Ep. 83 – Maggie Dent – Raising Mighty Girls and Women
- How to recognize ‘people-pleasing-conditioning’ that can happen very early for little girls
- Why we never want to give our girls the message they are too emotional or dramatic
- The problems of ‘making nice’ and ‘over-selling kindness’
Raising girls is complicated.
In spite of all our empowerment messages, rates of stress, anxiety, and depression are on the rise for girls. Studies indicate a girl’s confidence drops by 30% between the ages of 8 – 14.
This week on family360 we’re with the wonderful Maggie Dent, talking about femininity, feelings, and friends. Maggie believes we raise mighty women by raising mighty girls – and that starts right from birth with how we encourage our daughters ‘to be’ – to value others and enjoy who they are – whether they want to purr or roar. Join us!
Maggie DentMaggie Dent is a passionate voice for children of all ages and genders, specializing in resilience training during the early years.
She’s a bestselling author of multiple books on parenting, including two on raising boys, and her newest book called girlhood. Maggie’s a syndicated host of ABC’s ‘Parental As Anything’ podcast (which was recently awarded best parenting podcast in Australia), and she’s internationally known as the Queen of Common Sense.
Alongside her degrees and years of study and practice, her work’s been rooted in the realities of raising her own four boys. Now, she has a wonderful flock of ‘grandies’ including 4 granddaughters who helped to inspire her newest book.
Ep. 83 – Maggie Dent – Raising Mighty Girls and Women
Rachel Cram – Maggie, it is so good to be back with you for a third episode. Thank you.
Maggie Dent – No, thank you, Rachel, I really value our conversations, and I’m just sorry I can’t be with you in the studio right there in Canada. But never know. You never know.
Rachel Cram – That is the hope again, for our first interview you were. You were here right in front of me. We’ve got to make that happen again for sure.
Maggie Dent – We’ve got plans. I want to see the cherry blossoms in British Columbia in 2024. And that’s April, apparently.
RC – Okay. We’ll sign you up. Definitely. Well, at the recording of this interview with us right now, you just won, ‘Best Parenting Podcast’ for Australia. Congratulations. That must feel so good.
MD – Oh look, it seriously did for a whole lot of reasons. But the first one was when they came and asked me if I’d do it. I kind of had this little blast, like as a little girl, we had no TV on the farm. We listened to ABC Radio. And I’d always secretly wanted to be a newsreader or something on the ABC. So when they came, I went, “Wow, that’s so good. Probably only last season.”
And we’ve completed five seasons and about to go into the sixth. So I was pretty chuffed, very, very chuffed
RC – For sure.
MD – and thrilled. But I have a great team that helps us sound really good.
RC – I listen to your podcast very often and you so kindly have recommended us to some of your most incredible guests. So
MD – Absolutely.
RC – You are just really like this mother hen that scoops a lot of us under your wing.
MD – You know, I really – it’s kind of one of those things that I remember doing personal growth work years ago. And I remember a really elderly facilitator who had actually been a professor of psychology before he became a Cherokee shaman. So he was a really unusual man. And I was doing one of his workshops and he said to me one day, “Yeah, you’re stepping into the Crone years.”
And I said, “I don’t know that sounds very good.”
RC – It doesn’t.
MD – No! He said, “Your most important work is yet to come.”
And you know, the world is kind of anti-aging, if you haven’t noticed. It’s like, you know, fill in all the cracks so no one can tell that you’re older. And I think that’s a bit sad because sometimes I have troubles with chin hairs. And, you know, certain things shift and change. However, there’s gifts that come at every stage of being a girl and a woman. And when we own that sacredness of older women who never pull other women down or anybody actually, and our job is to bring forward those who come from that place of integrity and compassion and heart…
RC – …we can be such a support to one another.
MD – Yes, although I have to put one caveat on that Rachel. And that sometimes age can bring wisdom, but sometimes instead of coming to embrace your authentic self, you are such at war with yourself that you often project that onto others. So you can become bitter and angry and judgmental and nasty, rather than being these kind of women that can hold a space for all without needing to win any accolades at all.
And I learned that sitting with elder women from all sorts of indigenous cultures around the world. I was always profoundly impacted by their capacity to sit in silence instead of filling every gap. So many beautiful wisdoms that I’ve discovered from sitting on the earth with elder women in traditional kinship communities just way smarter than anything I learned at university.
RC – Well, you’re doing that for so many of us now. We sit in a circle around you, even though it’s across the world listening to your wisdom and reading your wisdom. And even in your newest book that we’re going to talk about today, girlhood, you celebrate so many younger women and encourage them by referring to their work. You know, Michelle Mitchell, you bring up her work a number of times. Katie Hurley, Janet Lansbury – like you’re just bringing up people who you want to elevate and that doesn’t diminish you. And I think that’s a really beautiful part of who you are Maggie. So, thank you.
