Dangers of labeling our daughters

Sticks and stones may hurt our bones and yes, words can hurt you!

When we label kids, it locks them into a particular role.
When we label kids, it locks them into a particular role.

In today’s world, many leadership roles are held by men. Men outnumber women in elected official positions as well. According to the Center for American Progress, women are 50.8 percent of the United States population, earn 60 percent of all undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees. Even though women control 80 percent of consumer spending in America, they represent only 3 percent of creative directors in advertising. Currently, 4.2 percent of women hold CEO positions at Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 companies. These 21 women, compared to 479 men, lead companies such as General Motors, Xerox Corporation and Campbell Soup Company. Repeatedly, research has shown that girls mature faster than boys and obtain better grades in school (70 percent of valedictorians are females).

So the questions remains: What happens to girls as they exceed in academics and pursue higher education, yet do not obtain high level management positions? The answer might be found at a much earlier age when we label girls as being uptight, nerdy, princess, bossy, tomboy or ditzy. Studies have shown that girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them seem “bossy” or “aggressive.” Behaviors that society deemed appropriate for boys is very different than what is “OK” for girls. Girls are very perceptive of this expectation and tend to squash qualities that would otherwise make them great leaders in society. They frequently withdrawal from leadership roles to avoid negative stereotypes. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explains in her book “Lean In,” “it’s because women are fearful of how others will perceive them if they speak up, step out or be assertive.” In turn, boys are seldom called aggressive or bossy because, as a society, we expect it.

The real danger is when we label kids, positively or negatively, and it locks them into a particular role. Children will become who you say they will become or who you say they are. When a young girl is called “pretty” or “princess” all the time, it emphasizes her appearance over other worthy traits. At a time when we want youth to be discovering who they are, we are stifling that when we give them our opinions of who WE think they are or who WE want them to be. Same holds true with labels like “artist” or “scientist.” According to Art Markham, a psychologist and professor at the University of Texas in Austin, “the more labels that get put on them, the more they worry about who is going to be concerned or disappointed when they go into a different direction.”

Positive labels such as “smart,” “kind” or “friendly” should be used to label the behavior, not the child. We also want them to know that it is OK to feel sad, quiet or angry, which can be looked upon by society as negative, especially when we are only praising for the “good” stuff. For example, “Sharing your toys was a very kind choice” or “That was a bad choice you made” versus “You are a kind/bad girl/boy.”

To help all youth become good leaders, Ban Bossy recommends the following suggestions:

  1. Encourage girls and boys equally to lead. Reflect on the different messages you might be giving.
  2. Be conscious of the way you talk. Notice how you communicate to your daughter. Do you avoid sharing your opinion? Girls are vulnerable to perfectionism, so it is helpful to acknowledge your own hedging words along with hers.
  3. Make your home an equal household. Do your girls do “typical girl” chores like cleaning or laundry while the boys take out the garbage or mow the lawn? Switch up the assignments.
  4. Teach her to respect her feelings. Show your daughter to respect herself by letting her know it is OK to feel whatever it is she feels and to talk about it.
  5. Moms and grandmothers model assertive behavior. Let your daughter watch you move constructively through a conflict with someone else and emerge successfully on the other side.
  6. Dads and grandfathers know your influence. Show respect for the women and girls in your life and help her develop high expectations of other men. Let her know you value her for who she is inside.
  7. Seize the power of organized sports and activities. Get her on a team or other group activity.
  8. Let her solve problems on her own. When your daughter has a problem, pause and ask, “What do you want to do about it?”
  9. Get media literate together. What is your daughter watching, reading and why does she like it? Ask her about the message a movie sends about women and girls.
  10. Encourage her to step outside her comfort zone. Encourage your daughter (or son) to try new things. Go to an event where she doesn’t know many people or check out with a cashier at the grocery store. Confidence-building moments can happen daily and a skill that can be acquired over time.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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