Feministe Feedback: Preparing a little girl for a sexist and conformist world

A reader writes in:

You posted a question today about appropriate reading material to help an eight-year-old better understand gender expression, and I guess my question kind of piggybacks off of that: How do you prepare a little girl for the world’s reaction to her understanding of gender expression?

I have a very young niece whom I’m trying to guide (rather to her mother’s chagrin) through the pretty-pretty-princess stage into a place where she can feel comfortable expressing herself as she wants. The problem is that I know what frequently happens when a kid who bucks tradition and peer pressure: She gets targeted by her classmates for being a weirdo and ends up unhappy. At that age, the after-school special where her confidence and strength of spirit influence those around her and teach everyone a Very Valuable Lesson About Acceptance is pretty much a fantasy.

I don’t want to discourage this kid by saying, “You should always be true to yourself. The other kids will probably laugh at you, because they haven’t been encouraged to be true to themselves. But if you can endure the teasing, shunning, and physical assault for just 15 years or so, you’ll find self-actualization and satisfaction in life.” But I also don’t want to say, “Be yourself! The other kids will like you for who you are,” because anyone who’s been to a public elementary school knows that’s not the case. How do I prepare her for the real world without scaring her away from being herself?

Any advice, Feministas?

And remember that you can submit questions for Feministe Feedback to feministe-at-gmail-dot-com.

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54 comments for “Feministe Feedback: Preparing a little girl for a sexist and conformist world

  1. peacocks
    May 20, 2010 at 7:49 am

    No one gets to go through school or life without difficulties or the pressure of having people not like them for one reason or another. Having obstacles while you’re young makes you stronger and more able to deal with bigger problems as you get older.

    I don’t think there is any way to protect her from mean kids nor do I think she should be protected. Even if she was to embrace the pretty princess phase full force she would still have to deal with these issues because there is always something that will make her different from everyone else no matter how small.

    I think your best strategy is to provide a supportive environment at home, let her know all these things you mentioned above, and let her choose who she wants to be. Teach her to be sincere and to be compassionate towards others, even when they are being huge jerks. The best way to do this is by the people around her setting an example with their actions.

    Knowing she is loved no matter what will make a huge difference.

  2. May 20, 2010 at 8:25 am

    I am a single mother of an 8.5 year old. I have always talked to her (since I can remember) about how there are no “girl” or “boy” toys and it does not matter that a boy wants to play with a doll or a girl wants to play with a truck. Along with that, I have taught her about how sometimes boys will be made fun of for playing with toys that way – so she always calls kids out in class for that. Or she gets in their face if the boys tell her she can’t play football. Plus I have given her a safe space to talk about those issues.

    She gets frustrated because she has a strong feminist single mother and sees that, yes, womyn can do it! But some of the traditional gender roles are so pressed at school. She can’t quit wrap her head around how boys keep telling her she can’t play football. Because I taught her all genders are equal. So I let her have a space to talk about those issues, I affirm our beliefs, and let her know her feelings are valid.

    She also knows about trangender people, that not all womyn have vulvas, not all men have penises. She is like, oh okay … it doesn’t bother her.

    It IS a constant struggle/battle, however. Sometimes I DO have to reaffirm that gender is fluid and it’s okay for xyz to play with xyz. But she does notice when the girls and boys in her classes are treated different or that the teacher will give the boys the mouse bookmark and the girls the princess (she was so mad, she wrote a letter to the teacher about gender roles and how it didn’t matter).

    I tell my daughter things like, you are awesome, you look beautiful today, great job … just reaffirming positive compliments to her. This has helped with how she may feel down with how other kids are at school toward her. Or even when she is talking about how so & so said something about her shirt – I tell her “fuck it.” (Yes, I swear in front of her.) We talk about it and it usually helps her to feel what she needs to feel and let it go. It helps her feel less defined by their judgments.

    I feel this has started since birth, however. Since I have kept a strong stance about gender and feminism since becoming a mother, reinforcing all that stuff throughout her life, thus far has been really important. Starting young was a good thing.

  3. Vail
    May 20, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Yep, bullying starts young, even in schools that have programs to stop it from the beginning. My daughter was bullied in Kindergarten! What we did to try to help (besides talking to the teacher and school) was walking her through ways of dealing with it by role playing, reading books on the subject etc. You might also see if she can get into Girl Scouts or some other group activity outside of school where she can make friends who enjoy the same things she does. I think that’s good for kids even if she’s not being bullied.

  4. Mandolin
    May 20, 2010 at 9:09 am

    “But if you can endure the teasing, shunning, and physical assault for just 15 years or so, you’ll find self-actualization and satisfaction in life.”

    I just wanted to say that some kids *don’t* get over bullying after 15 years. It can leave deep relational scars. I mean, it’s effectively an enduring trauma during your developmental years. I’m sure for some people, it’s something you shrug off at 18, but for others, it won’t be. So I would be very wary of “just get through this bullying and it will be okay” arguments not only because they do little to comfort the isolated child in the now, but because it may not be accurate in the future.

  5. Slug
    May 20, 2010 at 9:14 am

    “But I also don’t want to say, “Be yourself! The other kids will like you for who you are,” because anyone who’s been to a public elementary school knows that’s not the case.”

    I think that’s exactly what you should say. I think it is true, too. It takes some time, but I think kids do respect someone who is true to themself regardless.

    Maybe add that if other kids don’t like it, then they aren’t worth her time worrying about. Everybody gets bullied whether they are conformist or not – to varying degrees, for sure – and I think the important lesson to learn is that you shouldn’t have respect or fear of people who don’t like you or don’t treat you well. I think that helps kids a lot, to point out that those other kids’ opinions aren’t necessarily that important.

  6. May 20, 2010 at 9:23 am

    As someone who was bullied through elementary school for sticking out like a sore thumb, I’d say teach the kid to modify behaviour somewhat depending on surroundings. A lot of my neighborhood friends naturally spoke with a more Scottish accent at school than at home, and those who instinctively understood the differences between home and school culture did better. Mode switching is a useful life skill anyway, nobody behaves exactly the same at work and at home; learning to perform this trick, and that modifying behavior to your surroundings doesn’t mean changing who you are.

  7. Ash
    May 20, 2010 at 10:06 am

    I was bullied HORRIBLY in school, with the worst of it happening from 6th-8th grade. I have Asperger syndrome and really could not understand why my liking darker clothes and combat boots and preferring to read over engaging in mindless gossip-based chatter made everyone hate me so much. I would sit in class, do my work and go home. I did not bother anyone, but they bothered me. It got to the point where I was raped on-campus by two “popular” guys when I was 13, which caused a near mental breakdown and was the reason I demanded my mother take me out of public school and homeschool me for high school.

    My mother’s comment about the bullying (especially as I never told her about the rape) was, “If you weren’t so different, they wouldn’t bother you.” “You invite it by wearing the clothes you do and reading the books you do.” I remember sitting on my bed in tears and saying, “Mom, I could paint ‘Kick me’ on my back and it wouldn’t be right for any of them to actually kick me.”

    Honestly, what depressed me the most wasn’t the fact that I was verbally + physically + yes, sexually harassed by a bunch of idiots at school. (It’s not even that one of the two boys who raped me is now a highly-prized minor-league baseball prospect for a well-known major-league baseball team.) What really bothered me was that I was being told that it was my fault. Not that the kids were wrong, not that they should NEVER have treated me like that, no — it was all me.

    So, honestly? I’d say something like, “This isn’t the easy way to do things. This could leave you with physical and emotional bruises that will go away and scars that won’t. But, when everyone else is making really bad decisions that will negatively impact their health and their lives on a journey to find out who they are, you’ll be miles ahead of them. What they might say to you or do as a reaction to you is not right, and it’s not your fault — it’s a problem with THEM, not with you.”

  8. Graphite
    May 20, 2010 at 10:14 am

    “Maybe add that if other kids don’t like it, then they aren’t worth her time worrying about.”

    I think it might also be useful to explain that, often, the reason other kids might ridicule her for a non-normative behaviour is because they have been taught a different set of priorities and ideals to her – whether they were taught directly by their parents, peers and teachers or more indirectly by the world around them. They may very well be good kids, despite the fact that they’ve been taught that non-normative behaviour is weird and icky, and one great way for them to consider the possibility that non-normative behaviour is just as ok as normative behaviour is to see your daughter engaging in it even despite bullying. This means she doesn’t need to write them off as people, even as she can reject their taunts.

  9. kece80
    May 20, 2010 at 10:20 am

    One thing I have noticed after 4 years of working with adolescent girls is that while they do need to hear and see constantly that it is okay to be your true self (and for sure any picture books, or readings about this help) they also need to know that they don’t have to wear the weight of the world on them if they DO ‘slip up’ and conform in order to feel like they belong. It’s okay for them to do things (or not say things they may want to) in order to feel safe in a particular situation. And then of course its helpful for them to have a trusted safe person that they can talk to about those situations with. Identifying how they authentically feel is the key here not ALWAYS the action. Shame and guilt over what they do is even less productive and more harmful. Brownwyn Davies’ study on children and gender roles (Frogs, Snails and Feminist Tales) talks about how sometimes children who were raised with a feminist perspective will ‘jump back into the stereotype box’ for awhile when they feel insecure, threatened or even just to try it out. It does not mean feminist teachings have failed or that such behaviour from them will be permanent ( I am really paraphrasing here). And by far the most important teaching tool for children is to have a variety of different types of positive role models of how they might be.

    Some good resources: Queen Bees and Want-a-bees (talks about activities like the ‘acts like a woman’ box by Rosalin Wiseman, Odd Girl Out and Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons

    Good luck.

  10. Ellie
    May 20, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I think that she should be encouraged to be herself and express herself however she wants– however, it should be emphasized that it’s also her choice how much she wants to express it in front of different people.

  11. Bushfire
    May 20, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I was always different when I was a kid and I never knew why. It always seemed to me that everyone had gotten together and decided on the right clothes and the right music and everything and not given me the memo, then I got teased for liking the wrong stuff. I found middle school horrifying. In high school I ended up spending a lot of free time alone in my room refusing to talk to anybody. What got me through this time is pretty clear to me though: (1) I knew that my parents and extended family loved me unconditionally and would be heartbroken if anything bad happened to me (2) I loved music and joined community bands where I found people I fit in with and who liked me the way I was (3) I was rather privileged, being book smart and being white middle class.

    Obviously you can’t create privilege, but if your daughter knows she is loved and has hobbies and a life outside of school, that will help her. I think one of the reasons community bands helped me is they had people of all different ages. Teenage girls get caught up in teenage girl culture, and if they associate with adults and younger children, they can develop more perspective.

    I enjoyed reading a book called “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls” by Mary Pipher. It contains a bit of Oprah style shock stories of “OMG Look How Bad Teenage Girls Have It” but it also contains stories of resilience and ideas of how to help girls navigate a woman-hating society. They pretty much mirror what some of the comments on this thread say already.

  12. May 20, 2010 at 10:55 am

    given my understanding of previous threads on this site, it seems like the most important education for her at this age is to avoid pissing off any adult feminists by ruining their meals or disturbing them in coffee shops while they’re trying to do important work things.

  13. ACG
    May 20, 2010 at 11:14 am

    @abby jean: Helpful.

  14. May 20, 2010 at 11:19 am

    @ACG – thanks! i too thought it was notable that we as a feminist community seem to be very interested in nurturing and developing young girls when they’re viewed as individuals, but have nothing but disdain for them as a group. and that it does seem like the attitudes expressed in the other thread could be relevant to this individual girl’s development, if she gets messages to shut up and be invisible until she’s an adult and worthy of taking up public space. given that those negative attitudes towards children as a whole are part of the “real world” for which this child is being prepared, i also thought it was helpful to note them in this space. i’m so glad you agree!