MD – Can I just say that’s how ancient communities worked? Women were never in competition. Women gathered and supported each other. So our children weren’t just ours, they were everyone’s. Our wounds were not just ours, they were everyone’s. Our celebrations weren’t just ours, they were everyone’s. And I think we’ve individuated a lot in the modern way of living, and it’s it’s not healthy. And the healthiest women I meet have a circle of women around them who can gather in those spaces and be raw and real and laugh sometimes till they nearly wet themselves and cry and sob when it’s painful. And it is a powerful womanhood, sisterhood circle that I believe we all need. And if we’ve got it, yeah, it really can help.
RC – Well, I didn’t know we were going to start the conversation on this topic, but it’s a great segway into talking about your book girlhood, because we’re already talking about being a woman. Well, actually, here’s a question I’d love to start with then, since we’re on the topic of women already. What fuels your passion to reignite communities where women support each other in these ways? And why did you start with girlhood?
MD – Okay, so we know how important the foundation years are.
And you’re all over that as well Rachel. Those first five or six years of life, we shape so many things. And I kept reading of how our young girls and our tween girls and our adolescent and women are struggling with much higher levels of anxiety, much higher levels of self-harm, self-loathing. And I thought, “Hang on a minute. What used to happen in those foundation years as we shape the brain, our sense of self, and how we regulate. The conditioning and the beliefs that we begin to believe. Can we build a stronger foundation as our girls merge off into that transition into womanhood? They can’t be hating and loathing themselves.”
And that’s when I realized, I think I need to shine a light on that early window to see if we can build these strengths, whether it’s cognitive, emotional, physical or whatever. And can we challenge some of the stereotypes that don’t serve us later as women? And it was interesting because I did an awful lot of research, but it was as I was writing, my own little girl kept popping up and giving me some information. And I remembered things that I had hidden, suppressed, contained. And I realized that even as a grown woman, there are times I won’t say ‘no’ when I want to because I know I might hurt someone’s feelings. And rather than hurt someone’s feelings, I will not honor my own self and my own boundaries. So there’s that people-pleasing conditioning that can happen very early for little girls, and I wanted to really shine the same light that I did around mothering our boys, which is boys are not innately tough. They’re far more vulnerable in so many ways. So it was kind of like I’d left an incomplete space in my parenting work that I wanted to see if we can understand the way that little girls see the world and come to understand them better rather than letting them feel like they are still far too emotional and dramatic and all those sorts of things. And I thought, I’ll see where it goes. I thought it was going to be a short book Rach. It wasn’t.
RC – I’m just looking right now to see how many pages you have in this book. 405. And it’s packed with incredible information. You have poured your heart and soul into this book and so many incredible examples and ones you share about your own childhood as well, which I’m hoping I can ask you about today because you can sense you processing as you write as well, which is very compelling.
And the forward to your book is by Tracy Spicer, who is a huge advocate for fighting for women’s wellbeing, and an award-winning journalist, she calls you a national treasure Maggie. So you were writing with already, a wonderful sisterhood circle.
MD – So the publisher sent me her foreword for me to read before they popped it into the book and stuff. And the instant I read that one line, I was filled with the most awful feelings in my whole body. My body flooded with disgust, dread.
RC – Isn’t that Interesting.
MD – Yeah.
RC – Why?
MD – I had to go walking and it took me over an hour before I finally had an idea of what it was driven by. And it was that experience I share in the book about being about seven, where I got up and read a poem at an assembly and I had done really quite well, I thought. And I sat down and an elderly gentleman tapped me on my shoulder and said, “Hey, girlie, you need to be careful you don’t get too big for your boots.”
So what had happened is I felt exactly the same, like disgust and dread and just appalling, horrible awfulness that I’d done something wrong in a moment that I thought I had done something well. It all came back and I’m 67 years of age.
And that is one of the things that we need to understand as we explore girls and women is we don’t tend to forget those most painful moments, and if we’re not allowed to really explore the emotion by being heard or, you know, just crying till it’s out, or screaming till it’s out, then the emotional tension stays in our nervous system and is so easily triggered by anything that triggers the same thing about lack of value, lack of worth. And I’ve had so many women stop me and say,“Oh my gosh, that happens when I get promotions. I almost want to sabotage myself and not do it, because I remember someone saying to me, “You know, ‘you need to keep your self contained.’”
The patriarchy said, “No women are below us.”
And so I think that’s what we have to marinate our girls in; is the stories that we are equally worthy and valuable as healthy boys and men are, too.
RC – Yeah. We still do have a long way to go.
MD – Oh, such a long way to go.
Musical interlude #1 –
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with Maggie Dent. If you have a question for Maggie send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Maggie will be addressing questions over our next 3 Q&A episodes, releasing each week. We’d love to connect with you!
RC – At the beginning of the book, you write a sentence that really captivated me and I’m wondering if you can expound on it a bit? You wrote, “The sacredness of femininity is being lost.” That’s a very compelling line. Can you unpack that?
MD – Yeah. There’s a sacredness in all genders, it’d be lovely if we could find that again. So if we go back to that exploration of how traditional cultures have functioned before we became modernized, there is that sacredness of we all have feminine and masculine within us. We absolutely do. And there are times we have to call on the other. Like for me, I had such crushing low self-esteem from having being unloved in all sorts of ways, as my perception was from my mom. But also.
