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Are We Really Empowering Teenage Girls When Raising Our Daughters?

Girl Empowerment: Are Girls Strong or Fragile?

Empowerment. It’s the new buzzword for everything we tell our girls. From their CEO Barbies to their pink Lego building sets, we tell our daughters that they are strong, tough, invincible. They can be anything they want. We exhort them to dream big, not to let anyone tell them what they can be. Girls are bombarded all day long in pop culture, too, with music, images, and messages about empowering girls, about girl power and strong women. But the messages we give our girls aren’t consistent with what we tell them once they become young women.

A few weeks ago, First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned a song about empowering girls by composer Diane Warren and featuring famous “divas” Kelly Clarkson, Missy Elliott, Zendaya, Janelle Monae, Lea Michele, Kelly Rowland, Jadagrace, and Chloe & Halle. It’s titled “This Is for My Girls,” and intended to showcase the different stories of women. “It’s kind of like ‘We Are the World’ meets ‘Lady Marmalade’ with these strong voices and strong women,” says Warren. The lyrics are: “This is for my girls, all around the world / Stand up, hold your head up / Don’t take nothing from nobody / This is for my girls, stand up and be heard / This is for my ladies, my sisters all over / This is for my girls.”

They aren’t lyrics for the ages, but I guess any positive message for girls is a good thing. But having two kids in college and a third on his way, I’ve noticed a curious change in our attitude toward young women when they get to college. Instead of telling them they are strong and fearless, and to “not take nothing from nobody,” suddenly, we tell them they are victims who need to be protected.

Are We Really Empowering Teenage Girls?

News stories mischaracterize college as a hotbed of rape where twenty percent of women will be assaulted. College sexual consent guidelines shield female accusers from being named or cross-examined by their attackers as if they are too emotionally fragile. “Safe spaces” on campus to give women a refuge and distance from men and patriarchal thought (even though more women now attend college than men). Trigger warnings in college classes to protect women from classroom content containing words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. (Note that men can also shield themselves from uncomfortable content with safe spaces and trigger warnings on many college campuses. But that’s a topic for another time.)

Well, which is it? Are girls strong and fearless, or fragile and delicate? Instead of actually treating college women as strong (as we’ve been telling them since kindergarten), we infantilize them as fragile, unstable, emotional weaklings who must be protected, even from ideas and words, which can literally hurt them. It makes all that “empowering girls” talk feel false and insincere, and it must be so confusing to young women. I can’t help but wonder:  by teaching girls that they are strong and tough—and yet incredibly fragile and capable of being damaged by mean words—are we creating a generation of neurotic young women?

Parenting Girls: Which Message Is Right?

I’m no psychiatrist, but there are already signs that raising girls during this age of empowerment isn’t producing resilient, emotionally stable young women. Almost half of college students at four-year institutions drop out. Rates of college students with mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, have exploded with 57% of college women reporting that they have experienced episodes of “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. College women binge drink at higher rates than men, with 64% exceeding guidelines for weekly alcohol consumption. Although they represent more than half of college undergraduate enrollment, women are still dramatically underrepresented in rigorous STEM fields. Women earn only 25% of STEM undergraduate degrees. Women drop out of the highest-paying technical fields such as engineering and computer science at much higher rates than their male counterparts.

By college, so many young women seem to be brittle, anxious, and stressed out. What happens when they face difficult physics concepts they don’t understand immediately? Or calculus problems that don’t care if they’re male or female? That feel-good sentiment alone isn’t going to get their Differential Equations homework done for them.

Praising girls for being “strong” before they’ve earned it through hard work, struggle, and even failure doesn’t give them the grit they need to get through adversity. Shielding women in college from difficult situations, words, or ideas won’t either. And songs about female empowerment aren’t magically going to generate real confidence and self-esteem that have to be earned. If it’s wrong to tell your daughter to be pretty and sweet just because she’s a girl, then by the same logic it’s wrong to tell her she can accomplish anything simply because she’s a girl. Empty self-esteem isn’t going to equip young women with the skills, determination, and self-discipline they will need to compete and succeed, either academically or professionally.

Enough with the phony “grrrl power” praise. Instead of telling girls how strong they are, why don’t we instead simply tell them to work hard and achieve? How about some song lyrics that encourage girls to stay in school? Get good grades? Develop a love of reading? Respect and appreciate their bodies? Avoid single motherhood? Graduate with a STEM degree? Singing along to “This is For My Girls” isn’t going to complete that college degree. But spending Saturday in the library studying calculus might. Skipping the concert to write code for a computer project just might. Achievement gained through self-discipline and hard work seems like a more sound path for true empowerment, emotional well-being, and long-term success. How about a few songs about that?

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.