  15. Still learning
    May 20, 2010 at 11:20 am

    I really think most children these days ARE encouraged to be true to themselves – at least, any survey of mainstream American media geared towards children will find that this message is repeated over and over again to the point it becomes almost sickening, and I know in American public school systems myself I had that message thrown at me incessantly (to the exclusion of any other education, I sometimes thought).

    The way I see it, the problem is not that some people are encouraged to be true to themselves and others are not, but that people have varying levels of how far they’re willing to go with it. I think one good way to approach this might be to look to whoever her media heroes happen to be and point out how the message of being true to yourself can be applied to their characters – i.e., try to steer her away from seeing the Disney princesses or Hannah Montana or whoever as conventionally pretty feminine women, and instead highlight how they are expressing themselves as they want to be. As this message is already so culturally pervasive, try to utilise that as much as possible to instill a positive mentality. If she does get sucked into the world of conformism and bullying, it might help her to know that there is an equally strong (if not stronger, depending on the situation) cultural current out there that celebrates diversity and acceptance (or at least likes to pretend they do).

  16. ACG
    May 20, 2010 at 11:36 am

    f she does get sucked into the world of conformism and bullying, it might help her to know that there is an equally strong (if not stronger, depending on the situation) cultural current out there that celebrates diversity and acceptance (or at least likes to pretend they do). [emphasis mine]

    @Still learning: I kind of like that part. Of course, the ideal would be actually celebrating diversity and acceptance, but if we can’t have that, it’s good to have people who at least know they should celebrate diversity and acceptance and thus pretend that they do. Maybe with enough time pretending to be accepting, they’ll find themselves actually doing it accidentally.

    My college roommate my senior year was very heavy as a child, and her parents always gave her the “just be yourself, the other kids will like you for who you are” speech. Finally, around high-school age, she turned to them and said, “Mom, Dad, you lied to me. You said they would like me for who I am, and they didn’t.” I don’t like the idea of lying to kids, even little ones. Particularly little ones.

    @Ash: I think putting it context really could be helpful. I’m not sure about the “you’ll be miles ahead” part – feeling smug and superior doesn’t seem like a great alternative to miserable and lonely – but acknowledging and validating the kid’s pain, and helping her understand that everyone has some inner reason for acting like a jerk and that it’s about them and not her, sounds like a good plan.

  17. Sailorman
    May 20, 2010 at 11:37 am

    I have a very young niece whom I’m trying to guide (rather to her mother’s chagrin) through the pretty-pretty-princess stage into a place where she can feel comfortable expressing herself as she wants.
    Are you sure she’s not already there?

    Frankly, I find it much easier to support my children when they’re different, and much harder to support them when they’re conformist. I do it anyway, but it’s worth noting that just because WE think it’s not a good thing for them to be pretty-pretty princesses, doesn’t mean that THEY feel that way.

    The hard thing is to simultaneously support and try (but how much?) to counter some of society’s most pernicious railroading, and to also recognize that “expressing what they want” may not be AT ALL “expressing what you think they should want.”

    It’s just like the uberconservative family who gets shocked when their child wants to dress Goth. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s OK for my kids to like Disney, etc.

    I feel like a conservative in reverse, but that aside I think it’s important to recognize that a “well meaning” intent to interfere and “balance” someone, can be just as damaging from the left as the right.

  18. Sunset
    May 20, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Ideally you could teach her that sometimes you have to do what people expect. It’s not right but it’s reality, and it doesn’t stop being an issue after 15 years. No matter how much I disapprove of societal beauty norms, I still put on “appropriate” makeup and “appropriate” feminine mannerisms in a lot of places, because that’s what you have to do to get and keep a job. Or, you know, not get bullied by the ultra-conservative mental health director for not being normal enough.

    That said, I have no idea how to explain that to a child. Anyone?

  19. Adrian
    May 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Still Learning: as a child of the modern age, I’m sorry to tell you that that is all lip service. They say “be yourself,” but if you actually are yourself they tell you to change.

    Well, anyway, my own advice is to pretty much just let her figure it out for herself, I guess; she will quickly enough. And then help her if she asks for it or seems to need help. And comments like, “people who don’t like you for who you are” aren’t helpful even thought they’re true; she’ll either realize this or she won’t, and saying it won’t change a thing. But don’t encourage her to change or “tone it down” like some people suggest. Well, there’s my unhelpful advice based on no actual childcare experience.

  20. Jennifer
    May 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    I would say, tell her she can be true to herself once she gets to college. Once you get there, people don’t care nearly so much about getting you to conform and picking on you when you do not. While she’s a kid, tell her to blend in with the “norms” as much as she can so as not to get picked on so much. That’s really the only survival method that works until graduation.

    Also, if/when your kid is getting bullied? Please take it seriously and let the kid switch schools (or possibly homeschool) if the kid feels it’s necessary. It’s bad enough that most school administrations won’t do jack about bullying without the parents at least supporting the kid at home.

  21. Melissa
    May 20, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Ash, I am so so sorry that happened you you. It must have been horrific.

    As far the the continuum of bullying to safety in being yourself goes…I have noticed that the more socioeconomically advantaged the school/workplace/team/group of people is, the more conformist they tend to be, and the more viciously they enforce that conformity. (And no, most of the adults do not grow out of it.)

    People who’ve experienced some kind of oppression (be it economic, racial, whatever) tend to be a lot more open to diversity. (Amazing how that works, huh?)

  22. emjaybee
    May 20, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Well, she’s your niece, so that makes it more complicated, as you say, her mom is not all on board with Gender-Expression-Freedom plan. And however close you are with your niece, her relationship with her mom is going to shape her. So the first thing I would say is, be prepared for some pushback, by the mom or even by the niece, who may be afraid to side with you against her own mom (if conflicts develop).

    Your strongest tool, actually is Being a Role Model. Kids care about other kids, but they want to *be like adults*. If you are a woman who lives her life by feminist principles and does not back down, who values herself, and who does not have a rigid attitude about gender expression, then she knows, for a fact, that these things are possible. Whatever her mom/her friends/her TV says.