RC – Can you just give us a brief history of your relationship with your mom? Because I think that is really significant to the conversation.
MD – Yeah. So I’m the fifth of six. And I think my mum is, there are some women who find it difficult to show how they feel and she was kind of aloof. But I was the loud child who questioned her and I was too big for my boots. And I would question and argue and I had far too much energy for my mum. I wouldn’t sit and be quiet and I wouldn’t be nice and I wouldn’t wear dresses and I chewed my fingernails. And I yeah, so I wasn’t the daughter she was wanting. So in those days, hitting and belting your children was a way that you would tame that willfulness. So of course, I copped a lot of that. But what also came with it, being raised as a Bush Catholic, was that I was a child who just sinned all the time. So I.
RC – What’s a Bush Catholic?
MD – Oh, it just means a Catholic who has too far to go to mass on Sundays because we’re too far away from churches. So every time you would go to a scripture lesson at school or something, you would be a sinner because you hadn’t been to church. Well, it’s been out of my control. I can’t drive. But the two together meant I just always thought, “There must be something wrong with me that I can’t be loved. Right? There must be something wrong that means my mum can’t love me. It’s because I’m bad.”
And so that rhetoric creates a mindset that, I’m unlovable. I don’t deserve it. I’m not worthy of it. And as a teenage girl, that created a lot of darkness within me. And I absolutely thought the only thing that was any value in me was I was pretty good academically. And then I went to university and halfway through my first semester at university, I failed my first essay in my entire life. And I can still remember, and this is how fragile we are as teenagers, I just remember that’s the only thing that was of any value about me. And I walked from the university to where I was boarding, and I tried to end my life.
And that fragility, you know, it’s never left me. And it was why ended up being so passionate about teaching and then ending up counseling because I know how fragile we all are in those years. And it gave me an insight that actually helped my life in lots of ways. But that’s why I write so much in the book about does your daughter feel unconditionally loved or do you only love her when she is being sweet and kind and not throwing a tantrum that’s embarrassing you or being demanding? Can you love her fiercely? Because that is the fundamental building block to well-being for all of our children, not just our girls.
And I realized later in life that for my older sister, who was the perfect daughter, she suppressed so much of her spirit to be the perfect daughter, and she wished she could have had a voice like me.
So when we did therapy years later. We’d go, I want to be a bit like you. And she want to be a bit like me?
So, who is your daughter? She’s a puzzle. She’s a one-offer. She’s not going to be altogether like you or her sister if she’s got one. And we’ve got to go, “So who is the girl who’s arrived? And how can I create not only the environment but the experiences and opportunities that allow her to grow with her natural strengths? And also help her to recognize that she does have some challenges that she’s going to need to navigate and see how it works in our schools, in our workplaces and life in general.
RC – So, nurturing her natural strengths helps “the sacredness of her femininity to NOT be lost.”
RC – So, yeah, and that’s that’s interesting because they do come with some of these gifts.
So can you see, I started discovering parts about myself in my thirties and forties? I want us to help our girls recognize them in the first eight years of their life before they become a teenage girl in that confusing transition time. And I think watching my granddaughters, they’re all different. But I have two roosters-orchids.
RC – Well, I was just going to say you’ve kind of created your own Enneagram, a barnyard Enneagram for defining children. And you describe yourself as a rooster child and you talk about there being rooster children and lamb children. I actually I’m not really that savvy on the Enneagram, but I am very savvy on barnyard animals. Can you describe what a rooster girl looks like? And what a lamb girl looks like and how parents nurture each type. Can you start with a rooster child because that’s your specialty. That’s you.
MD – Okay. So if we see a continuum you can be born with a temperament that’s in the middle of both, which is actually what we want all our children to be. But if you were born into the rooster end, which was me, feisty at that end, I did lack a bit of humility and compassion. I was very frustrated that people didn’t get how important I was. So you have a heightened sense of your own importance. You’re often very bright, energetic, ferociously brave, have a go at anything, and often frightfully impatient and also really get crabby when others don’t realize that you’re quite clever.
So that’s at one end. And then the other is the sensitive, beautiful lambs. And they make you look like a fabulous parent because they don’t push boundaries. They’re sweet. They like sleeping. They often use their manners. And I think in those early days, if my mom particularly had had the insight that I need to build some lamb in this child, then we wouldn’t probably have clashed so much. But I was lucky. I lived on a farm and we had lots of pet lambs. And so all of those things built my empathy and my tenderness and gentleness. So the lambs, we need them to build more courage or they can become victims. And we know that roosters without any lamb in them can become narcissists.
RC – So our challenge as parents, if we have a rooster or a lamb, is to help them come toward the middle of the continuum.
MD – Yeah.
RC – Now, when you were looking at the research around temperament Maggie, you discovered Dr. Lisa Feldman Lennard’s work on body budgeting – how we use the energy in our body. Can you explain that because it changes how we help our kids who live on the extreme sides of the barnyard.
