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Building Confidence in Our Girls (and Boys)

We're teaming up with the Representation Project (of which I have always been a fan) and their new #BuildConfidence initiative, to talk about how we, as parents, can celebrate, inform and empower mentors who model positive self-esteem and body image. This is my take.

(Spoiler alert: Everyone has insecurities. Confidence is something we find within ourselves over time. It is also something we lose, regain, reform, rebuild and reestablish as we age. That goes for our children as well.)

1. As the Parent/Caretaker, You = No. 1

This is, perhaps, the scariest truth of all. In the end, regardless of what the media is pushing and the billboards are saying and the Kardashians are doing, WE—the parents, the mothers (and fathers) of our daughters and sons—are in the front of the line, influence-wise. Our children hear us, see us and are always listening to us (even when they seem like they are not). Our kids are being modeled how to work hard, think independently and trust themselves. (NO PRESSURE!)

Thus, it is extremely important for all parents to be aware of the things we say, the way we say them and how we treat ourselves. Self-deprecation is something most of us grew up with. (I did, anyway.) It was not socially acceptable to say nice things about ourselves—I still cannot pinpoint exactly WHY that was the case, so we did a lot of "I'm so fat and ugly and gross" with our friends and in front of our mirrors until we all believed it be to true. We put ourselves down because we didn't feel like we were supposed to prop ourselves up. Self-deprecation is the opposite of vanity—and vanity was for supermodels.

RELATED: Raising Strong Girls

It wasn't until my oldest daughter Fable was born that I started to love myself outwardly—to speak positively about my body and my spirit and my soul. It was OK to love myself and speak kindly about myself in front of my children. If I accomplished something I was proud of, I told them. I shared my joy with them. I also shared with them my failures, because I believe it is just as important to model self-love as it is to embrace the growth achieved through failure.

There is only one way to model determination and that is to share one's failures and flubs.

Besides, hiding my vulnerability from my kids would only result in them doing the same.

I wrote the following for my blog, back in 2010:

"Our insecurities are an important component to better understanding ourselves. That's what makes us human and vulnerable. That's what makes us stronger—understanding our weaknesses, or more importantly, understanding that it's OK to have weaknesses.

"In the end, it is my responsibility as a parent to raise confident kids. But it's going to take more than my love and support to do so. Compliments and praise can only do so much. And perhaps paradoxically, too much praise has the capacity to hinder more than it helps—causing dependency on me for attention and love instead of looking first to themselves.

"It is one of my goals as a parent for my kids to take pride in their good behavior just as I expect them to understand the ramifications of messing up. To see the beauty and wonder in themselves instead of trying to prove those things to others. Because others are ephemeral. Even us, the parents. Someday our kids will live under their own roofs with their own mirrors."

I have always known that I am here to hold up the mirror until they are old enough to take it from me. I am not here to tell them what to do, but to ask them questions so that they may form their own answers and opinions. I am not the answer key—they are.

In the meantime, when I feel beautiful, I say so. When I do something I am proud of, I ask for their high-fives. When I fuck up, I ask for their advice. I do these things so that they feel like they can do the same. Trust is two-way proposition, after all. I cannot expect them to trust me if I don't show them first how to trust.

Mistakes are an all-ages show. So is failure. And determination. And love.

2. Focus on the Positive

For many children, no publicity is bad publicity, especially when it comes to craving attention from their parents, teachers and friends. Over the years, I have had to recalibrate the way I communicate, discipline and compliment one of my children, specifically, because what works for three does not work for four. Focusing on the positive is what works for her right now. If she has acted out inappropriately, I have to bring up something she has done that was appropriate, in order to cross over. When she does something helpful, loving, kind and fearless (without endangering herself or others), we give her the most attention; when she acts out (in order to get attention), I have learned to walk away. To make molehills out of mountains. To nonchalantly call her bluff. (You cannot fight fire with fire. But water almost always does the trick.)

Focusing on the positive isn't just a disciplinary technique but a strategy in raising kind and optimistic children who seek out the positive in others and themselves. I have always felt it important to compliment everyone from friends to strangers in front of my kids. While it "is so embarassing, Mom! Why do you always have to talk to everyone?," I have watched, over the years, my children start to do the same: compliment each other. Strangers. And themselves.

3. Teach Radical Acceptance

I am imperfect. (Very.) And so are my kids. (Very.) And so is every single human being on this planet. (Very.) That is something we regularly discuss. Because in order to focus on the positive, there must be a real conversation about what it means to be a flawed human being.

The other day Bo (who is 3), who has wild and wonderful curly blond hair, told me she wished she had "beautiful hair." This sideswiped me.

Especially coming from Bo, my tough little renegade.

It was the first time any one of my daughters had outwardly commented on wishing they looked differently—and this coming from my rough-and-tumble tomboy. It was a real eye-opener for me, in that beauty ideals aren't only for the hyper-feminine girly-girls. Something I, regrettably, didn't realize until the moment in the car when my eyes met Bo's.

