Now age three, she still speaks her mind at home, but I often wonder if she will take that same confidence with her into the world. Will she proudly and assuredly raise her voice to share her opinion? Will she stand up for others and convey her needs? While I cannot see the future, I know this is not something we as parents, teachers, coaches and others working with girls can afford to leave to chance.
This is why movements like the #LetsTellHer campaign are so important. Earlier this year, Girls on the Run urged men and women to change the way we speak to girls. As we approach International Day of the Girl, we are encouraging girls to own their voices and change the narrative themselves.
Throughout my personal and professional life, I have watched girls find their voice and gain the confidence needed to stand up and speak out about things that are important to them. At Girls on the Run, we take an intentional approach to inspire girls to use their voices and, through feedback from program parents/guardians and our research, we know that our program is effective. But, we won't stop here. As we continue to support girls in finding and using their voices, we encourage you to get involved as well.
As a parent, caregiver, mentor or coach, here are some ways you can encourage the girl in your life to use her voice:
1. Ask her. While it seems obvious, this critical technique is often overlooked. What better place to start than by asking our girls how we can encourage them to use their voices? And once you ask, really listen and take action as needed.
2. Teach her that her voice matters. There is a common misunderstanding that children and adolescents – particularly girls – do not have anything valuable to add to the conversation. I think we have all seen quite the opposite over the course of the past few years as youth have raised their voices to make change. While your girl may not be on the national stage, she can have a voice at home, school and in her community.
3. Give her the opportunity to use her voice. Sometimes, all a girl needs is an opportunity. A simple question like "what do you think?" is a great place to start. Help your girl think about different areas of her life where she can use her voice. In our middle school program, Heart & Sole, we talk about comfort zones and stretch zones. It may be easier for your girl to use her voice in some situations (comfort zone) than others (stretch zone). Her comfort zone may be at home or with family and her stretch zone may be with friends or at school. She can start in her comfort zone and expand out to her stretch zone as she grows in confidence. Also help her identify different ways to have a voice – sometimes this may mean literally using her vocal chords, but a girl's voice can also be heard in other ways such as through writing, art, etc.
4. Help her hone her skills. Girls build confidence when they have strategies to face a challenge and a chance to practice, practice, practice. As your girl has the opportunity to use her voice (which she will every day in any given moment) help her reflect on different situations where she used her voice, and times when she didn't. What techniques really helped her? What circumstances made it easier to use her voice? And make sure to acknowledge that using your voice isn't always an easy thing to do. There is power in transparent, honest dialogue with our girls.
5. Engage in personal reflection. Sometimes, giving girls a voice means giving up some of our control as adults. For some of us that is easier said than done. A friend of mine made a joke the other day that she wanted her daughter to be strong, opinionated and willing to speak her mind – but after she was out of the house. While this was clearly a joke, when we decide to give our girls a voice, we must be willing to listen and to relinquish some of the control we have. Engage in some personal reflection and make sure you are ready to do your part.
6. Use your own voice. Seeing other girls and women stand up for themselves and others is a powerful motivator and example. In addition to personally demonstrating what using your voice might look like, show her examples of girls and women who have used their voice. It's important to give examples of women from diverse backgrounds – and situations that had different outcomes. We don't want to paint an unrealistic view of what it means to speak up or speak out.
7. Show her the power of a unified voice. There is a certain confidence and power that comes from a unified voice. Sometimes, your voice has to stand alone but, more often than not, you have allies. You never know who will join your choir until you start to sing the song. Whether you are the first voice or the 50th, it is inspiring to be a part of a unified melody.
8. Encourage her to think critically when she sees conflicting messages. While I long for a day when we are not swimming against the current when it comes to the idea that girls should have a voice, I'm afraid we still have a long way to go. Girls receive messages (both implicit and explicit) every day that tell them their voice doesn't matter. Help your girl think through different aspects of her life and question whether she feels like she has a voice in that space. Help her think critically about the conflicting messages she receives.
Being intentional about giving girls a voice is not something we can leave to chance. I'm tempted to say this is important because girls who use their voices become women who use their voices, but that would discredit the amazing contributions girls are making to the conversation right now. Whether a girl is three, eight or 15, not only do we need to hear what she has to say—we should also listen.
Learn more about how girls are changing the narrative.
Written by Dr. Allison Riley, the Vice President of Programming and Evaluation at Girls on the Run International. Her expertise is in physical activity-based positive youth development programs.
This article was republished with permission and originally appeared on Girls on the Run.