MD – Yeah, So, let me give you a quick example of how these particularly rooster girls have to look at how much energy they’ve got in their body because we know that the body’s always trying to work with the brain to work out, “Have I got enough energy for doing things?”
And so when the body budget for a high energy girl, which is often your roosters, who just runs everywhere in the schoolyard – who runs when they go to the toilet. Who doesn’t sit still. Who’s always moving, and, you know, they’re just out there with their physicality because it does give them the dopamine they’re hunting. But if they overdo it, and this happened with one of my beautiful granddaughters.
Mom and dad had work out 20 minutes of riding a bike in the cul de sac with the other neighborhood kids is her good time.
RC – That’s what her energy level can sustain? 20 minutes?
RS – Yes. But she’s also argumentative because she knows best. Right. And they couldn’t get her in and she rode a bike for another 15 minutes. Well, she’d completely depleted her body budget. So when she came in, it was just meltdown after meltdown. Like, wouldn’t come and eat. Didn’t want, you know, everything goes to muck.
So part of our job raising those girls is helping them to become the problem-solver and aware of how much energy is in their system. What is their body trying to tell them? It’s really interesting because when they’re able to recognize it, and now she’s moved into six and a half, when she’s home and she’s completely depleted, she actually lets her mum let her know that she looks like she might be a little bit like that. And if she’s not going to be argumentative in that moment, she’ll go and color-in for a while in her bedroom because she knows that helps her regroup.
So when we see behavior through the lens of the brain and the body trying to navigate something that it’s not mature enough to do very well, then we can understand why the volatility of the emotional world for rooster girls is often far more intense.
RC – Which is made even more challenging when ‘intensity’ is still not a character trait that’s welcomed in females – in girls and in women. A little bit of intensity is ok, that can be acceptable, but the threshold for intensity is very low. You wrote about teaching our girls to ‘refuse to make nice’.
MD – Yeah.
RC – What do you mean by that? As I read it, I have an idea of what you mean, but it surprises me we have still found, and you’ve obviously found this in your research, that as parents and caregivers, there is a tendency to be more accepting of a boy’s big feelings, than it is to be of a girl’s big feelings.
MD – And the reverse. When little boys cry there are still some who encourage them to stop sniveling.
RC – And they wouldn’t do that to a little.
MD – They wouldn’t do that to a girl. I was even in an early childhood setting one day and a little boy had fallen over and hurt his knee on the edge of a sandpit. And he was crying and there was this harshness in the educator’s voice that he needed to get up and move on. Right?
So, they’ve often said things like, “Just use your words to tell me your feelings.” Well, that’s really difficult for young boys. Way easier for girls, for all sorts of brain maturity. But what happens in those spaces is this subtle conditionings that, you know, it’s okay for little girls to have big cries but it’s still not as okay for her to get really angry. And it’s older women particularly, who feel most uncomfortable with the little girl’s anger because the conditioning, you know, from my generation was ‘nice girls don’t get angry. Nice girls just stay quiet.’ Be nice to someone who’s being really unpleasant to you was a message that still goes out for a lot of girls instead of being able to claim their own boundaries. So that’s not okay. And I need you to stop that. You’re encouraged to be quiet.
RC – When you say the words, and Maggie, if I’m not interpreting you correctly, then let me know. When you write the words, “You want to teach your daughter, to refuse to make nice,” what do you mean specifically by that? What’s the difference between ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ there? Because I don’t think that you’re saying refuse to be kind or refuse to be thoughtful or refuse to be generous. What is the specific trait that we want to teach our daughter to refuse to be and why?
MD – I think we need to recognize that there are times as girls and women that our need to look after ourself needs to sometimes come before the need to be nice to others automatically. When I’m presenting this now in front of live audiences, I ask women in the audience to put their hand up if they’ve ever had the experience of having a hairdresser who’s cutting their hair the wrong way, who stay silent.
RC – They don’t say anything about it.
MD – They don’t say anything right. And then they get out and they ring their best friend or their sister and whinge and say, “Oh, it’s been butchered. It’s terrible.”
They’re being nice in that moment where in actual fact no male would be if they didn’t like it. They would just say, “Hey dude, I don’t like that. Can you stop it?”
So that’s what I’m meaning. In that moment we can still be really gentle in the way that we say it. The other part to that is, we’ve got to be careful we don’t oversell the kindness, Rachel because again, it is the conditioning that girls will always be the kind child and the thoughtful child. But sometimes we do that to the disservice of ourselves. Being respectful, being fair and being thoughtful are qualities we can encourage in all children, but sometimes that means, “That this isn’t okay for me. I’m not going to play this game anymore because I feel uncomfortable and I’m leaving.”
That can be perceived as being unkind or not nice, but we need to let her know that that’s okay sometimes.
RC – Are there things that parents can unknowingly be doing that nurture their daughter towards ‘making nice’? I’m sure there must be, because I think probably, most people listening to this are thinking, “I would never do that to my daughter. I’m more advanced than that.”