"I want straight hair. Mine is too curly and messy," she said.

I immediately went into damage control, but before I did, I (also regrettably) dismissed her feelings.

"Are you crazy? Your hair is BEAUTIFUL and WILD and WONDERFUL and the most beautiful shade of gold."

I thought about it later, about what I said and how I said it. I thought about how people are always commenting on her hair. All good comments, too, as far as I know. Highly complimentary and yet here she was, putting down something that everyone around her had highlighted. Focused on. Talked about. (When we focus on one specific attribute, it is easy to become self-conscious of that very thing.)

I have always known that I am here to hold up the mirror until they are old enough to take it from me. I am not here to tell them what to do.

And even though it was hyperbolic, I should NOT have asked if my daughter was crazy. Because, the truth is, we all want to change things about ourselves from time to time. It's important to recognize that our lack of confidence in certain areas is OK. We can love ourselves without loving everything about ourselves at all times.

We can love ourselves and still have moments when we want to change our hair or our minds. Recognizing our uniqueness as individuals is empowering. But it can also make one feel alone.

4. Value Health

One of the most important things my mother did for me (and my sister) growing up was to forbid the purchase or use of scales at our home. I never knew how much I weighed at 10 or 12 or 16. And, now, at 34, I still have no idea, because, like my mother before me, scales are not allowed in this house—sorry not sorry.

Weight is not the point and knowing that we've gained five pounds or lost five pounds should not be determined by a thing but by a feeling. I feel different when I put on weight and that, for me, is enough impetus to adjust my eating/exercise accordingly. Not a number, but a feeling.

Which brings me to my main drum I try to beat: passivity.

The scale is a great example of a passive thing that takes the emphasis off the way a person FEELS intrinsically and puts it on a thing that dictates how to react.

There are many "scales" in life and, as a parent, I do my best to distract from them, putting the emphasis on health, happiness and what my kids can do to build their own. Look within. What do THOSE numbers say?

DO NOT LET YOUR HEALTH BE DICTATED BY A THING YOU STAND ON BUT BY THE THINGS YOU STAND FOR.

As parents, we are the first of our children's role models. For better and for worse, they look to us. They listen to us. They are learning to build their confidence from us.

5. Seek Out Positive Media Messages

I'm just going to quote the Representation Project on this one because, I cosign all of this:

"When every princess and prince is thin and beautiful and every witch and warlock is overweight and unattractive, this makes a big impression. Be intentional about what you and your children watch. Try to guide your children toward positive media messages by actively seeking out movies, games, TV shows and music that support physical health, as well as showcase role models that model self-acceptance. When you watch something that portrays stereotypes about beauty, explain what you think of this and how these messages might limit your children."

A few weeks back, I read the following New York Times piece referencing the potential damage a "princess" movie might do to boys—a concept and conversation that is too often overlooked.

"The idea that you've got to be tough, that you've got to fight. ... You can literally apply this to anything. Take the Disney movie. For a long time, we've been having the conversation about how princess movies are bad for girls. But what are they telling men? The men swoop in and interrupt the woman's story. And then we're surprised when men interrupt women in boardrooms."

"There is a Pentagon document," Dr. Kimmel said, "in which Lyndon B. Johnson is quoted saying he didn't want to pull out of Vietnam because he wouldn't be viewed as manly. This is the president of the United States proving his masculinity."

The piece also references the Representation Project's "The Mask You Live In" and stresses the importance of being aware of what boys are up against and how imperative it is that we seek out positive media messages for our sons with as much urgency as we do our daughters.

As I wrote back in 2014:

"Feminism is as much about advocating for our sons as it is our daughters. A more-secure, more-emotionally-able, less-repressed generation of boys means a more emotionally stable generation of everyone.

"'This is how we're working to ensure our son does not become someone to fear,' should be the conversation, not 'where do we pre-order our daughters their date-rape nail polish?'

"Standing up to our sons means standing up for our sons. It also means standing up for our daughters, our communities and humanity as a whole."

***

This article is part of mom.me's collaboration with The Representation Project and their #buildconfidence campaign. Research shows that body image issues originate well before adolescence and that parents are pivotal in instilling confidence in their children. #BuildConfidence campaign celebrates and empowers parents, caregivers and mentors who model positive self-esteem and body image. Share this article and tag #buildconfidence to help us spread the word!

The rest of the series:

Katie Hurley — Building Confidence in Your Kids. Right Now!

Jay Miranda — It Took Me Years to Get Over My Mom's Lack of Body Confidence

Margaret Jacobsen — Growing Confident Kids Means Honoring the 'Every Moments'

Marsha Takeda-Morrison — Building Confidence, One Living Room Lecture at a Time

Laurel Dalrymple — When Your Boy Is Not the Athletic Type

Whit Honea — Being the Skinny Boy Was Never Easy

Serge Bielanko — I Was the Fat Kid

Explore More: school, I Hear Ya, Sister
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