Do good girls finish last?

Is your girl too good?
By: Joanne Stern, PhD

Is it your goal to raise a daughter who is good and obedient, always behaving without argument? Is this your idea of a "model" child? I hope not, because having a girl who is too good is not always a good idea.

Let me tell you why. As parents you want to help your daughter grow an internal structure that will allow her to discern right from wrong and to be able to say both yes and no. As she develops this inner "wisdom box" she will be testing out her thoughts and her beliefs, and they may not always agree with yours. When arguments erupt and your daughter talks back at times, it may not be an act of rebellion but rather an expression of a young girl who is increasing her logic, her thinking skills and her ability to take care of herself.

  1. Why a "model" child isn't the healthiest child.
    A "model" girl is usually one who is covered over-wearing a mask to hide her inner feelings and thoughts. If she always agrees, politely obeys, never argues for what she wants and never complains or misbehaves, then you're not dealing with a unique and fully engaged girl with real-life needs and desires. You're dealing with only the shell of a girl. Being too good shows that she's either been intimidated into conformity or reprimanded into believing she's not worthy of having her own ideas.

    At some point she's likely to rebel against the feeling of being trapped and restricted. She might rebel openly and loudly or subtly and quietly. Like a twelve-year-old therapy client I once had, she might begin to lie, sneak out of the house, scream at you and display out of control behaviors. Or like a sixteen-year-old client she might rebel silently, developing an eating disorder that you have no power or control over at all. In either case, she's not a happy girl. She's not someone who is learning to self-regulate by thinking for herself, making her own decisions and determining her own fate. She's merely reacting to other people in her life.

  2. Why arguing can be of value.
    Teaching your daughter to think for herself and to state her case should be a goal for parents. You should teach her how to argue-with respect and with logic-so that one day, when you're not around, you'll know that she can see issues from both sides, weigh the pros and cons and make decisions that are best for her. Just being obedient doesn't teach these lessons.

    When my daughter Andrea was young, she kept me on my toes because she was often ready for a debate. She could have been a lawyer! Whenever she asked my permission to do something, she considered every detail in advance and prepared a rebuttal for my anticipated responses. She would plunge forward with her arguments, solidifying and justifying her request with great vitality and animation. She knew what she wanted, and she also knew that the buck stopped with me. I tried to listen with an open mind, and if her request was reasonable and appropriate, I conceded. She appreciated knowing that I would be fair and flexible. I appreciated knowing that she was honing her thinking and decision making skills so that she would soon become a responsible adult.

  3. When girls should defy authority.
    Unfortunately, not all adults-in-charge are upright and honest. They don't always have integrity and the highest ethical principles. I'm thinking of the parents of "Balloon Boy," teachers who ridicule their students and camp counselors who molest young campers. There will be times in your daughter's life when you will be glad that she's learned to trust herself and has developed the courage to defy authority. As a parent you can teach your daughter to respect authority but not to blindly submit without thinking about what's right and wrong. When it doesn't feel right, you will hope that your girl can stand up for herself and her moral values against an authority leading her in the wrong direction. When my younger daughter was in middle school, she had a teacher who made fun of students when they got something wrong, often making them cry. She and her friend knew this was wrong-it just didn't feel right to either of them. They could have said, "It isn't my battle. He's not making fun of me." Instead they decided to do something about it. They went to the headmaster and reported the inappropriate and mean behavior of the teacher. It was proud of both of them for questioning what they knew to be wrong and for standing up against their authority.

  4. Self Esteem often comes with Rejection
    When your daughter has self-confidence, she can stand alone against a crowd. If a group of girls decides to shop lift, she will have the inner strength to say no and walk away. When her teen peers pressure her to do drugs, she can politely refuse and stand her ground. When her boyfriend tries to persuade her to have sex, she will be able to tell him she's already decided to wait. It's her self-esteem that will keep her out of trouble.

    If she's always been taught to behave, to listen to her parents and to say yes whenever she's asked to do something, she won't grow that self-esteem and she won't trust herself to reject bad ideas. How many young women defer to boys to make their decisions? How many adult females stay in bad relationships because they are afraid to leave? In my twenty-plus years of experience as a psychotherapist, I've learned that a lack of self-esteem often prevents women from choosing the right path.

    When my daughter Andrea was a teen, her peers started drinking, smoking cigarettes, dipping snuff and smoking pot at parties. She had made a firm decision to abstain. At first kids asked her to join in, but she declined with confidence. She was the only one who didn't partake. She didn't follow the crowd. Thinking back, she recalls that it took real courage to stand solid the first couple of times, but after that, no one cajoled her or made fun of her. It was her self-esteem that got her through. I also believe that her inner strength and self-confidence was enhanced by the "debates" we had and her respectful defiance. If I hadn't allowed her to state her case and defend her position with me, I don't believe she would have been able to resist the pressure of her peers.

    There's certainly a balance between demanding strict obedience and allowing your child to run at will. But remember that allowing your daughter to be herself-expressing herself genuinely, acting spontaneously even if it is sometimes unruly and telling you what she thinks-will help her to grow into a healthy and self-reliant adult. The bottom line is that, as parents, we're trying to develop leaders-not followers.
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