But I think we’re maybe not. I think there might be things that we are doing and not even knowing that we’re doing that, promote that, ‘make nice’. Can you think of some examples?
MD – Yeah. Oh, it’s the modeling. A girl can’t be what she hasn’t seen. Sometimes when women say, “Look, that doesn’t feel right for me and I’m not doing that.”
You will be perceived with the B word.
RC – You can say it out loud.
MD – It’s a bitch, right? And it’s not. It’s being assertive. Your daughter needs to see you be assertive around your boundaries with a voice that still has a genuine concern for not wanting to hurt others. We don’t want to encourage that. But there are times we want her to recognize that the person she needs to be kind to is herself.
I burned out so many times because part of my unhealed aspect of myself was, if I could do lots of things for other people then I have less chance of being disliked, have no friends or be treated how I perceived my childhood was. But I did it to the disrespect of myself. I didn’t have the worth and value of myself at times, so my people-pleasing created me to get quite sick. And the tireder we are and the more stressed we are, Rachel, the more we tend to do those things. We slip back into, “Just do it because I haven’t got the energy to deal with my own emotional world.”
And that’s that hairdresser story again. We can be contemplating “I need to say I don’t like this,” but we also then immediately go, “Oh, I don’t want to, I don’t want to walk around for three days feeling lousy because I’ve upset my hairdresser.”
RC – Or your spouse, or your kids.
RS – Yeah. Right. I’m prepared to be miserable, but we don’t want to be the one who upset someone else.
RC – I can totally resonate with that.
Maggie. when you say, “A girl can’t be what she hasn’t seen,” I’m thinking there must be opportunities for radical discovery beyond the modeling of our parents. Even thinking of you with your Mom, you must have looked beyond her or else you wouldn’t have progressed.
MD – Oh, totally. There is no question. Girls are not only looking at their mothers, they are looking at everyone around them. They’re doing it through what they read. They’re doing it through what they watch. Who they spend time with. Who their teachers are. Who their aunties are. Who they’re whatever. They are constantly looking at, “I might be a bit of that and I’m going to be a bit of that.”
And I didn’t realize until I had to attend a Zoom funeral for my dad’s only sister during COVID. And I was listening to it and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I modelled myself on my auntie, not my mom.”
So obviously I’d made a different choice because she was hearty, she was funny, there was always food, she just took everybody under a wing. And she was big and bold and a bit provocative, and she had a very loud laugh. And I went, “Oh, my gosh.”
So, yes, they can be influenced by a book they read that can change their life. I mean, it took me a long time to get over Weathering Heights.
RC – Who were you identifying with there? I can see you as one of those Bronte sisters Maggie. Writing on the moors. Such empowering books for that time.
MD – All of the Victorian novels. There was this stirring within them that they were contained, but I could feel it. And so once again we make sure that we marinate our girls in not only the experiences with people of all fluidity and gender, but the diversity of the world. We need to help them keep experiencing different moments rather than contain them into something like a silo of “This is how I want you to experience the world, and that’s how you’re going to become.”
Because, yeah, life is a big journey, isn’t it? And making sense of it and interpreting it and experiencing it through the lens of being a girl in a world that still has conditions on us. Yeah. It’s having each other’s back to do those things. So it’s the aunties and the grandmothers and the mothers of our girl’s friends. We have such a big role, Rachel, to keep telling and sharing with our children, “You’ve just got to work out who you are with, what your natural strengths are, and we’re here to support you be that person,” and encourage her to be her. Not what the world tells us girls are supposed to be. Look a certain way, have eyebrows that are weird. You’ve got to be impossibly thin and you’ve got to be sexy as possible.
In the survey, there were mums having little girls, asking if they were sexy when they were five. That made my stomach turn. We’ve got a big job to do to keep our girls safe in a healthy journey, in terms of their own authenticity.
RC – I was reading a report. It was a survey that had been done on thousands and thousands of girls across North America. And they were saying that in order to be popular in high school, you have to be popular on social media. And to be popular on social media, you have to be showing increasing amounts of your own skin and sexiness. And I think this is another example of the problem of making nice – getting people to like you and accept you and want to be with you by giving more of yourself that you really want to give. Like the hairdresser situation but worse.
So…when you write that “the sacredness of femininity has been lost,” I think this is part of that.
MD – Yeah.
We create a transcript for each conversation on family360, knowing that sometimes reading what’s been said is helpful. So, if you’re wanting a transcript of this conversation with Maggie, find it at family360podcast.com. It’s all there waiting for you.
RC – Can we talk about friendships a little bit? Because I know as a parent, one of the hardest things I hear my daughters saying, and all of them have said this at certain times, they’ll say things like, “I have no friends. I’m all alone during recess. No one likes me.”
These words pull at our heartstrings and I think we have to recognize that they are going to have these bumpy times. And you’ve written, “Often our daughters are a victim, but often they’re the perpetrator as well.”
