How to Raise Girls

Being a girl in Poland is not easy. According to HBSC research, 15-year-old Polish women have the lowest self-esteem in Europe.

It is true that there are many environments and pressures that influence girls’ abilities. The influence of us parents is also considerable, because we ourselves are often carriers of stereotypical beliefs about both girls and boys. We divide children by gender from kindergarten, having different expectations towards boys and girls. It is clearly visible in playgrounds, where you can hear that diggers are not for girls, that girls are not allowed to climb, and that boys are forbidden to cry. We send a lot of such messages to children, they are also sent by family and grandparents. People often say to girls: “Be polite”, “Girls should be quiet”, “Keep your hair on.” As a mother of little girls, I felt that I was expected to discipline and silence my daughters.

In 2018, I came across a study published in the journal Science. Scientists have proven in a series of experiments that girls as young as six often believe that they are less smart than boys. Importantly, the study showed that this undermined self-confidence translates into the behaviour of the girls surveyed. The researchers proposed a game “for very smart children” and it turned out that the girls who in the first part of the study considered themselves less smart than the boys did not want to take part in it. It terrified me that they might have such beliefs about themselves even before school starts.

My daughters were four and two at the time, and I felt that I had to do something so that they would never think of themselves that way. And this is how the idea was born to gain knowledge for myself, and then share it with other parents via the blog.

If the study concerned six-year-old girls, it is difficult to imagine what happens to their self-esteem at the later stages of education, when they end up in the system machine.

Exactly. What happens in thousands of Polish schools every day has a huge impact on children and youth. Therefore, it is worth starting with the basics, educating teachers, so that they can see how strongly gender stereotypes hold sway in school, that they still guide the behaviours and expectations of adults, and these, in turn, shape children’s attitudes. For example, the myth that girls are less mathematically gifted than boys makes girls more concerned about maths and less confident in their abilities than boys. With their approach, teachers sometimes consolidate the belief in the gender conditioning of scientific talents, and this deepens the children’s faith in these differences.

My friend’s nine-year-old son couldn’t understand why he couldn’t share a room with his female best friend from class during a field trip.

Friendship between girls and boys is sometimes interpreted by adopting our adult assumptions. We recognise that if they like each other, this is an introduction to a romantic relationship. We forget that they are just children and they can just like each other, want to spend time together or pursue a shared passion. Bearing in mind the rigid gender divisions, we consider it natural that girls spend their time with girls, and boys spend time with boys. Meanwhile, such divisions are quite restrictive for children, because both girls and boys can benefit from being together.

Many of the topics on your blog can be considered revolutionary. You write that putting on tiny girls bikinis is a sign of sexualisation, or that a supportive dad should be a feminist. How do readers react to this?

Everything related to feminism, and more specifically to the more equal upbringing of boys, arouses the most emotions. I am simply using the phrase “feminist parenting”, writing about how to raise a feminist son, and I can see that the word is still controversial. Many people live by the values that feminism promotes, but are afraid to call them that. The topic of menstruation also arouses a lot of emotions.

Is menstruation still an embarrassing topic for us?

We are members of the Period Coalition, which is an association of organisations, activists and experts dealing with the topic of menstruation, poverty and menstrual exclusion. We use our channels to educate about menstruation and it turns out that menstruation is still very emotional and taboo. Many women respond to our posts saying that they did not receive support in their homes during adolescence. Many of them hold on to this grief to this day and feel the need to give their daughters the support and warmth they themselves lacked. Teenagers who have never been prepared for puberty also share stories with trauma and fear in the background. This is why it is so important for girls to prepare for menstruation so that they know that it is something natural, worth waiting for, and not something to be feared and ashamed of. During this time, girls need closeness, conversation, and sometimes celebration. Although the readers had different opinions about the family celebrating the first menstruation with the dad’s participation. Some of the girls did not understand why they should involve the father in it. And actually it’s okay in my opinion. Every girl needs something else and it is worth listening to these needs.

Perhaps we are a generation of women in whose childhood fathers simply did not participate, were absent. And we subconsciously accept it as the norm.

