I was delighted when I found out that my first baby was to be a girl. And the second. And the third. I would certainly love my son if I was blessed with one, but I knew that I've got what it takes to raise a girl.
I'm determined to raise my daughters to be strong, confident, and happy. I want them to grow up to be warriors. Mind you, a princess can be a warrior, too, so I don't deny them their pretty dresses and cute hair bands, but I want them to know that they can do much more than just look pretty.
Here's how I try to do it:
Emphasize true beauty
I want my daughters to know that true beauty is not skin-deep – it radiates from inside. People come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, but what makes them pretty or ugly is the way they act. But this truth becomes confused by older girls and women who make silly comments about how they or others look.
If someone uses "fat talk" in the presence of my daughters, I step in. I want them to be healthy and love their bodies as they are – perfect in their imperfection. I want to help them build their confidence on the strong foundation of self-love rather than the quicksand of others' approval. Can you imagine a warrior worrying about her looks or what others might think?
I also make sure to recognize and appreciate the true beauty: a beautiful smile, a beautiful heart full of love, kindness, and respectful conduct.
Teach them to be proud of who they are
A sure way to foster confidence is to give children unconditional love, the 'I love you even when you misbehave' kind of love. You don't have to tell them that, but you have to make sure they know it.
Each of my daughters has unique talents, and they all have their weaknesses, too. One might be better at math and the other a better gymnast, and that's okay. We're all different, and being different is our strength. A true warrior recognizes her weakness, but doesn't obsess over it.
I tell my daughters every day to "focus on what is good." Be proud of who you are and celebrate your girliness (and later, your womanhood). My daughters should never hear that they can't do something because it's not a girly thing to do. They should never have to hide their brains, because popular media says that being too smart is not attractive in women.
I also encourage them to know where they come from and be proud of it. Belonging to a culturally mixed family, my daughters have learned from early on about differences and being unique. They have also learned to appreciate the advantages of their mixed heritage, such as being able to speak two languages and having relatives in different countries.
Give them good role models
Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were never my favorite. I prefer to share the adventures of the brave and bold Pippi Longstocking and Dahl's Matilda with my daughters than traditional fairy tales featuring princesses whose life's goal is to be saved by a handsome prince and get married. Why do these stories always end at a wedding? What did Cinderella do after she became a princess? Did she work to help orphans like herself working as servants in her kingdom?
Give your girls the right role models and make sure they know their aspirations should not to be limited to being pretty and popular. Perhaps there aren't that many strong female characters in children's literature, but there are many heroic ladies whose biographies you can read for a bedtime story.
"Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World" by Kate Pankhurst is a good start, and so are books from the "Little People, Big Dreams" series. Or perhaps there are unsung heroines in your own family or community – grandmothers, aunts, cousins, or neighbors whose lives could be inspiration for little girl's dreams.
Give them something to fight for
I don't want my warrior princesses shaking their spears at the windmills, so I try to show them the world in its true colors and teach them the difference between good and bad. Poverty, injustice, racism, and environmental pollution are all around us. We shouldn't pretend they don't exist just so our little girls don't get upset.
Be honest with your children and frankly discuss serious issues in age appropriate language. Don't keep them in the dark. Instead, make them understand that problems exist, and so do the solutions.
If you're involved in community work – get your daughters involved, too. Let them put their own fundraising cake sale stall next to yours, or find an appropriate volunteering role for them. Perhaps they could walk the dog for an elderly neighbor or help disadvantaged children with their homework.
No one fights for a cause just because their mom told them to. To make a true difference, you have to be passionate about getting results. And to spark this passion you need empathy. Is empathy something that can be taught? It is, actually.
I share stories that deal with hardships and problems, stories that don't necessarily have happy endings, like the original Hans Christian Andersen tales. Storytelling is powerful and a great exercise for our emotional intelligence.
Encourage your children to recognize their own emotions and know that it's okay to feel unhappy, angry, and sad. Emotions are not good or bad; we have to learn to deal with the positive as well as the negative ones.
Emphasize the importance of being kind over being the best. Tell your little warrior girl that personal happiness will come as a bonus when you strive to live a good life.
Try to understand people instead of condemning them. If you see someone speeding, think and say that perhaps they're in hurry to reach their injured child in hospital. If you see a toddler throwing a tantrum, remark that maybe it's because they're hungry or tired. If you get into the habit of being empathetic, and you speak the language of empathy, your daughters will follow. And empathy leads to happiness.
Let 'no' mean 'no'
Helplessness is a learned trait. So is capability. I want to make sure that my daughters learn the latter. It's a bit tricky teaching your children that they both have a right to make their own decisions, and need to listen to you at the same time. It's tricky, but not impossible.
To start, I let my daughters decide what and when to eat and never force them to finish the food they don't like. I let them wear whatever they want as long as it's situation and weather appropriate, and I don't care if they match spots with stripes.
If they refuse to wear a hat on a cold day, that's okay. I suggest they put it in their coat pocket in case they get cold. If they suggest a family activity, like a board game, I join in. If my daughters demanded a new toy during a shopping trip, on the other hand, I say no. I want them to know they have a right to make their own choices and say no and that their no will be respected, just as I expect them to respect mine.
Teach them responsibility
Making your own choices is great, but to truly own your decision you have to be responsible for the outcome, too. So, I make my daughters clean up their own toys and books. They have to sweep the floor if they spill sugar on it.
I don't take it upon myself to solve their boredom. I can point out choices they have, but I do not organize their days. Obviously, I'm there for my girls if they get in trouble, or if they can't manage to do something on their own and they know it. I remind them that not everything is in our hands, that we have limited control over the circumstances.
But so what? Happiness cannot be found in circumstances, it's in us. And we don't have to wait for a prince or a superhero to save us. We can do it ourselves. Whatever happens to us can make us stronger.
Let them know they can achieve anything
The great women who changed the world didn't do it by waving magic wands and whispering spells. They didn't accomplish their goals because they were born talented. They achieved whatever they did through hard work and determination.
This is the message I want my daughters to learn from reading the story of Maria Curie, Emmeline Pankhurst, or Malala Yousufzai. This is why I am careful when praising them, remembering to applaud their efforts rather than exclaiming, "You're so smart."
Let them play
Children need to play. And they need their play to be challenging, even risky. That's why I sometimes close my eyes when I feel my girls are swinging too high to stop myself from stopping them. Risky play teaches them to deal with stress and build their courage, essential for every aspiring warrior. Unstructured free play also fosters inner drive – a sense of trust in themselves.
Over protection, on the other hand, can leave children unable to cope with stress and more prone to mental health problems. Of course, I don't want my children to hurt themselves or get into dangerous situations, but there's a difference between a risky challenge and a hazard.
Climbing a tree is risky, but not really a hazard. Crossing a busy road is a hazard, and it's crucial that my daughters learn how to do it safely. I also know that I should never push my children to take on challenges they're not ready for – unless I want to kill that precious inner drive in them.
Build their physical and emotional strength
Warriors need to be strong. While all of the above is meant to develop character and build emotional strength, we can't forget the physical aspect. I want my children to eat healthy food, so I get them involved in food preparation and talk to them about vitamins and nutrients. I want them to have plenty of exercise, so I strive to take them out daily, even when it's cold.
I discipline, not to control their behavior, but to give them a healthy framework and help them learn self-control.