    She’s going to hit adolescence soon, and that’s really when it gets toughest. She may or may not reach out to you. But be there if she does; be available to her, take her to movies or out to eat as a one-on-one, or even better, to your work now and then, so she can see that the world is much bigger than school and her circle of friends. Treat her with respect, because she’s going to get less and less of that as she hits teenage years.

  23. May 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I would try to emphasize “be yourself” while still recognizing that, especially as she enters adolescence, she may not know who her “self” really is. And that it’s ok and good to explore different ways of being yourself, some of which are going to conform to popular or standard practices and some of which aren’t.

  24. May 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    “I would say, tell her she can be true to herself once she gets to college. Once you get there, people don’t care nearly so much about getting you to conform and picking on you when you do not. While she’s a kid, tell her to blend in with the “norms” as much as she can so as not to get picked on so much. That’s really the only survival method that works until graduation.”

    I don’t mean this to come across as snarky or mean, but I think that’s really terrible advice to give to a little girl — and I say that as someone who was severely bullied from 3rd through 9th grade. My absolute *worst* year of bullying, the year I seriously contemplated suicide, was 6th grade, the year I tried the most desperately to fit in. If she is different, trying to hide it doesn’t make a shred of difference to some kids: bullies can just sense a weird kid — kind of like sharks can smell blood in the water from miles away.

    I was bullied by both boys and girls – so I got the “Mean Girl” psychological torture *and* the Junior Sociopath Club hitting me in the head with textbooks in the hall, punching my breasts, spitting at me during assemblies. It only stopped when I stopped trying to get them to like me and leave me alone, and started saying “FUCK YOU”, and laughing loudly in their faces.

    In the years before, while they were torturing me, I was torturing MYSELF – wearing clothes I hated, trying to like the same crappy music as everyone else, reading “I Know What You Did Last Summer” instead of “The Martian Chronicles” so that I didn’t look like a nerd during study hall. I was living a lie, and it didn’t even work! And when I finally started being myself, it wasn’t like the bullying stopped immediately or anything, but it was a lot easier to be all, “Sorry, what? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of me being awesome.”

    I carry lasting scars from my years of skulking around and trying to be invisible. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

  25. Kate
    May 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    This is such a great question and there were so many great responses to it! Even being quite single with children far off in the distance, this is something I worry about. I have always struggled with low self-esteem even into adulthood, and I dread the day that my children will suffer the same. One thing I think is really important for children is to cultivate their interests. When I was growing up, I think my mom was so afraid of any of her children getting hurt (emotionally) that she didn’t really encourage us to branch outside of our comfort zones. Sometimes you need to do that to find the thing that you are really passionate about. And having that sort of passion helps to make the bullying seem not quite as important. I agree with what others have said though about how every person does experience bullying, and it will help to make her stronger in the long run especially if she does have an outlet like you to talk to when she is angry or frustrated so that it doesn’t break her. Bullying extends far beyond high school. In fact, the worst bullies I encountered were in my 20’s! So everyone needs to learn to deal somehow. It’s excellent you are there to encourage her.

    Also, @Heather, you daughter sounds awesome! :)

  26. Melissa
    May 20, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    “If she is different, trying to hide it doesn’t make a shred of difference to some kids: bullies can just sense a weird kid — kind of like sharks can smell blood in the water from miles away.”

    This is so true. If the person is only moderately different, they’ll probably be able to fake their way into some kind of social circle. But for the really out-there weird people (and I can say that since I count myself among them), it’s all about luck. Are you lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are accepting and kind, or not? Because you’ll never be able to assimilate either way, and the harder you try, the sillier you’ll look. (It sorta reminds me of Drew Barrymore with the feather boa at the start of “Never Been Kissed.”)

  27. Sunset
    May 20, 2010 at 1:26 pm


    Unfortunately it doesn’t always stop when you get to college. Nor is the bullying restricted to coming from fellow students (at any level). I’ve found that some of the worst experiences can be with various adults. As an independent young woman I have been and still am frequently labeled rebellious and uncooperative. A lot of adults seem to view non-conforming youth as suspicious, or as problems to be dealt with.

    It’s a tough balance. I don’t want to say “hide who and what you are.” But at the same time, that’s what I have to do, every day. And that may be what she has to do.

  28. debbie
    May 20, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    I think one of the hardest things for me as a kid, was getting the message from my parents that it was ok to be different, while not getting support from them when I was teased and bullied for being different. The support is really key.

  29. May 20, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    I grew up with a seizure disorder where the seizures resembled psychotic breaks more than most seizures from the outside. I’d run around, and bite, and kick, and generally act like a lunatic for several hours per seizure, several times a week, until we figured out how to prevent them. Needless to say, this scared the other kids, and I can say better than most people that many kids are cruel. And it’s hard, and it hurts, and I changed schools to get away from it, but that didn’t work, because I was in a small town, and a lot people (not just kids, adults too) are cruel.

    But there are also wonderful people in the world. Wonderful teachers, family, and other kids who are friendly to outsiders, either because they are outsiders themselves, or because they’re just kind, good people. If this kid were mine, I’d just keep saying that it’s her choice how she expresses her gender, these kids have no idea what they’re talking about, and home is a safe place. You know what, it won’t make her feel better right then, but she’ll remember it, and it’ll help her get through the bullying with the strength and confidence to make her own decisions and fight for what she is.

    Or in short form, I’d tell her “kids are stupid, except for you” and leave it at that.

  30. Zes
    May 20, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    I was one of those girls – didn’t give a straw about makeup, boys, gossip, didn’t know what an album was when aged 11, someone asked me what was the last I’d bought. I grew up on a farm and those were not my priorities. I had only 2 good friends at school until we all turned 17 or 18, then other girls started to honestly like or at least respect me because I was smart and knew a lot (yay being taught to read young).

