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Mothers worry about daughters that don’t stand up for themselves.

One mother wrote, “I don’t want her to grow up to be one of those dependent women–which I was until my husband walked out on me and the kids. Are there ways I can help my daughter become more assertive?”

“Sugar and spice and everything nice” isn’t enough for little girls these days. Women must be able to take care of themselves. In the past girls could count on having a husband who would provide for them. No longer true. Just look around at the number of divorced or deserted women there are today. And most married women need to work and must be assertive enough to compete in the labor force. Every girl should be raised with the expectation that she will have a career and that she will be able to support herself. Further, every child should be raised in a household free of sexism because sexism, like racism, hurts people.

There are biological differences between boys and girls. Everybody knows that. There are also behavioral differences between boys and girls. The question is whether these behaviors are innate or culturally determined.

Children acquire gender roles which they do by adopting those behaviors which society says goes with each gender. Children may be very sex-stereotypic during the preschool period because they are learning how to be male or female. Even in a very non-sex-stereotypic home the little boy may insist only boys can be doctors. The daughter of a woman doctor may insist girls grow up to be nurses.

Gender role stereotypes come to pass when human characteristics that either men or women can have, such as nurturance or compliance or athletic ability, are seen as biologically determined absolutes. If society believes that girls are docile and compliant and boys are tough and aggressive, these messages become embedded in our children. Not only are their childhoods constricted but they are ill-prepared for adult life in today’s society.

Sexism uses gender role stereotyping but goes much further. It is based on the belief that there is a natural hierarchy and men belong at the top. Such a misguided notion damages healthy personality development in both girls and boys. Girls may feel they should not be assertive because it is not expected of them. Boys grow up afraid to express feelings which in turn unduly pressures men and affects their relationships with women.

OK, sexist child-rearing is bad. Now what can parents specifically do to help their daughters become assertive?

o Avoid sex-role stereotyping in your household. Chores? Ask both boys and girls to set the table and do yard work.

o Make sure there are role models in the child’s life so your daughter can see for herself that women can be doctors and men can be nurses.

o Interpret what the child sees on TV. Point out that men as well as women can wash the kitchen floor and that women can be astronauts and astrophysicists.

o Be vigilant about degrading or derogatory remarks made about women. If you can’t stop your daughter from hearing such put-downs, at least point out how awful they are.

o Encourage daughters to be more concerned about who they are and what they know and think than they are about how they look. Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin says, “Attractiveness is no achievement; it’s a triumph of artifice superimposed on lucky genes.”

o Find books for your daughter that dispel some of the destructive myths which abound in sexism like men don’t cry or women don’t become governors.

o Help your daughter to develop personal courage. Gender-linked timidity (feeling and acting timid because it is expected of girls) is a barrier to women.

o Re-label” toys so that your daughter knows they are as appropriate for girls as for boys. “The woman who fixes my car, has a tool box like this.”

o Monitor what your child is picking up at school. Don’t let your daughter grow up thinking math is for boys and poetry is for girls.