MD – Oh, yeah. We’re hungry for connection. We all are. But the connection stuff with girls, sometimes girls can misread social cues. I remember I had to go to a school and work with bullying and one of the girls thought bullying was a girl rolling her eyes at you. And I went, “Pretty sure that is just something that happens, like it’s not intentional, it’s not going to harm you.”
RC – Oh, You know, I do love it that you’re saying that though, because bullying is such a highlighted conversation. And when bullying becomes somebody rolling their eyes – that feeds back into the messaging about making nice. I don’t like people rolling their eyes at me so I get why it’s annoying and even hurtful but it’s a delicate balance because if we jump to labeling girls expressing their boundaries or feelings of displeasure, whether that’s eye rolling, or saying, “No that makes me uncomfortable,”
Or, “I don’t like that.”
Or walking away. If we label that as bullying, that sets us all back.
MD – Yeah. We’re misreading the whole point.
RC – Yeah, so how do you get around that?
MD – So couple of tips I think are really important. And one of them is, for us as moms to try not to jump in too quick knowing that we don’t always get the full picture.
RC – I often find dads actually respond even more intensely than moms do to these situations. In my experience.
MD – Yeah, it doesn’t matter. Seriously try not to jump in because you’ll just make it worse.
RC – Yeah. So if it’s not eye rolling, when should they jump in?
MD – The spark, the flame and the fire.
RC – What do you mean by that? Define.
MD – The spark is these upsets they come home with. “I’m not sure what she said. She said that. She was being a bit mean.”
The flame might last a few days you know, But the fire is the one that, yeah, it’s really ended up. And they’re also online and they’re really saying awful things that are really horrible, that are really damaging because it is absolutely bullying; the intention to cause harm using an inappropriate use of power. That’s when we jump in.
And the second tip is having a concept that friendships are more than just one little group like a tree and you’ve got branches. And so there’s the school friendships. The neighborhood friendships. Your cousins. The ones that go swimming, The ones in the dance community. And therefore, if something burns out on one of your branches, you’ve still got human connectedness in other areas.
And I think the other big message about friendships is, are you being a good friend to yourself? So sometimes looking at does that friendship make you feel good about yourself, or does it make you feel worse about yourself?
You know, sometimes it’s those reflections and let them sit with it. It’s huge because girl’s self-worth is often determined more by how they think other people think about them. So you can see why, Instagram and things where they share something and if not many people acknowledge it, they just feel shattered and then they can attack themselves and their self-worth. And their inner critic just gets louder and louder. But we also need to recognize that the psychological needs of our kids are actually often met in a digital space as well as in a real space. The connection, the sense of control and autonomy and the sense that, “I’m quite competent in that space.”
So. Oh, it’s so hard, Rachel, because it’s the sexualization of the images and the advertising that are really conditioning our girls and our boys. And pornography is completely available everywhere. And it’s quite concerning that we now know girls think that getting choked is a normal part of a sexual experience with a boy. And we’ve got a big job to do in terms of being able to raise our girls to recognize that their voice means that, no means no and that a boy should not pester if there’s a no, it’s a no. So it’s a conversation that we don’t just have with girls. It’s a conversation we have with boys about respect and boundaries. And,
RC – Well, I think that’s part of that whole making nice part right?
MD – Yes, it is.
RC – If showing my body, if choking is what it’s going to be,
MD – Going to get me liked. ‘I’m going to be liked. That’s a desperation and isn’t it so sad. You know, it’s what we all been through. That’s why I wanted to have the strongest possible foundation early where our girls haven’t got all those unhelpful stereotypes from culture that say, “These are the things I need to do,”
That they’ve already been taught that who you are is worthy and valuable exactly as you are.
RC – It’s not about appearance.
MD – Yeah, that’s a biggie because it is what defines them all at the moment. And of course it’s not easy because if you see a little girl who’s got a sweet dress on, you just want to say how beautiful she looks, right? So sometimes that’s absolutely okay. But make sure it’s not all the time because that girl goes, “Okay, so it’s how I look that really matters. That’s how I get people’s approval.”
That seed sown early is a seed that continues to grow.
RC – And you can say she’s so fast or she’s so funny, or she has an amazing mind.
MD – Look how tall you’ve got. Doesn’t matter. And let’s call boys, little boys, gorgeous and beautiful as well.
RC – Absolutely! Okay, We’ve gone lots of places here. This is great Maggie. Can I just recap your tips for helping our girls navigate friendships? Your first tip was, ‘as parents, try not to jump in too quickly’. Your tip second was, have more than just one little group of friends. The third was to be a good friend to yourself. Is there more?
MD – Oh, look, I think another really key message is that whole notion of best friends.
RC – Mm hmm. Besties.
MD – Oh goodness, so it’s like an ultimate dream. I think we really have to kind of decompress that a little and say that we’re just looking for good friends. That whole bestie, that’s the way to get the biggest broken heart ever. Yeah. Let’s just aim for having more than the one bestie and celebrate good enough friends. Even if it is sometimes good enough friends who are boys, or good enough friends who are cousins or good enough friends who are, you know, neighbors in the street.
