Maggie Dent is best known for books on bringing up boys but is grandmother to a brood of girls, and, as she says, was once a girl herself.
In her latest book, Girlhood, she turns her attention to our girls. Here, she shares a little of that wisdom.
When we arrive as a baby, most of our brain cells – our neurons – aren't yet connected into networks. So, every experience that happens from there is building the way that unique little brain is being shaped. It's not only about how we're going to manage this sensory world, the whole human mind – our sense of who we are, our identity, where we fit in the world, our belief systems and mindsets – are all shaped in the first five years.
Another thing I think is really important is that I believe our children arrive with their own spirit. They're not a blank slate we have to fill in. What we have to do, in those early years and later too, is work out how we can honour the amazing human who has arrived, who is a one-off, who's never been here on this earth before. How can we support her to grow and be as healthy, happy and heard as she can be? So, raising a girl is about honouring who she is, not about who we might want her to be.
Our ability to manage our emotions later in life is laid down in those first five years … So, we need our girls and our teens to get a sense of what their emotions feel like in their bodies, and we have to help them to decode what those body sensations mean. Fortunately, there are a lot of picture books on feelings now, and girls love them.
They send the message that no emotion is bad, all emotions are valid, so that can be your support network. I talk about the three As. We allow the emotion, then we acknowledge where it's coming from and then we accept that's where she is right now. And then we have a long, slow chat about it. Having those conversations is a priority before they're five or six.
The emotional world is more intense for little girls. When it sparks up – when that limbic brain fires up – the next centre that fires up is a girl's word centre, so girls want to talk it out. Whereas for boys and men, it goes from the limbic brain to the body. We've come from a time when girls weren't supposed to be too loud, too dramatic, but little girls actually need our understanding and support around their emotions.
It's like they're saying: "Can you still love me while I'm struggling with this big feeling?" And later on: "Can you help me to work out what the heck's going on with whatever it was that triggered that for me?"
As a parent, you need to be a friendship coach. Friendship dramas happen all the way through women's lives, so what she learns in those early years is going to be helpful as she goes forward. Often it's about just listening as they explore the dynamics of what's going on, sometimes offering advice but not actually stepping in unless it becomes a major issue.
Another key message is to encourage your daughter to be a good friend rather than the best friend, and to have a friendship tribe. Maybe she has some cousins who are friends, and some friends at dance and at childcare and at swimming. That ability to connect and play with others is a really important skill to learn.
Also, I have talked to girls in high school who've said that when they were having friendship problems when they were younger, their mother would try to fix them and it would just make everything worse, so they stopped talking to her about it. But they need to know there's someone there when the world gets a bit mean and intense. So, if it's not Mum, perhaps an aunty figure can help.
No little girl is born hating her body. Girls learn that. So, I would ask, are they surrounded by women who model being comfortable in their body? Because girls can't be what they haven't seen. We need to celebrate the fact that beauty is an inside job rather than an outside job.
It doesn't mean we can't put on our sparkly gear. Those little girls who love dressing up in their fairy wings – absolutely they should be able to do that. But underneath that, we want to make sure they also feel comfortable in their PJs or in a pair of swimmers – in their own skin.
We want to celebrate her body for her unique strengths. So, she might be a little girl with really strong arms who can do push-ups or she might be a twirlywhirly dancing girl. We celebrate the body that allows her to do all that. The emphasis is on what her body does rather than what her body looks like.
Girls can usually read social and emotional cues much more accurately than boys. That means they can often sense and intuit, but we have to help them with that. Girls need to learn to recognise their early warning systems, because everyone's is slightly different.
Some get butterflies in the tummy, some get goosebumps, some feel cold, some feel like their throat is closing over. And we have to help them to understand personal boundaries. You might feel, "Oh, I'm just going to pounce on them and hug 'em because I love 'em," but we need to give them choices. My grandchildren can give me a smile, a "hi", a high-five or a hug. We're honouring their right to give consent.
It's not always easy but it's important. Sometimes I might say, "Let me know when you're ready for a hug." Then I just leave it. I want them to know it's here if they'd like it but it's up to them. We also have to teach them about the things that are not okay. We have to let them know that no one can touch their private parts without their permission. We have to let them know that there are people who can hurt children. And other children who hurt children too.
So, we need to teach them some basic ground rules, and then teach them to trust their instincts. Kids get it.
We can't give them self-esteem. They form their own self-esteem, and it comes from how loved they feel, how competent they feel, how in control and autonomous they feel. And from building a big, long list of life skills. Everyone can help with that – dads, mums, grandparents.
I think a core thing is building resilience in our girls by giving them opportunities to grow and stretch, and to do things for themselves at whatever level they're at. Over-protection and doing too much for them, even though we do it out of love, can mean they don't build the grit or perseverance or courage to do things for themselves.
We know that girls' self-esteem falls off a cliff from eight to 14. So, we have to build that foundation in the early years that will give them the ability to navigate this tricky space. We need to help girls cultivate the knowledge that you are who you are, and that's who we love.
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