    Solutions that worked for me:
    1. Outside hobbies. In my case, I wrote short stories, poems, plays and eventually a novel. It took 5 years and about half my free time as a teen. I now make my living by my pen, so it was useful too! Also I did masses of reading, for escapism. Being creative is really rewarding and your pen/paints/deck of cards (magic is really fun) will never tell you that you are too boyish/fat/short/uncool.
    2. A creative writing group. Somewhere that it was OK to be creative and there were other girls who were supportive. Again if your girl is not bookish, find something that suits her – sports, woodworking, singing, whatever it is.
    3. A dog. Something/one to talk to who was never judgmental and provides unconditional love (even the best parents have moods or have to take time out with work/siblings/etc; dogs really just love you), and a way to have responsibility and a small purpose; the dog has to be walked and looked after no matter what’s going on.

    These all have in common that they are safe spaces; for your mind, your personality, your body. Havens like that make the other stuff smaller I suppose. They create a space to develop your talents and a sense of self-worth which thickens your armor. They’re also somewhere you might find friends and support. When I have a teen daughter I will help her to find spaces like that for herself.

  31. May 20, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    I was a bookish kid but I played with Barbies til I was 11. I started in with the sarcasm at a young age but was pretty shy and super sensitive to criticism. This all added up to an unhappy 4th-8th grade situation, to put it mildly.

    Luckily, my parents were supportive and truly did want me to simply be me. My mom even acknowledged to me, when I was in high school and doing much better with a good set of friends, that she had sometimes wished I could’ve been more like the other kids, just so it wouldn’t have been so painful for me, but that of course they knew it was more important for me to grow up as myself. That’s the kind of support you can provide your niece, and she won’t forget it.

    Also, I’d say encourage whatever interests she has at the moment; kids often try so many different things out, and they’re all worth exploring. If she does end up loving baking, sewing, and the like, there’s a whole host of feminist craftsy folks out there. If she’s into fashion, there’s a big feminist fashion community. No matter her interest, there is a community of strong, bright, independent women interested in the same thing who can help mentor her.

  32. May 20, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    Short and sweet: Pick you battles.

  33. caprette
    May 20, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    My advice: take her concerns and her likes and her dislikes seriously. I remember being bullied in elementary school and being told “they just have a crush on you/are jealous of you.” In high school, I was incredibly depressed and lonely, and when I told my mother that I wanted to see a psychologist or someone, she thought it was “just a phase” and didn’t want to bother. (I also remember my mother acting like I was being completely ridiculous when I told her I was interested in neo-Paganism, which ended up being a brief stop on my path from being an Episcopalian to becoming an atheist.) But for the most part, it was my tight-knit family that kept me from a lot of the worst self-destructive behaviors that my friends engaged in.

  34. ripley
    May 20, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    I think a lot of the responses here sound like they assume that the reason for being bullied comes from the person being bullied. It sounds like that is the case for some people who were bullied themselves – they think it is because of something they did. I’m glad @fridythirteen pointed out that oftentimes, there is nothing you can do. Also, bullies can pick on anything, and that becomes the “problem,” so chasing around eliminating problematic aspects of yourself to please bullies is counterproductive.

    If a parent wants their child not to be bullied, they need to get involved in the culture that creates bullies. Bullies are rarely treated as the problem – the kid who gets bullied is the one who is told to shape up, or fit in. This will not work, and can be really harmful.

    Think about it this way – what about a kid who is black or latino in an otherwise all-white classroom, and is bullied, with that being given as the reason. What should they do to fit in? bleach their skin?

    The greatest thing my parents did for me was give me unconditional love and take me seriously as a person. This did not mean they praised everything I did no matter what, this meant they wanted me to explain why I did what I did, they always explained themselves to me, they questioned authority and taught me to do the same. I was bullied a little bit, not too seriously, but part of what I think helped me through that was feeling like my parents had my back, and that I was a person of worth. I didn’t tell them about much of it, but if it had gotten out of hand you can bet they would have noticed (they paid close attention to me), and they would have raised hell –not with me, but with the school. I understand that’s a larger project, but bullying is a social problem, it’s not a problem for kids “sticking out” from the crowd.

  35. May 20, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    I’ve been a raging little feminist since I was 7, and it’s been hard but well worth it.

    1.) Don’t lie to her – tell her the truth. But you should also acknowledge that no matter what she does, she will get bullied – even if she conforms. If she conforms, she will eventually be mocked by nonconformists for having no originality and being destined for various forms of a miserable life. Also, while conforming might cut down on bullying from girls, it will also severely limit her friendships with boys – which will not only mean missing out on awesome friends, but will make relationships with boys much harder in the future. I’ve always been very easily able to be friends with boys, and it has made my dating/”love” life tremendously easier now in high school, as opposed to the girls who always saw boys as another species to be cautiously approached only when necessary, and know most of the opposite gender from movies rather than experience. And, of course, you know what happens if she doesn’t conform. Just tell her the probable consequences of both social paths and let her pick her own battles.

    2.) Xena and Buffy the Vampire slayer, and other shows on that vein. You may want to talk to her about the sexualization of women in the shows, but let the kick-ass women speak for themselves. Don’t worry too much about “mature content” – I’ve been watching Xena since I was 4, and most of the more adult-issues went right over my head…but the girl being a badass and beating all the guys on their terms, and hers? Easy to get at any age. A lot of the media where women are (violently) powerful has the downfall of women being oversexualized to compensate for their lack of servility. Talk to the girls about it. But let them enjoy it, too, because after a day of dealing with people telling you girls can’t fight/defend themselves/do anything, coming home to watch badass girls beat the guys at their own game is heartening.

    3.) Don’t be oppressive, either, if she does have periods of girliness – sometimes, it feels good. Just make sure she knows it’s not her only option in life. Even when I opted to wear frilly dresses and act like a demure little wife, I still told people my name would start with “Dr.”, not “Mrs.”

