As Valentine's Day approaches and thoughts of love are in the air, your daughter's future love life may not be occupying your thoughts. Right now, she may be a toddler finger-painting in the kitchen, or a third grader counting coins and bills to equal $5 for her math homework.
But she will grow. And she will sexually mature. And she will want a happy love life... because who doesn't?
You may think she's too young to start learning about sex, but she's already learning whether you think she is or not. Every day, she's absorbing how the world around her sees female sexuality and the female body, and it will inform the teen and woman she'll become.
Some of it will happen right under your nose and you won't even realize it. While your toddler's finger painting, her paints might be on the table next to a magazine featuring an airbrushed, barely dressed woman standing in a position real women never stand in, making a face real women never make. Or while your grade-schooler is doing her math, songs might be floating through her head and she, with her "bluffin' muffin," could easily be singing to herself "I'll make him hard/hot show him what I got" while she's stacking those nickels. Want to hear my personal favorite? I was driving my daughter to school when she was in 6th grade and she switched the radio from NPR to a local station just in time to hear the lyric "Baby girl go down like she never wanna breathe."
If these cultural messages were rare, there wouldn't be a problem. But each of them is like a snowflake -- seemingly inconsequential, but before you know it, your daughter will be waist-deep.
In addition to feeling the cultural pressures of sexualization, our daughters also often feel the burden of having little to no support in navigating their sexual development in their own homes. Both young and adult women in my practice and research confess struggling with insecurities about their bodies and sexuality. They now look back and see how these insecurities accumulated through childhood and adolescence to culminate in impaired self-esteem that has complicated their love lives. Sadly, they report it led them to feel disconnected from their bodies as well as from the partners they love.
So while you're buying your daughter little candy hearts to pass out for Valentine's Day, remember: The more respect you teach her to have for her body -- which includes her sexual anatomy -- the greater her chances for a happy love life.
When she's little, her fundamental questions about adult love will be: What are grown women like, and what do I imagine I'll be like when I become one? I think for most mothers, we're totally used to recognizing this projection into their futures in non-sexual ways, like maybe she'll be a doctor when she grows up. But a little girl's questions about her gender will transform into more far more tangled ones from adolescence forward. For example, even though young and grown women know on an intellectual level that the following questions are ridiculous, on an emotional level, they can still torment them.
You may not want to think about it, but these are the sorts of incredibly private questions your daughter may soon be asking herself. We know this because it's borne out in the privacy of therapy sessions, eating disorder statistics, plastic surgery statistics, Internet hits, consumer sales and in tales of cyber-humiliation:
Am I skinny enough to be loved?
Am I pretty enough to be loved?
Am I sexy enough to be loved?
Are my breasts big enough to be loved?
If I text this topless picture of myself, will I feel loved?
Is my labia pink enough and the right shape to be loved?
Will I be loved if I move and sound like the porn stars my peers are learning about sex from?
If you want her to have a fighting chance against these pressures and to be confident enough to select partners who truly care for her, you have to have her back as you raise her.
It's rough out there:
Preteens are getting bikini waxes. Girls as young as 11 are having labiaplasty. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders over half of our girls are consumed with weight and dieting in ways that put their health and happiness at great risk through vomiting, fasting and so on. Little girls are pole dancing. I hear from both girls and mothers that middle and high school girls are having oral and anal sex because they think it's "safe" compared to vaginal. Hoping your daughter goes to college? Daughters at some of our finest institutions of higher education are facing things you'd never want them exposed to, like at Yale, where things got so bad students filed a class action suit on behalf of the defamation of women as men chanted, "No means yes, yes means anal!" Or at Amherst College, where fraternity T-shirts were printed up with an image of a bruised woman roasting on a spit in her thong and bra underneath the caption "Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847."
Here are three things your daughter needs from you to build a foundation that will help her feel good about herself now, as a teen and as a grown woman.
1. She needs information on her body.
She can't develop real confidence without self-knowledge; and she can't have self-knowledge if you don't teach her about the female body you share. Don't tell her she has a "down there." If she's old enough to know what her earlobe is, then she's old enough to know what her vulva is. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry endorse starting the sexual education of children at 18 months. If you want your daughter to be secure enough in her sense of self to hold her own when sexual matters present themselves, this is where it all begins. If you start by simply naming her body parts, you can gradually move on from there and help her deepen her understanding of sexuality as she grows. This way, by the time she's a teen and really needs this information and openness with you, it will already be in place. If you start when she's already a teen, chances are it will be much more difficult to have these conversations, and she may even freeze you out entirely.
2. She needs to be taught to respect her body and its capacities.
Remember, you're her role model. If you aren't respectful of your own body, it will be harder for her to respect her own, and that will make it harder for her to chose partners who will honor it. Don't critique her body, your body or the bodies of other women in front of her. Don't tease her about her looks or her form. Don't make food all about dieting. Don't talk trash about other women, and as she gets older don't let her talk trash about other girls. Teach her about menstruation long before she gets her period, and let her know you have the confidence to discuss anything sexual with the honesty she deserves to have in her relationship with you.
3. She needs to know she can talk to you about anything.
Women in my research shared stories of keeping major sexual secrets from their mothers because they thought their mothers wouldn't be able to "handle it" if they told them. They reasoned, if my mom couldn't even talk to me about normal, healthy sexuality, of course she wouldn't be able to handle more complicated issues. Things girls and women kept from their mothers? Sexual orientation, abortion, sexual abuse, rape, affairs and trouble in their marriages. Instead of having their mothers by their sides, they went through these things alone. If you want your daughter to come to you with what's going on in her life, you have to earn that privilege. She won't feel comfortable or safe talking to you unless you raise her by example. If you want a close relationship with your daughter throughout your lives together, nurture it starting now.
You and your daughter share the same gender. Don't leave her ignorant and all on her own. Teach her to connect to herself and invite her to connect with you.