Raising Girls with Strong Character

Topic: How to Raise Girls with Strong Character (MP3, 6MB)  
Recorded by: Karol Maybury     
Length: 7 minutes, 52 seconds 

When my teens were little, I read them the Franklin the Turtle books by Paulette Bourgeois. These intelligent, sensitive books depict a preschool turtle learning to navigate a bewildering world full of new expectations. Franklin has very savvy turtle parents, and they skillfully help Franklin ‘make it right’ when he makes bad choices, like lying to friends.

What I liked about these books, in addition to discovering parent role models in an unexpected place (the turtles), were the messages they imparted to kids.  Bourgeois presented an important idea to the preschool reader: As people (or turtles) of character, there are universal, valuable moral codes – like the Golden Rule. The books also reminded me of the television shows of my childhood (like the Andy Griffith Show) so much gentler than today’s TV fare—that had similar messages such as kids are redeemable after they make an error.  There is usually a way to ‘make it right’ or at least attempt to do so, after we transgress against others-- whether it is lying, cheating, excluding, or thoughtlessness. This remains true from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. With a wise, forgiving, gentle-but-firm parent, a preschool turtle or adolescent girl can turn things around when they make a mistake. Much of our work as parents involves presenting our kids with solutions while broadening our child’s ability to take perspective, which is a key component in raising a child with strong character. 

So you may be curious, like I was, about what social scientists have learned about how to raise a moral child and adolescent.  A recent New York Times article by Adam Grant outlines some of this research. Grant discusses a classic study by Grusek and Redler (1980) who found that how a parent praises a child’s pro-social behavior - “you did a generous thing” vs. “you are a generous person” - has a profound impact on the child’s subsequent caring behavior.  Attributing your daughter’s generosity to her character boosts future caring behavior much more than if you categorize it as a generous action. This leads me to conclude that we should praise our child’s good character when she does something brave, kind, or generous. Conversely, a negative behavior should be identified as “a bad action” and “not like you” and “surprisingly poor form,” as my own parents would say to me when I fell short.   

Which brings me to my final point before sharing some tips for raising adolescent girls with strong character:  Set a consistent example. Parents who say one thing and do another will have children who follow their actions, rather than their words according to Rushton’s classic research.  But what about when actions are augmented with say-aloud-reasoning? (“We are bringing the backpacks to the homeless shelter because helping the less fortunate is important in our family.”) That strategy results in the greatest degree of generosity among children who are later faced with showing caring or callousness. So follow through on your own admonitions, because kids are watching to see if our actions match our words. 

Some tips: 

  1. Catch her being good. Attribute her good behavior to her character (say “you are such a thoughtful person”) and label bad behavior as uncharacteristic ("that wasn't like you").
  2. Share stories of how you made mistakes as a child, and how you rectified the situation (or didn't – and the regrets you have about not apologizing for instance.).  As a professor, I've accumulated a few stories of academic dishonesty and the repercussions in the adult world if we don’t learn to be honest, straightforward, and principled in life.
  3. Retrace the steps of the misbehavior to identify why it happened. Researchers have itemized a number of reasons why girls misbehave. Usually it is simple thoughtlessness about why her action is wrong or hurtful, but sometimes it is borne out of a deeper issue of needing attention. Nelson & Butcholz (2003) found that some girls said “I won’t be noticed / appreciated / miss out on things / not get anything in return.” as reasons for their misbehavior. Consider whether there is a larger reason why your daughter may have made a bad choice.
  4. A "quote of the week" on a bulletin board or chalkboard posted at home can bring your family’s values front and center.  The one currently up in my kitchen is “people show their characters in nothing more clearly than in what they think laughable,” which has provoked some good discussions.
  5. A key concept that I have added to my own parenting bag-of-tricks after reading the above-mentioned New York Times article: Expressing disappointment, rather than anger, when a child does something unkind or out-of-character.  Though guilt gets a bad rap, it has its place. When a parent expresses disappointment (sadness or hurt) this results in guilt, which research suggests provokes in adolescents a sense of motivation to dispel the negative feeling, which is most likely to spur positive action.  Conversely, expressing anger generates shame and anger onto the recipient, which produce less motivation to change one’s own behavior. 
  6. When your child misbehaves, it should result in a three-point action plan:  1) Expressing disappointment and explaining how others were impacted and 2) Brainstorming about “How can we (at least attempt) to make this right?” 3) Following through on the apology or restitution.  Giving your child the tools (brainstorming, or providing specific assistance) on how to make it right is something I learned from the Franklin books, as well as social scientists studying redemption in the lab.  One parent recently posted a contract for earning points by completing additional household chores as a strategy toward getting un-grounded after misbehavior.  While the merits of this particular example have been debated, it is food for thought and an example of giving children efficacy to ‘correct’ their bad action.
  7. Have a family meeting to discuss family rules, choose a fixed number, and then post them where family members see them each day. My own family rules have 12 items, including "show gratitude" and "clean up after yourself."   Kids who brainstorm their own rules of civility may find it easier to follow them.  They may surprise you.  My own kids came up with the “Don’t Repeat Humiliating Stories” to guard against potential sibling tomfoolery.
  8. Recent research from John Gottman’s lab on the "quality of the apology" in marital relationships revealed something interesting.  After focusing for years on the sincerity and humility and quality of the apology (which is key) they discovered that the gentleness with which an apology is received is perhaps even more critical to relationship repair. My sense is this research is applicable to family and friend relationships as well. Model good apologizing as well as sincere receipt of an apology. When apologizing comes up in media (television, movies, the news) evaluate it with your family to see if you think it passes muster, and how it could or should be received.

I hope these suggestions and the corresponding research helps your valiant efforts as you endeavor to raise a daughter with a strong character.  Thank you for listening.  

I want to thank the University of Maine, Farmington undergraduates who helped research this podcast:  Shelby Bryant, Leanne Arsenault, Joseph Pepin and Tyler Hadyniak.