    4.) Be careful about the Girl Scouts thing. On one hand, it is great to be able to have enforced all-girl environments to feel relatively safe in. On the other, girls are usually a girl’s worst enemies – and the Scouts still rely on a lot of “traditional” views on gender. Boys were allowed to learn about camping fires and how to make them as early as 8 in our area, but girls could barely go near the fires until they were 10. While boys were off in adventure camps, we were often designing skirts for faux-sockhops and being told that being a Good Little Helper in life will get you the furthest in life possible. But, this also may have been the very conservative area we lived at that time – find out what the programs for girls in your Scouts would entail…and compare it with the boys. If there’s obvious gaps/distinctions, don’t go there.

    4.) Martial arts – taekwondo, karate, ect. For one, starting self-defense knowledge early will be a valuable skill, especially in dealing with bullying. But, find out the policies of your specific “school” – I remembering being disgusted with a karate school wherein kids fought only with others of their belt-levels, and only of their own gender. By contrast, my long-time taekwondo dojo paired up sparring partners by skill and size, regardless of belt color or gender. Due to previous experience with informal marital arts, I often got paired up with kids and even adults several belts my senior, and just as often with boys as girls. Not to mention, along with teaching how to use traditional weapons of staffs and whatnot, they taught useful self-defense in the form of how to get a gun or knife away from an attacker. And, a huge bonus: in my school, the girls who had a history of martial arts always said “no” with confidence, as opposed to other girls who said it shakily at best – in the way which boys easily decide to interpret as “she really means yes” – or not at all.

    5.) Teacher her feminist and female history – the oppression women have experienced, how they fought for it, and how they still fight for it. When you experience sexism, if you can, share the stories with her, and how you dealt with it.

    6.) If you go to a toy/clothing store, lead her through both boy and girl sections and let her make her choices. Don’t just let her “follow the signs”.

    7.) Encourage her to play with boys and invite them over, even for sleepovers. The more early interactions with boys, the better.

    Hopes that helps! I’ve got tons more ideas, but at the basic level, this is what I have to offer. I’ll just stop here before this gets WAY too long.

    …I really need to learn how to write concisely…:D

  36. Katie
    May 20, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    Teach her about different dynamics of oppression, including race, which isn’t mentioned here at all (leading me to believe that the author of the letter is white). Love her, and believe her when she tells you things, especially if she’s being bulled. Surround her with strong, respectful men and women of all backgrounds. Give her spaces for learning and connection outside of school, which is a breeding ground for both bullying and enforcing crappy gender/race/class/etc. dynamics.

  37. May 21, 2010 at 9:09 am

    I’ve yet to deal with this for a girl child, but I’ve hit the gender stereotype thing hard with the 7yr old boy a few times. My approach is still a work in progress, but up until now I’ve been fairly comfortable with the results.

    I have a pretty simple approach.

    1. I explain the philosophy. Why telling boys they can’t do girl stuff is tantamount to saying girls are inferior to boys. (Or, as relevant to this case, why girls being restricted to girl stuff is… ditto)

    2. I explain that he doesn’t have to tell everyone everything he believes, so that if the cost of publicly offending the mainstream is too high, he doesn’t have to do it, as long as he doesn’t change what he believes (ie he’s allowed to pretend to conform if it ain’t worth the fight).

    3. I encourage creative ways to subvert the stereotype among his friends – in the case of “fairies are girl stuff” (and therefore bad) which we confronted recently in a friend, this belief was beautifully counteracted with Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy book. Fairies are now cool in my son’s small group. (There may have been some glossing over some aspects of the book.)

    In the end, though, all of this comes down to encouraging all kids to question. Just keep asking pointed questions and slowly they’ll come to their own conclusion. Lots of little princesses grow up to be Hairy Legged Feminists (TM).

  38. Caravelle
    May 21, 2010 at 10:36 am

    As far as dealing with bullying goes I think it’s all been said so I’ll just add one thing : don’t just help her deal with bullies, try and teach her not to be a bully herself. As others have pointed out those who are bullied can’t do much to stop it, it’s better to address the problem on the other end… And

  39. Caravelle
    May 21, 2010 at 10:45 am

    As far as dealing with bullying goes I think it’s all been said so I’ll just add one thing : don’t just help her deal with bullies, try and teach her not to be a bully herself. As others have pointed out those who are bullied can’t do much to stop it, it’s better to address the problem on the other end, and any kid can be a bully at some point in their lives. And even if she doesn’t ever pick on anyone but is bullied herself, having learned about bullying and why she shouldn’t do it could help bring home the message that she isn’t the problem, it’s the bullies that are in the wrong.

  40. Sapphragette
    May 21, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    The statement that made me wince (for all its good intentions) was this one : “…The other kids will probably laugh at you… But if you can endure the teasing, shunning, and physical assault for just 15 years or so, you’ll find self-actualization and satisfaction in life…”

    And there it is…the big “But”…

    The underlying message being what all of us in the LGBT community get most of our lives “What a shame… as a non-conformist your life will be one of non-stop pain and suffering and misery…and oh yeah…people will try to kill you”.

    As well – this also subtly perpetuates the never-ending stereotype that all teenagers are a bunch of wild animals who will attack at any moment…if we don’t keep them under control somehow.

    Please don’t misunderstand me – there is a long way to go before any of us can live in world where gender ceases to be such a big issue (and that’s a topic for another discussion)…and yes – kids get bullied -sometimes horribly. (But frankly what is distressing to me more than any of this – is the number of times I hear about the adults who stand around and do nothing about it because of their own prejudices.)

    What I can tell you is this – I have talked with and worked with many many many young gay teens over the years who have told me they feel nothing but guilt (yes GUILT) because they weren’t miserable – their parents were supportive and their friends still loved them.

    Often these young people feel they are “letting the side down” or “not doing it right” because they have been taught (by often kind well-meaning folks – often within the LGBT community who went through hell in earlier decades) that they are supposed to be miserable, unhappy and suicidal and live a life of pain.

