They told me. They all told me. Having a daughter is different than having a son. You’ll feel differently about her.
To be frank, I thought they were full of it, and was a bit insulted. I already loved my two existing sons deeply. Who’s to tell me that I might have more spring in my step when a daughter entered the picture?
Then, she was born. And as expected, I didn’t notice a single difference. Her smile was contagious, just like her brothers. Holding her in my arms felt surreal, just like her brothers. And when she woke me up at 3:00 a.m. for a feeding, it pushed me to the brink of sanity, just like her brothers.
I wasn’t seeing what I was expected to see, this discernible difference between the two genders of my children.
Charlotte is now 18 months old. And it’s only recently that I actually am noticing something. In fact, I’m recognizing that there is a major difference in raising a daughter vs. raising a son. But it isn’t the difference everyone was expecting me to see.
I sure hope her legs start to thin out soon.
She’s long for 18 months. She’ll end up taller than her husband!
Look at her in that sexy bathing suit!
She’ll be in deep trouble if she gets your hair, Joe.
I was noticing that, much more frequently than my sons, my daughter was being objectified, and it scared me. Her physical appearance was routinely scrutinized in a way that was unsettling.
And sadly, I started to understand in a very real way why body image and self-esteem issues are so prevalent with many women in our society ― they have proverbial megaphones in their ears since birth overemphasizing the importance of their physical appearance.
Don’t get me wrong; boys are pressured, too. To be tough, or to take up a sport, or to play with trucks and not dolls, and some also face body image problems. But it seems their physical mold has a bit more flexibility built into it.
It’s fine. He’s a growing boy.
And then, much later…
Aw, cute. Check out his dad bod.
Whether it’s a well-meaning aunt or an eye-catching magazine headline, my daughter will grow up in a culture obsessed with the discussion and perpetual shaming of the female body.
That leaves my wife and me with a rather challenging job -– to encourage our daughter to have a positive body image, while instilling in her the confidence to drown out any outside noise. It won’t be easy. But here are some ways I intend to try:
· Being positive about our own body images
Leading by example is the best way to get your kids to listen, at least in theory. I remember a time when I spoke negatively about my body in front of my sons. It was an innocent, “Daddy’s belly is getting a little too big for this shirt” type of comment. But he remembered.
I know this because he spat it back at me when I tried in vain to get the shirt on again a month later. If I’m in pretty decent shape (which I am), and if this is the kind of comment I make about my own body, what chance do I have of my daughter being secure in her own?
· Not using or accepting demeaning language
This goes hand in hand with the first bullet. But going even deeper, my older son overheard a family member refer to herself as “fat” one time. I then overheard him use the same word to describe that same family member.
He meant it as a joke, but that’s how it starts. A seed gets planted, and if you water it, it grows into something very, very ugly. It’s part of my job to plant a different kind of seed at home.
· Open communication, not magazines
I understand that my now 18-month-old daughter might not feel comfortable talking to me about the important issues when she’s 15. But I do believe that, naïve as it may sound, I can start building that atmosphere of openness between the two of us, letting her know she can depend on me as an ear to listen from the minute she’s able to speak full sentences.
From what I’ve noticed, the parent-child relationship is always more effective and mutually loving when there’s a constant open line of communication. And more often than not, the teenagers who find themselves lost in this world have less-than-ideal relationships with mom and dad.
I know there’s only so much I can do as a parent to shield my daughter from the outside world (and I know body image isn’t the only issue women face—salary discrimination in the workplace, for one).
I’m also not naïve enough to believe that my wife and I will raise this perfectly balanced human, void of peripheral noise and potential insecurities. But I also realize that the words that come out of our mouths hold more water than anyone else’s, and will be pivotal in shaping her views on herself and others.
So while it’s true that I’m recognizing this unfortunate truth about the spotlight of scrutiny pointed at the girls, teenagers and women in our world, I also recognize the job I have as a dad to set the tone at home.
And if I can serve as a proverbial lighthouse for my daughter, lighting her way through inevitably treacherous, judgmental waters, shouldn’t I try?
I once read, “The words we say to our children become their inner voice.” If that’s true, the goal of every parent should be to create an inner voice that is empowering, encouraging, and never limiting or demeaning.
Thanks for reading and be sure to drop a comment to join the conversation!
Joe DeProspero can be followed on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.