RC – Yeah. I think that’s often when you sense the recipe for disaster, when you see your child so badly wanting a best friend and then finding that best friend. There are so few people that stay best friends all through middle school, all through high school and move on. There’s going to be heartbreak. So to not have your eggs all in that one basket. It makes sense.
MD – One of the things that we noticed is that there’s a shift around 16 around friendships where they deepen into something that can last for life and can become significant. But as little girls, yeah, it’s fraught with all of the things that big feelings and feeling left out and not good enough and misreading social cues. When we understand to allow our little girls moments to have long conversations that we don’t have to fix anything, “What do you think you’re going to do next?” or you know, “What’s an idea that you might do to fix that?” And kind of throw it back to them to be the problem solvers. That’s incredibly empowering for life rather than when Mum jumps in and says, “Well, that happened to me and this is what I did.”
That actually diminishes their capacity.
RC – Why is that?
MD – Because it’s a whole different experience? So advice isn’t what girls. Girls are already planning, “Maybe I’ll try that. Maybe I’ll try that. Maybe I’ll try that.”
So when we actually reflect back to them, the confidence we have that we think they’ll be able to resolve it, then we become an ally that’s not telling them how to live their life, which again, no one likes being told what to do, even if it could have been coming from the best place in our heart.
RC – And often the best place in our heart isn’t going to adequately address what our child needs at that moment because we don’t ever fully understand their realities. As much as we wish we could fully relate.
MD – Yeah, I just think that core message is once again recognizing our little girls are unique humans. That it’s going to be bumpy. They’re always going to have moments. They’re going to have friendship dramas with big feelings. It’s not that there’s something wrong with them. It’s not that there’s something wrong with you as a parent. It’s this is exactly how they learn to navigate that part of being a female in our world. So I think we see it less of being a problem than being an opportunity to learn and grow.
Musical interlude #3
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with Maggie Dent. There is more to come.
Our next 3 releases will be Q&A episodes based on this conversation with Maggie, so we’d love to hear from you! If you have a question for Maggie, please send it to email@example.com. Over the next 3 weeks, Maggie will answer in her wonderfully wise and practical way. And then our next guest is Dr. Katie Hurley. We’re talking about kids and stress. Dr. Hurley is an adolescent psychotherapist, and author of multiple books, including No More Mean Girls, which Maggie references in her girlhood book. We look forward to sharing her conversation with you. Join us!
And now, back to the conclusion of our conversation with Maggie Dent as she talks more about friendships and then how we nurture our little girl’s sacred spirit from the moment of her birth.
RC – You wrote about the work of Robin Dunbar and how we actually all have a limited capacity for friendship. This was so interesting for me of how friendships aren’t always about how well we show up, or how much we have in common, or if we’re bright and shiny enough, or too bright and shiny. Sometimes it’s just science that we can only handle so many friends. And when I read this, I just thought this answers even so many of my own struggles, because often people aren’t friends with us because their dance card is full and often we can’t be friends with other people because our dance card is full. So it’s nothing to do with how wonderful they are, it’s that we’ve hit our capacity for friendship.
MD – Oh, it’s so true. So true. And can we teach our girls this, you know?
And I’m, it’s interesting. I think maybe as an introvert, I’m really comfortable with my dance card number.
RC – Well, according to Robin Dunbar, and I’m just going to say who he is Maggie, Robin Dunbar is an Oxford professor and psychologist who wrote the book Understanding The Power Of Our Most Important Relationships. He says we can only maintain so many close friendships and whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, it seems our dance card numbers, at least when it comes to intimacy, are quite low.
MD – Yes, intimately we can only love 1.5 people. I was a bit worried about point the five and.
RC – What he must be meaning by that I bet was some people can love intimately one person and some people could possibly be two. So I was thinking, so maybe it’s your partner is the one. And, and sometimes a two might be a super close sister or something.
MD – That’s exactly right.
RC – So he was saying. All of us can intimately love 1 to 2 people. Okay.
MD – And then our next bit is this incredibly safe circle of five. They know everything about you. They’re there to the death and you can rely on them really big. And then we go to that village and that’s that one we talk about how many people are around us in our family. And that can be friends and there’s 15 in that space and 15.
RC – 15. That’s not a lot.
MD – No.
RC – And then he said of those 15, 5 had to be from the previous two layers – so this is like 10 more to the really intimate group. And he defined these 15 as the kinds of people you would leave your kids with when going away. I’d be hard pressed to have found 15 people I could leave my kids with when they were little. These are good friends!
MD – Oh yeah.
RC – And then he jumped up to 50.
MD – Yeah, and then the 50 is the kind of ones, if you had a big bar-b, they’d all come along, like Christmas dues in the park, you could probably have that many. So it is the wider version of the village. The big number of 150, they’re just sometimes the people you’d invite to a major thing like a wedding.
RC – Or the people that might show up at your funeral.