    What we need to do is stop this subtle message of sabotage and truly be supportive – and love our young people for who and what they are. I can tell you some of the most wonderful, insightful talks I’ve had with teenagers have been with many of the incarcerated youth I’ve worked with – on topics as varied and complex as the prison system, abortion, and gay rights to gender stereotyping and (believe it or not) finance reform and bank bailouts – and the depth and intelligence of their answers will blow you away…

  41. Bagelsan
    May 22, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Encourage her to play with boys and invite them over, even for sleepovers. The more early interactions with boys, the better.

    Hmm, I wouldn’t go this route. I understand that you value your friendships with men (as do I) but it’s also very important to develop strong female bonds. Telling a little girl that girls are all back-biting bitches, and that she should aspire to befriend boys (the people with actual worth) sounds like a horribly damaging message to send. (Also, you’re assuming she’ll want to date boys, which is just silly. :p)

    I liked the point about how you will be bullied if a bully decides to bully you (just like women are raped because a rapist decided to rape them, and not for any other reason) and changing yourself won’t save you. The best defense is a healthy bullshit-meter (if they talk crap, you know it’s just a load of crap), strong self-esteem, a certain amount of “fuck you” attitude, and the willingness to hurt someone if they mess with you. Along those lines, a ton of confident and loving emotional support from the family (and maybe a few lessons on how to fight/snap bricks) might be the best things you can give her.

  42. Bagelsan
    May 22, 2010 at 1:01 am

    Oh, and goals to work towards in the future. The only thing that got me through middle and high school was the thought that they could bite me, ’cause at 18 I was outta there and not coming back without a doctorate and maybe a Nobel Prize or two. If you have something to aspire towards you can keep a sense of direction, and a little cockiness — you’re gonna be someone, so who the hell do they think they are, trying to fuck with you? :p

  43. May 22, 2010 at 5:47 am


    I wan’t trying to say she shouldn’t make friends with girls, quite the opposite. Societal messages say that girls should only make friends with girls, only invite girls over to play, only have sleepovers with other girls, ect. – I mean, on TV, even if a girl is best friends with a guy, that guy is almost never going to be there for a sleepover due to his maleness. And a lot of the girls I know only started seeing boys as potential friends for now – rather than, in the future they’ll be potential husbands – as recently/late as junior high, or in some cases, not even until high school. I think it did a lot of damage to have such limited interaction with boys, so I think encouraging her towards both genders – which in this case would mean encouraging her towards boys, because everyone/thing else will be encouraging her towards girls – would be good in the long run.

    And yes, BS meters are so much fun when dealing with bullies. >:) I’ve often found that when someone answers a question with “Because it’s a boy/girl thing!”, asking “why does that matter?” over and over again will leave people spluttering for answers. I used this for everything from the teachers who tried to make me play with the girls when I didn’t want to, to the girls who told me I shouldn’t be playing with the boys at lunch, despite the fact the girls already thought of me as not girlie enough. :D

  44. May 22, 2010 at 8:55 am

    @Nyxelestia I’d back that – my son has been trending towards male only friends, but that is mostly because the girls want nothing to do with him. In my kid’s school, at least, we saw the girls separate themselves off from the boys way before the boys were thinking in that direction. We’re talking 5-7 year olds here.

    In the spirit of helping those trying to raise boys, I’d like to ask those influencing girls to try to keep a balance.

    I live in a pretty privileged spot. People are well off, left wing (in general), and mostly struggling with this problem exactly – how much do we push our kids to fight the stereotypes? It really highlights how hard this is. The answers are so dependent on local conditions, but I’d say, always, the more you can encourage every kid to have meaningful friendships with boys and girls, the better chance those kids have of starting to think inclusively. How else to we shift the “I’m alright Jack” mentality?

  45. Unree
    May 22, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    The best defense is a healthy bullshit-meter (if they talk crap, you know it’s just a load of crap), strong self-esteem, a certain amount of “fuck you” attitude, and the willingness to hurt someone if they mess with you.

    I strongly agree, and you need this attitude even after you escape the bullying prison that school can be. You MUST be ready to inflict severe pain on another person in self-defense. This stance made a big difference to my own welfare in school when I was young. If bullying looks like a potential threat, I say tell your daughter that you’ll support her 100% when she beats the shit out of a tormentor. Inflicting emotional as well as physical pain should be an option.

    Many teachers and administrators, who tend to side with the bullies, expect cringing and humility from victims of abuse. They won’t punish tormentors but will punish victims. They’ve invented cliches to make their own job easier: “He just does that because he likes you,” “Just ignore them,” etc. Fuck that. (And, like Heather upthread, I’d use swear words when sending this message.)

  46. Bagelsan
    May 23, 2010 at 12:16 am

    “He just does that because he likes you,”

    Man, do girls and women ever get told the stupidest crap. And the lovely follow-up, when you respond appropriately to a harasser/bully of “if you’re mean then he/they won’t like you!” … Yeah, they’re harassing and bullying you, they already don’t like you. Make it miserable for them.

  47. mightydoll
    May 23, 2010 at 2:18 am

    I agree with the person who pointed out that this child may feel that “pretty pretty princess” is a part of who she is, and to be careful about projecting our impression of “being yourself” onto a child. She may well be very confused if you tell her to just be herself, when she has chosen for herself (as far as she’s concerned anyway) to be a pretty princess.

    I try to explain to my daughter where kids are coming from when they tease. It’s often quite obvious, if you meet the kids and their families, which insecurities are being expressed by which forms of teasing and bullying. When my daughter and I talk about it, I try to explain, not just that kids do this because they are insecure (really, who bought that as a kid?), but very specifically what kind of attention they are trying to gain, and we brainstorm about why they might be trying to gain this attention. This talk is sprinkled liberally with the reminder that it’s never okay to treat people poorly as a means to work out your own shit, and that she can’t help people by putting up with their shit when they seem to have a good excuse, but that sometimes understanding where it’s coming from makes it hurt less, enables you to see how it’s usually about them more than it is about you. (we also talk about the difference between teasing someone, bullying someone or calling someone on their behaviour. If someone tells her they don’t like what she’s doing – and it affects them – that’s not mean, or teasing or bullying, that’s fair and she should listen the way she’d want to be listened to, even if the kid is angry or not expressing themselves well – but that insults and hurting go too far- umm, I’m not expressing myself very succinctly, but basically the difference between commenting on someone’s behaviour, versus commenting on the person themselves.)

