How do we raise girls to be strong and free? It actually starts in the toddler years. They need encouragement and permission to be adventurous, messy, noisy and phyiscal. Fathers are often the key to this – many dads like to take their children into the outdoors, and are much more vigorous in how they play. This is good for a girl who can learn to trust and enjoy her body and what it can do. Of course you have to be careful – I read once that children are five times more likely to end up in hospital while in the care of their dad! So some common sense is called for.
The neuroscience is proving something very important – that nature is good for our brains. Your daughter, whatever her age, is a wild creature, and needs to be in the rhythms, textures, seasons and peace of nature. An overgrown garden she can build cubbies in, pets she can cuddle and love – and even see die – and big landscapes of beaches and hills to run in are all essential to her mental health. Kids learn calmness in nature, away from screens and the jangling artificial world. Nothing in nature is saying be thin, be pretty, be rushed. She can find and be herself, happy in her own company, or teaming up with others to build or imagine.
The clothes and toys we choose are important because they unintentionally may put limits onto her. Don’t dress your toddler in frilly, expensive or fragile clothes. That sends a signal to her that she is there to be looked at. Don’t keep telling her how pretty she is, as she will start to think thats what matters in life. Tell her how kind she is, how strong, how funny, how good a friend, what a good climber she is. An occasional princess dress won’t do any harm, but in the main, avoid anywhere the words kids and fashion occur together. Dress her for messiness whenever you can.
Imagination is better when toys are few, and don’t determine how you play. A big box of wooden blocks is better than “My little clothes shop”. In fact, according to Simpicity Parenting author Kim Payne, halving the amount of toys our kids have lying around actually makes it easer for them to play, and learn to focus. It also helps not to have TV or radio on where they are playing, as studies show that kids can’t concentrate. In a quiet living room, toddlers make up more stories and act out the conversations between their toys. It’s a brilliant (and often hilarious) way that they learn social skills and deal with their lives through play. TV and screens are not great for toddlers – a few, well loved and well worn DVD’s or regular shows like Playschool that are crafted to suit their brain development, should be the only electronics in toddlers lives.
With a bit of thought, we can focus on keeping little girls feeling strong, active explorers, who don’t give a thought to how they look and see the world as theirs to explore. And thats the start of making them free. Next week, we’ll talk about how to keep that through the primary school years.
Steve Biddulph is the author of Ten Things Girls Need Most, Raising Boys, Raising Girls, and The New Manhood
Available from all good Bookshops or Finch Publishing.
Steve Biddulph – Adjunct Prof. of Psychology,
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