MD – Yeah, or your funeral. Yeah, exactly. You don’t hardly ever see them. They still connected. All sorts of reasons. But when we go back down to those first 2 to 3 our number one drive as humans is human connectedness. And so when we get to understand this, I think sometimes with our girls, they’re hungry for the 150, but they actually can’t, you can’t maintain it. It’s not healthy and it’s not really what drives us in terms of our well-being.
RC – Oh my goodness that’s so true, but we get fooled somehow into thinking it is healthy, but it’s NOT healthy to think you need to be intimate with so many people.
MD – No
RC – It’s not even possible.
MD – No
RC – But I also thought on the other side, and this was enlightening for me, I right now live in a home with five people and I adore those five people. They are very, very important to me. So of course that limits my capacity to have friendships outside of that. And when I read that in your book, I just felt this immense flood of relief to go, “I’m not a social failure. I’m not a friendship dud. It’s that I can’t expand if I want to keep my five people in my home being so close and dear to me. I don’t have the capacity to have another five or ten close friendships outside of that. There’s just not the time and the headspace.”
MD -It’s been interesting too, listening to women who went back out into socializing again after the Covid years, finding how incredibly fatigued they were because they had been with their fives. So I think it’s important for us to help our girls understand that your dance card’s full, you know, like.
RC – You can’t be invited to all the birthday parties.
MD – Why are we inviting the whole class to birthday parties?
RC – Yes. Yes. Why? Because we don’t want to leave people out.
MD – Because it’s not being nice.
RC – But we have to realize if our child is left out of a birthday party, that’s okay.
MD – It’s okay.
RC – There’s nothing wrong with our child.
MD – It’s not because you’re lousy. It’s because this is life.
RC – Yeah. Ok, well Maggie. As we draw towards an end, I just have a few last questions I want to ask you. You have said before that what children need today has not changed. If what children need today has not changed, what do we need to consider when we’re raising them in a world that is changing – very rapidly?
MD – So the world around our children has changed, and the expectations around our children has changed. but what children need has not changed fundamentally. And that’s why I kept going back to that ancient knowledge of those kinship communities, going, “Okay, can we create that in our world?”
And I absolutely know we can. We can slow it down. Our children are not just brains on seats and sources of data in our schools? They’re whole children. They’re not in a competition with every other child, and no parent is in a competition to be perfect. All of the moments that we have that are messy and unpredictable and a bit challenging in our homes, sometimes seen through the lens today of us being lousy parents, are because we’re human and our children learn from those moments.
We’ve got to allow children to have more autonomy to play in ways that stretch them, that enable them to play with other children, both genders and everything in between, in the real world where they can stretch and grow within a bloodcurdling scream distance of an adult, then you will be able to allow them to grow, to thrive on all levels because children learn from other children.
RC – They do. And that can feel a little risky a little out of our control.
MD – Yeah. You know, the bottom line is, unless our children feel loved and secure, regardless of what happens, they can’t grow to thrive, especially in the first 6 to 8 years of life, which is that foundation. You know, I come back to every time, the more you invest in those years as parents, co-parents and educators and anyone in the village, the healthier all the children will grow to be. Not necessarily the smartest. Not necessarily, you know, the ones that can sing like a bird. But it means every single child has a capacity to grow what they need to become an adult in our world that won’t rely on the false kind of messages about how they should be. They’ve worked out who they are. So again, the more you invest in those early childhood years – seriously good for children.
RC – Okay. At the end of your book, Maggie, in fact, the last line, you say “please nurture your little girl’s sacred spirit from the moment of her birth.” And you tell a story about your granddaughter and Katy Perry’s song Roar. And I would love to end with that. I actually couldn’t remember the song. I pulled it up and listened to it and I thought, “Okay, I think I know where you’re going with this.”
MD – Yeah, just as I was finishing the book, I had my granddaughter over and she was painting some rocks outside in my garden. And she said, “Nanny, can you put some music on Spotify?”
And I said, “So what would you like to listen to, sweetheart?”
And she said, “Roar.”
And I put Katie Perry’s Roar on. And I really listened to the words. And she, while she was painting, sang every single word.
RC – How old is your granddaughter?
MD – Five,
RC – Five.
MD – And so I texted my niece, and I said, “Mila knows every word to Roar.”
And she said, “So do my girls.” She has a five and a seven-year-old. The skin tingled in me. And I went, “Wow. We never heard that when I was a little girl. How different would my journey have been to have heard songs like that?”
And there are so many of them. That’s a sign we’re going in the right direction.
RC – Hmm. Maggie, I am so grateful for this conversation with you. And I thank you for your passion for all genders and that encouragement to help our children find their unique wild and precious life – to borrow from Mary Oliver.
MD – Yeah. I think it’s that regardless of what the world is telling you, you be you, you shine your light. And if you can lead back and help other girls to shine theirs, seriously, our world will be such a better place.
RC – Great ending. Let’s stop there. Thank you Maggie Dent.
MD – Thank you so much, Rachel.
RC – It’s been fun. You’re making me a better person.
MD – I love it.