    In terms of peer pressure: my daughter has one friend I can’t stand. I feel bad for disliking a kid that young this strongly (9 years old) especially since I can definitely see where she’s coming from, but the way she treats my daughter and other people makes me just furious. When my daughter plays with her a lot, I can always tell, because she comes home talking to everyone in the house in sarcastic, belittling tones and words. Then we talk about how that’s not nice behaviour, and that while I can’t control who she plays with at school, I don’t want to live with this kid, I want to live with my kid, who is usually very kind and sensitive. At first, it didn’t take, but she’s begun to look at the way this child treats her, and begun to protest when there’s manipulation and bullying going on, and choosing her own path, and that’s really nice to see.

    Sorry, that was rambly…it’s 3am..I probably should have waited until tomorrow or something for that comment. Hopefully some of it made some sense. ;)

  48. May 23, 2010 at 2:54 am

    I personally never understood the logic behind, “They’re mean to you because they like you.” Almost all the kids who were mean to me didn’t like me, and I didn’t like any of the kids I was mean to, myself.

    This logic actually hit a disturbing point for me later on – I was talking about stalkers with a girl, and she mentioned that stalkers do what they do because they are so in love, and likened it to this very piece of schoolyard bullying “wisdom”. She’s one person who voiced this, but it worries me how many other girls might actually be thinking this.

  49. Bagelsan
    May 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    This logic actually hit a disturbing point for me later on – I was talking about stalkers with a girl, and she mentioned that stalkers do what they do because they are so in love, and likened it to this very piece of schoolyard bullying “wisdom”. She’s one person who voiced this, but it worries me how many other girls might actually be thinking this.

    That very concept was in a beer ad I saw recently. These women are talking about their friend (a sheaf of wheat) dating this guy (the beer being advertised) and there’s a line from one of the women: “there’s a fine line between love and … stalking” followed by “but he walked it! Like a pro.” [cue happy ending montage]

    I wanted to scream at the screen “IT’S NOT THAT FINE A LINE!” But yeah, that idea is very much mainstream. That any attention from a guy is good and worthy (if you’re a kid, any attention from anyone) and you should just be happy he’s deigned to notice you, no matter how clumsily (or creepily or murderously) he shows it.

  50. Troy
    May 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Allow her to be herself fully, even if that is a pretty princess. But show her that even the prettiest of princesses can be a strong and capable woman.

  51. May 24, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    I’m way late to the thread, but, in reference the question (and not much else) posed:

    To help someone survive the onslaught of peer pressure and the societal forces of conforming — especially in the realm of gender expression — is to help the child learn about themselves.

    In order to “be yourself” you have to “know yourself”. And those who know themselves are inured to the power of peers and the forces of marketing and the massive wave of social normativity that sweeps down and drowns one in in all the isms of the world.

    IT’s not perfect, by any means, but that’s the main focus if you want to truly help them and make sure that they are able to resist those things.

    Knowing yourself is not an easy task to do when you are an adult, but for kidsit’s a lot easier because they are still enjoying that wonder of the world, and in each thing they encounter, they find a little bit more of it.

    GUide them in that. Let them know that they are not “restricted” to pleasing you, that mistakes are good things as long as you learn from them, and that sometimes the lesson we learn is just as bad as the mistake.

    Show them *everything*. Even the stuff they are bored by. It all adds up. Share your loves with them, shares your ideas, even when those ideas are “too grown up” for them.

    Self esteem is great, and all, but self knowledge is the key — when you come to know yourself, you gain a strength that very little can destroy.

    Oh, and use the favorite word of the very young: why.

    IT’s a powerful thing.

  52. antyne
    May 25, 2010 at 3:08 am

    tho slightly off the question but still relevant to the issue, i just wanted to add that as adults we need to pay attention to what the schools are teaching and responsibly respond when we find out they are teaching these gender biased roles, lessons, etc. we need to give our input to the schools and let them know it is not o.k. for them to be teaching in biased gender role ways. the more people that let them know and disapprove, the more they will have to change. we can transform the current schools ways and we also have the option to create brand new schools which aren’t gender biased, etc. regardless, we adults need to take care of that, not let it all fall on the child to deal with.

  53. Katie
    May 25, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Keep an eye on what she’s reading; a lot of women can point to books they read in childhood that have shaped their adult lives. I’d suggest Little Women and the original, unedited Nancy Drews (published by Applewood Books) when she’s old enough. Books like these cultivate a love of reading and encourage girls to question gender roles.

  54. Emily
    June 6, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    I always tell my younger friends, cousins, etc., an honest variation on the “people will like you for who you are” myth: I say that if people don’t like them for who they are, those people aren’t worth having as friends.

    As for your daughter: I also highly recommend Buffy in a couple years – there’s some really heavy stuff about sex and death in the later seasons, but she’ll be dealing with such things or seeing her friends deal with it sooner than you’d think. At that age, I also had Dana Scully in the X-Files as a role model of sorts – again, my parents would’ve thought it was way too mature for me, but I handled it just fine.

    For books, I didn’t like the Nancy Drew series very much, as I found the excessive descriptions of what Nancy and her friends were wearing or driving and their stereotypical female behaviour and constantly getting kidnapped to be quite annoying. At your daughter’s age I preferred the Redwall series (talking animals) which has some strong female characters in it. I liked Lord of the Rings as well – I could go into an entire blog post of my own about why I loved a book that seems so male-dominated, but I’ll keep it short. Galadriel, and not her husband, seemed to be clearly in charge in her forest, and Eowyn kicked ass but had the very relateable problem of liking a man who was already taken, and then she ended up happily falling in love with a man who didn’t really meet the masculine ideal (both in our world and in Middle-Earth). Basically, Eowyn was one of my role models, and the romance between her and Faramir was the part that stuck with me the most.

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