A close friend has been re-reading Steve Biddulph's Raising Girls, just to remind herself of what might be around the corner in pre teens and adolescence.
Her 7 year old girl, seeing the book on her bedside table, remarked -
"You won't need that anymore, you've already raised me."
This raised a chuckle in my friend, who was heartened by her daughter's blind faith in her parenting skills. It also raised the question, why is it that girls of 7 are so blessedly confident and sure of themselves, and teenage girls apparently so confused and wretched? Another survey has told us that some female teens miss school or events outside the home, because of concerns over body image. Whilst it is not unknown for younger girls to feel anxious about their size, or for the budding class bullies to start trying out "you're fat" as their insult of choice, in general pre adolescent girls are a more carefree and body unconscious lot than their older sisters.
This is particularly concerning as the study finds that girls will not contribute to classroom debate if they feel uncomfortable about their looks. This dynamic then stops them in their tracks from debating, exploring and fully engaging their potential in first the academic environment, and then the professional. It's possible that the researchers have found the crux of under attainment amongst women: lack of confidence over body image in teens becomes crippling anxiety in the workplace, especially at post partum stage.
What to do, and to advise the parent of a 7 year old girl, so that they can keep that confidence nurtured?
Here are some of the best tips from the experts on how to raise confident girls:
1. As a Mum, try to model positive behaviour around body image. This means biting your tongue when you want to wail that you look fat or under par, and not remarking on other women's appearances. Try to resist the temptation of having those glossy magazines around that house that do that nasty cellulite circling around celebs' thigh areas - not a good message for the young ladies of the house. Yup, that's a whole lifetime of small talk at work that's just gone straight out of the window!
2. Dads need to get active, encouraging us to push the envelope a teensy bit in terms of physical activities. This doesn't have to mean bungee jumping in New Zealand or off piste skiing in Switzerland, but getting the whole family - Mum, girls and boys - off the sofa on a rainy Sunday and taking a walk or substituting shank's pony for the lift to the shops. Dads encouraging physical activity sends a strong message - yes, your manicure is lovely but it's also fun to be out in the fresh air together, moving our limbs.
3. Get them in an all girls environment for certain academic subjects. Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths will have huge skills shortages by the time this generation is job seeking. Women can help fill the gap - but get the girls studying this together, as the attainment gender gap widens at the crucial exam stages, when groups are mixed. If this is an impossibility, strongly encourage their budding interest by making them aware of groups such as Stemettes or Founders4Schools which organise meetings with female entrepreneurs and coaching sessions with female mentors.
4. Encourage any sport that they enjoy - even if it's not a team based one. If you see your daughter clambering up walls or trees, get her to the climbing wall for some indoor climbing sessions. If she just likes getting out onto the drive on her bike, take her a little further - time yourselves and make some mini time trials. Show your daughter that it's about challenging herself, rather than being challenged by her peers, fashion marketing teams or just giving in to the pinkness of the world.
5. Biddulph's top tip - help them find their spark. In Raising Girls, Steve Biddulph's key advice is to encourage girls to find their passion - preferably before they reach adolescence, so that the spark of engagement, creativity and momentum from this passion can protect them from the onslaught of peer pressure and body consciousness that can overwhelm girls at crucial stages in their lives. Keep the 7 year old alive in the 17 year old!