Probably so. But sometimes fathers who are close when a daughter is young withdraw when a girl begins to mature. This is based on the belief that it is better to talk to your mother about “those things”. Some fathers begin to have less and less emotional and physical contact with their daughters, they hug and touch them less. But if we build the father-daughter relationship from the very beginning on being together, talking or sharing passions, truly accompanying your daughter in the difficult period of adolescence has a chance for a dad to be more natural. That is why I believe that we unnecessarily tend to form pairs: mother with daughter, father with son. Because nothing prevents a father from including his daughters in his passions. If he gets his daughter interested in fishing, football, anything he likes, she’ll get into it, because that will be the time her dad pays attention to her.

Isn’t that a bit of an idealistic vision? Because so what if your daughter will get into football, if there are only boys in the team and the majority of them think that a “woman” is suitable at most as a goalkeeper?

I am a swimmer and have encountered sexist jokes about women in my club many times. Despite my reactions and protests, not much has changed, it was only after the intervention of the club’s manager that I felt the difference. His reaction to my words was symptomatic: he did not realise at all that innocent jokes could be so unfairly perceived by women. It showed me that men just don’t understand women’s perspective.

We have all lived in this shaped culture for years and we women have also become desensitised, we recognise that this is just the way it is. And by not reacting, we perpetuate this even more. Therefore, to answer your question, I would say that a lot depends on how the trainer conducts the training. Will he differentiate children by gender? Will he treat girls and boys differently? Will he react to comments unfavourable to girls?

Parents’ reactions are also important. It is important that we react to all comments and difficult situations when our daughters are being restricted or stereotyped. Even if we do not have the space to react immediately, we should talk after the fact to straighten some things that our daughters hear out. It is important to give them a clear signal that we disagree with someone who says something inappropriate about their abilities.

It is difficult to draw attention to teachers without undermining their competences, without becoming a punishing teacher.

Therefore, I think it is worth being mindful when confronted with the outside world. Fight for your convictions, but do it in such a way so as not to spoil relations with people with whom our children interact on a daily basis. So we shouldn’t point out, attack or emphasise what the teacher is doing wrong. Focus on your own and your child’s feelings, communicate from your own perspective. I believe that it is possible to educate non-intrusively, non-combatively, on the basis of scientific grounds, but also for the sake of the child’s welfare.

When creating my project, from the very beginning I made the assumption that I wanted to look at how to raise girls based on knowledge, not stereotypes, and I must admit that I want to do it in a balanced way, realistically judging that I will not convince everyone to this way of upbringing.

In recent years, there has been a lot going on in “girlish” subjects. There is press and literature dedicated to girls, empowering workshops or projects like yours that fill the gap in areas not covered by school. Don’t you feel that we are educationally heading towards something like secret classes?

When I started my project three years ago, I jumped onto the “girls’ wave”. That is why I am pleased with the multitude of girls’ topics, although today I see more and more clearly that you also need to carefully look at the ways in which boys are brought up. We need balance and attention to the challenges faced by each gender, because both girls and boys have to face stereotypical limitations and expectations.

As for the secret classes, there is something to it. If we feel that we lack an open school, supporting parents, which would also be a place where children could find a safe space, we look for alternative ways of support. We want to educate ourselves, build our awareness and most of the time we have to do it on our own. This need for education is growing, as evidenced by the rapid growth of people following my project.

And is it possible to raise girls without raising boys?

In my opinion, it will be possible to build an equal world if both boys and girls are raised in the sphere of our deep concern and reflection. As Gloria Steinem said: It’s great that we are raising our daughters more like sons, but it will never work if we don’t raise sons more like daughters. In order for today’s girls to meet today’s boys in a true dialogue and understanding in the future, we must provide an upbringing that is supportive and free from stereotypical limitations to children of both sexes. And this means that it is worth not only lifting up girls, but also easing the pressure on boys. Let them become themselves without putting them in the limiting framework of “true masculinity”. And then, together with strengthened girls, they will jointly create this new, better world.

Magdalena Korczyńska – the creator of the project “How to raise girls?”

Author: Beata Bialik


The text was published in „Wysokie Obcasy” a magazine of „Gazeta Wyborcza” on 9 October 2021