It’s a question every mother of a daughter is familiar with, and one that many of us still struggle with, even as adults: how can we empower our girls to embrace the best parts of their authentic selves? Deal with mean girls? Squash insecurities?


Rachel Simmons, founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, joined us in The Motherhood to talk about helping our daughters navigate the often treacherous waters of growing up female. Rounding out the discussion panel were Emily of Mommin’ It Up!, Jill of The Diaper Diaries, Molly of GO MOM!, and Jenna of A Mom’s Balancing Act.


Below, some of the highlights from our conversation:


Mean Girls in the Media


Annabeth asked how others deal with all the mainstream TV shows and movies that make mean-girl type behavior seem normal and acceptable.


One option, identified by Jill of The Diaper Diaries, was to severely limit exposure to TV and media: “Probably to an extreme, but I don’t apologize for it. There is very little quality programming aimed at youth. I would rather be a “mean mom” than have a mean girl.”


Others allow the programming to be watched, but all agreed that we need to use “teachable moments,” talking with our girls and helping them reflect on behavior they see on TV and whether it’s acceptable.


Where the Boys Are


Temysmom identified a situation in which a girl who has a lot of friends who are boys (as distinct from “boyfriends”) can find herself the target of other girls’ jealousy. Molly of GO MOM! acknowledged the importance of “teaching my daughter to know when something isn’t about her, but it’s the other person’s issue…that, I’m not looking forward to… (it’s) complicated even for grown-ups who just want to get along.”


Dr. G wondered if having older brothers helps with girls’ confidence at this age. Molly of GO MOM! acknowledged that it might, noting that older brothers can be both supportive and protective, particularly if there’s an age gap.


Rachel Simmons was asked, “If you could teach boys one lesson about girl culture and how to change it, what would that be?” Her thoughtful response was, “I would teach them about the pressures of masculinity and how it affects the way they interact with girls. That way, they could not only help girls, but understand the role society plays in shaping some of their behavior.”


Unholy Trinities and Other Hazards of Girlhood


Jenna and several moms observed that, even into adulthood, groups of three girls or women can be complicated, with someone often feeling left out.


Rachel Simmons offered that “some things you can do with your daughter include letting her know that it’s not her fault, and that it’s hard for everyone in threes…” She noted that role playing with our daughters can be really helpful in teaching them to articulate their feelings and needs.


Emily of Mommin’ It Up pondered whether we send messages to girls that mean-girl drama is a self-fulfilling prophecy or a way of life. Several people agreed, that through portrayals in the media, and sometimes our own behavior (like gossip), we do.


Rachel had this to say: “We live in a culture that doesn’t take female aggression as seriously as male aggression. There are many reasons for that – in part, it makes women appear less threatening, and it also makes it harder to take them seriously.”


And when you find out your daughter IS the mean girl? Molly of GO MOM! counseled, “Go straight to the source ~ kids aren’t inherently mean so I’d want to do all I could to find out what kind of situation could provoke that kind of response.”


Jenna of A Mom’s Balancing Act added, “We’d definitely be discussing how we treat others and the way she would want to be treated. Also taking a look at who she is hanging around, as well as what other factors might be contributing to her behavior.”


Sandy M. asked the panel at what age girls outgrow mean-girl behavior, if ever. Rachel cited recent research that suggests that mean-girl behavior is “like any other behavior your child displays: if you don’t weigh in and say “no,” the tacit message is, “go right ahead.”


One reason why we have so many aggressive girls is that mothers don’t always take it seriously when their daughters start saying things like, “You can’t come to my birthday party if you don’t give me that toy.” Rachel Simmons allowed that for some girls, being mean is a developmental phase that they do outgrow.


The Struggle All Girls Have


Emily McKhann wondered if there were particular themes that consistently arise in Girls Leadership Institute gatherings. Rachel Simmons responded that, in girls around second and third grade,”they are just coming into the sophistication of group divisions and how that can be manipulated both to deal with (their) own feelings and raise (their) social status.”


She went on to say, “One struggle girls — indeed, all women, have — is that no matter how carefully you try to assert yourself, people think you are being ‘mean.’ This has been observed in women who ask for pay raises, and girls who try to lead. I also think another issue that plagues girls’ leadership is that so many girls are taught to be friends with everyone. It is the one relationship they are told is primary. That makes it awfully hard to have colleagues, subordinates, etc. — and therefore challenging to have to invoke leadership skills. If you’re supposed to be liked by all, how can you assert yourself? That’s why I think it’s so crucial for girls to learn early that not everything is personal, and not everyone is your friend — and that’s okay!”


That, I think, is a lesson all daughters could stand to learn. Even (or especially) when they have daughters of their own.


More Good Reads on Empowering Girls:


Rachel’s website:


Molly: Why Are Girls (And Women) So Mean?


Emily: On Raising Daughters


Jill: Mean Girls Suck


Jenna: Raising Confident Daughters


Packaging Girlhood by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown:


Enlightened Sexism by Susan Douglas: