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Teach Her to Make a Better World
By Anne O'Connor

Sasha: "Mom, I've decided I'm not going to eat red meat anymore."

Mom: "Oh, really? What made you come to that decision?"

Sasha: "Do you know that the rainforest is being wiped out because cows need more room to graze? If we all cut back on meat, maybe we could save the rainforest."

Mom: "That's an interesting idea, honey. Tell me more about what you've learned."

In addition to changes in their bodies, friendships, and feelings, adolescent girls' minds are changing as well. As they reach puberty, girls begin to tackle abstract ideas in new ways. Adolescent girls often form a strong allegiance to justice and sometimes a vocal outrage at injustice. How can you help your child find appropriate—and inspiring—outlets for these feelings?

The marketing research group Teenage Research Unlimited recently surveyed kids to find out who volunteers and why. The results surprised them: most kids started volunteering at a young age--before their 12th birthday. And 70 percent of those who don't volunteer said they would like to, if they only knew how.

Girls develop a strong sense of social responsibility gradually, as they watch their parents and other influential people in their lives. But you can do a lot to foster this burgeoning morality in your daughter by helping her turn passion into action. The most important step to take? Modeling ethical behavior. What you as a parent demonstrate in your day-to-day actions is the primary teaching tool you possess, says Larry Dieringer, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So tell your girls about which organizations you donate time or resources to, and why. Better still, bring her along when you volunteer.

"What we're trying to nurture in young people is the skills and convictions to contribute to a better world," Dieringer says. "Young people really do want to make a difference in the world, to have an opportunity to contribute."

Activism can go a long way toward off-setting biases girls experience in their everyday lives. In early adolescence, many girls suffer emotional and intellectual setbacks as they sort out the internal struggles of puberty--and the external pressures of bias, unequal treatment, and outright harassment. A girl who gets involved and makes a positive change in the world can bring the same resources to bear upon her own circumstances. After all, if she can stand up to a CEO enriched by child labor, she can stand up to a bra-snapper in math class.

Girls can make a difference in many ways, starting right in their own friendship circles, Dieringer says. For example, his organization works with schools to create respectful and welcoming places for all students. Girls have an important role to play in that task, and can prevent harassment, name-calling, put-downs and bullying among their friends. He's found that often the best person to put a stop to harassing behavior is a bystander. A peer who stands up and says, "No, we don't do that here," sends a powerful message to kids involved in nasty behavior.

What's Important to Her?

Another way to foster your daughter's sense of social responsibility is to find out what's important to her. If she's bothered by harassment at school, maybe she and her friends want to start an anti-bullying campaign. But she might have another agenda. And while your own set of beliefs and ideals are high priorities, your girl needs to know that her ideas have value, as well.

One of Girl Scouting's four goals is to promote social responsibility in girls. To that end, troops across the nation organize community service projects, ranging from promoting AIDS awareness to opening dance studios for at-risk girls in public housing. These projects are successful because the ideas started with the girls themselves. "If you give them some control over their decisions and what they're going to do, they have so much more buy-in. They're much more likely to be enthusiastic and involved," explains Laurel McCombs, director of development and communications for the Girl Scouts of Monterey Bay, California.

Adults can help girls learn how to influence the world in a lot of ways, McCombs says. She knows grandparents, for example, who let their grandchildren choose an organization to receive donations in their name. The family can research together which groups share their values and goals as they decide where to contribute their money.

In working for things that are important to them, McCombs says, girls begin to have a sense that they are a part of a larger world, which they'll carry with them their whole lives. "The overarching idea of social responsibility is to feel a part of a community," McCombs said. "Whether it's their local communities, the people who are in their world, or the larger, global community, girls feel that sense of community and they're going to pass that on to their kids. We're helping our communities grow stronger by making sure that everyone knows they're a part of it."

Many girls will let you know pretty clearly which causes are closest to their hearts. Others may need some encouragement. One strategy is to simply be alert to what makes your daughter angry, and help her channel that anger into constructive channels. And be a good listener—give her the same respect you would a peer, and chances are, she'll tell you her interests.

Responsibility through Relationships

As a parent, you can best help your girl foster that sense of connection to something bigger by listening to her and getting to know her better. If you show her you're interested in what she's thinking about, she'll feel more comfortable sharing her ideas with you. These relationships form the foundation for girls to become active, involved adults.

See Moua runs a program at the Jane Addams School for Democracy in St. Paul that helps children from many immigrant groups become involved and informed citizens. Moua, who's also a community program specialist at the Humphrey Institute's Center for Democracy and Citizenship, says building relationships is key to getting girls involved in the world around them. One tricky aspect of teaching children about social responsibility is taking care not to overwhelm them with too many harsh realities. Adults need to find the right balance between helping children understand their world, while also protecting them from things they're not ready to deal with, Moua says. Follow the cues you get from your girl about what she's ready to tackle.

"It starts with having a good relationship, talking to them on a regular basis, finding out what they're going through, what their interests are, and not necessarily imposing on them what you think is important for them to know," Moua says. "There are some issues that we [as adults] want kids to know or talk about it. And the kids will tell you, 'we're not interested in that.' If they have an open relationship with you, they're more likely to tell you that they're more interested in something else. It takes time, and as an adult, you have to be patient with kids and not expect them to always have an answer. They can understand and grasp the most difficult things if you give them time and attention."

Talk About Current Events

Another way parents can encourage girls to think about the larger world is to talk with them about current events, says girls book author Mindy Bingham. Bingham worked as executive director of the Girls Club of Santa Barbara for 16 years developing programs to help girls make choices and figure out what's important to them. When girls are encouraged by their parents, teachers, and other adults to find leadership positions, Bingham says, they begin to see they can influence the world in new and exciting ways.

Talk to your girl about current leaders and how they're dealing with long-term problems. Ask your girl: Are the leaders finding cooperative solutions? What would you do differently? How can you apply these cooperative solutions to your own life?

Teaching girls to be concerned with the larger world starts from the time they're very young, says Bingham, when you can teach them empathy for others and a concern for issues beyond home. As they get older, they will naturally follow your example; if you show them community action is important, chances are they will believe that too. "I always say, ask them, 'If you could change the world, what would you do?'" Bingham said. "We tend to be idealistic when we're young. We don't know our own limits. That's the time to foster the concept that one person can change the world."

© 2003 Dads and Daughters, From Daughters: For Parents of Girls,
Duluth, MN This and other articles on raising healthy girls are available online at


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