How to Raise Brave Girls

05/21/2015 06:00 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016
Margie Warrell

On my 40th birthday, my daughter Maddy, 10 at the time, gave me a handcrafted birthday voucher on which she wrote: "This vowcher lets you be my gest at the Oscars when I am nomnated for best actres." (I figured she stood more chance of that than winning the national spelling bee!)

I've tucked it away for safekeeping until that day arrives. And if it doesn't, that's OK, too. I just love that she wasn't afraid to dream big.

Too often, somewhere between wearing tiaras and leaving school, we dial down our dreams and reset our sights as the realities of the real world crush in on us. The hurdles are higher, the competition tougher and the disappointments bigger. Sticking with goals that minimize the sting of rejection and risk of failure seems like the better, less painful option.

But it never is. And it never will be. And if you have a daughter, there's nothing more important you can do to enable her to thrive in life than helping her grow into the bravest version of the woman she has it in her to be. 

Here's how.

1. Encourage her to dream big. I was only a little older than Maddy and growing up on a dairy farm in rural Australia when I told my parents I wanted to a journalist, like the ones on "60 Minutes." My mother said I didn't read the newspaper enough. It was true. It only occurred to me years later that we never got one.

While we each walk a different path to parenthood, we must all be careful not to let our own experiences, including our disappointments, hurts and unmet aspirations, dampen the ambitions of our daughters. Sure, not everyone will be the next Cate Blanchett or Hillary Clinton, but better to aim high and fall short than to risk our daughters one day looking back on their lives and wondering 'What if?'.

2. Embolden her to take risks. Each of my three sons has had at least one broken bone (one of them has had three!) My daughter, like me, hasn't had one. I'll admit it's a limited data set, but it's also good a reflection of how boys and girls differ: boys, in my experience, are physically rougher and more comfortable taking risks.

You could argue girls are simply "more sensible," sparing us the gray hairs we get watching our sons hurtle down hills on their skateboards and bikes -- "Look mom, no hands!" But while boys are more partial to stitches and plaster casts, by adulthood, they're often also more resilient when knocked down, more comfortable exiting their comfort zone and more adept at taking risks -- and not just physical risks, but psychological ones. This gives them an edge in business and life because let's face it, everything worthwhile demands risk of some sort.

Research validates this. Despite our daughters doing better at school and university relative to our sons, once they get into the workplace, women are less confident, more cautious and less likely to:

  • Pursue stretch roles
  • Challenge authority
  • Negotiate salary or conditions
  • Promote themselves or ask for a promotion

All of these things require risk in some way -- risk of rejection, criticism, looking foolish, falling short or outright failure. Which is why giving your daughter a gentle push outside her comfort zone can sometimes be the most loving thing you can do for her, because it helps her to realize she can do more than she think while building self-confidence to handle bigger challenges. 

Protecting her from the pain of failure or sting of rejection doesn't set her up to thrive in the bigger game of life, it deprives her from acquiring the skills to live it well.

3. Teach her to speak bravely, even if she gets called bossy. Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg believes we should #BanBossy, but, while I love her Lean In message, on this count, I think she has it wrong. We need to encourage our daughters to embrace bossy, not ban it. (You can read the Forbes column I wrote on this here.)

Don't get me wrong, though; I'm not advocating for bossiness or any behavior that pulls people down. But I strongly believe we must encourage our daughters to own their right to express their opinion, be confident in standing their ground and to take the lead when others aren't.

It takes courage to say something that may rock the boat. It's why women, wired to forge connections but loathe to disrupt them, so often don't. But when we stay silent for fear of ruffling feathers, we implicitly teach those around us that we are OK with the status quo.

Starting in the schoolyard and continuing throughout her life -- in the workplace, friendships, and at home -- your daughter will encounter people who will to pressure her, intimidate her and devalue her. She needs to know that she has to take responsibility for standing up for herself and, starting from the time she can talk, encourage her to practice doing just that. As I wrote in my book Brave, we build our bravery every time we act with it.

4. Continually remind her she is lovable and worthy, no matter what. Of course it's hard to be brave and stand up for ourselves when we don't believe, truly believe, that we deserve better. Which is why, above all else, our daughters need to know, beyond any doubt, that they are deeply loved andinfinitely lovable -- even when they're behaving anything but.

Girls who don't grow up believing in their inherent worth develop into women who spend their lives unconsciously searching for validation -- from friends, strangers, lovers and losers alike. Setting your daughter up to forge genuinely loving, respectful and rewarding relationships begins by having her know that she is deserving of love, worthy of respect and that she should never settle for anyone less. Ever!

5. Help her define herself beyond beauty, brands or brains. Right from the get-go, there's enormous pressure on anyone born with a vagina to conform to the idealized images created by marketers and reinforced by mass media. Refusing to conform to that pressure is a life-long challenge for women everywhere at every age.

We give our daughters a head start when we actively nurture what makes them unique, accept them for who they are and don't pressure them to be someone they're not! That requires regularly reminding them not to measure their worth by how good they are at sports or math or music, by their complexion or body shape, the brands they wear, the parties they're invited to or by how many followers they have on Instagram. And certainly not by their 'boyfriend' status!

Nothing can diminish our daughters fragile sense of self faster than believing she has to reach some external measure of success to be worthy or 'enough'; nothing can build her bravery more than knowing she is good enough just as she is.

6. Model the bravery you hope to inspire. Your daughter may not listen to what you say, but she notices everything you do. Nothing will teach her how to be brave better than what she learns each time she sees you being brave yourself.

So, as you think about how to raise your daughter to be a confident and courageous woman -- sure of herself and resilient under pressure -- begin by considering where you need to practice a little more bravery yourself. Any time you tip toe around an awkward conversation, allow someone treat you poorly, avoid taking a risk for fear of failure or let other people's opinions matter more than your own, you're missing an important opportunity to teach your daughter how to be brave.

Speaking of which, my daughter Maddy, now 15, is heading to LA in the summer to do an acting course. I'm sure Hollywood won't look quite so glamorous up close. And while it's brave of her to go, it's also brave of me to watch her. One way or another, we'll both grow braver from it.