevent this from happening to my own daughter and thousands of Dynamo Girls because I am terrified that something will come along to dim their lights.
I have been braced my daughter’s entire childhood for these years in which our culture loves to heap scorn on teen girls — selfish, rude, vapid, superficial, or more, ugly, fat, slutty, dumb. Have I helped her become strong enough that she can withstand the stereotypes on TV, the mockery on social media, the thoughtless comments from strangers? Most challenging is the conundrum: how do I tell her I am here to love and protect her when right now she is focused on showing me how independent she is?
When I get overwhelmed about the responsibility of parenting a daughter through these complex years, I try to focus on the small, daily things I can do to love and support her. These days are less about telling my daughter anything and more about listening to her as much as I can. These days are about lying on her bed and hearing a story that sounds ridiculous to me but feels gravely important to her and therefore, I need to take it seriously. These days are about watching her navigate new social circumstances more warily than when she was eight and having patience for her new approach. These days are about being quiet on the sidelines of her soccer games even though I want to hoot and holler. These days are about letting her find her clothing style without judgement. These days are about holding firm on what behaviors are appropriate toward her friends and which are appropriate toward us, her parents.
The funny thing is that when I break down my parenting her into small, daily goals, my approach for my daughter is actually no different than what my approach has been for her older brothers. Raising a girl feels so personal to me, laden with my own memories and our society’s prejudices, but just as her gender was a side note for me when she was born, I am surprised to realize that gender is actually less relevant than I anticipated in caring for her now as a teen.
When I strip down to its essence my daily practice of caring for adolescents, it’s not really about boys or girls, it’s simply about empathy and keeping my mouth shut. Yes there are issues specific to their biology as well as our society’s prejudices, but so much of what helps keep the lines of communication open and helps my kids feel loved and supported are universal. Like any other daily routine, my ability to put these goals into action have been honed over time, getting better and easier with practice and patience. By the way, I most definitely do not succeed in using them every single day. However, they help me stay focused and practical as I worry about keeping my daughter’s (and sons’) lights shining brightly.
10 Daily Goals for Raising Adolescents:
- Listen more than I talk.
- Show interest in their interests.
- Take their worries seriously even if they seem minor to me.
- Make space for their changing social awareness.
- Honor my kids’ requests about what I say/don’t say in public.
- Stay consistent in what behavior I find acceptable.
- Share my own teenage experiences sparingly.
- Be curious, not judgmental, about their clothing choices.
- Tell them I love them both when they mess up and when they succeed.
- Remind them I am here whenever and wherever they need me.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is raising four tweens and teens. She is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast, which is exactly what it sounds like; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company designed to use sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter.