Recently, I had a painful interaction with one of my patients. He was interested in marrying a girl who had a physical disfigurement (one of her hands was slightly shorter than the other). He kept telling me that he wanted to give her a “life”. His mother was unwilling. She worried that her friends might comment on her inability to find a pretty bride for her son. The son had a ready made solution for this. Apparently, the girl’s parents had promised to marry the girl’s younger sister also to him, as a sort of a peace offering! Both of them did not seem at all perturbed by the fact that their opinions were extremely unfair.

I assure you that I am not making this up. The sad part of this was that the boy was a class ten drop out and the girl, a teacher! The girl had agreed to this sick “deal” to assure that she would not remain a “burden” to her parents!

I always believed that when a girl gets an education, she automatically begins to develop confidence and sense of self-worth. Apparently not.  Gender disparity may be less visible but has dug roots deep into our psyche. Until we parents work very hard, we may not even realize that we are unconscious victims of the same. While it is painful to see many women still struggling to assert themselves, we can, as parents make a sincere attempt to take small steps to make our daughters more self-assured women by:

  1. Practicing gender neutrality at home.

Let there be no “son” chores and “daughter” chores. I have seen parents divide these chores unconsciously, by asking their daughters to serve tea to guests and asking their sons to drop someone to the bus stop! At the same time, in trying to prove that they treat their children equally, they abstain from teaching their daughters ANY self help skills. Both extremes are unhealthy. Make it a part of your routine to teach children (both boys and girls)  life skills like cooking, cleaning, shopping and budgeting without discriminating who does what.

  1. Telling the right kind of stories.

Stories leave a lasting impact on the mind. As young children, they give us glimpse of the world that we will eventually venture into. While sticking to fairy tales may be the easy way out after a long day’s work, it would be great to remember that those were created at a time where damsels in distress were the norm. Our daughters need to know of women who are brave, have struggled and succeeded despite odds and those who helped change the ways of the world. “Gender swapped fairy tales” written by Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett, Amar chitra kathas of brave Indian women, and biographies of girls like Malala, fit the bill. Do not watch regressive shows on the television which teach the wrong set of values without even overtly saying anything.

  1. Teaching them about beauty.

I agree that the societal concept of beauty needs to change. But changing the big bad world needs small baby steps at home. Our unguarded comments body shaming others, even in jest, teach our daughters that their appearances can be judged. Remind them often that they are beautiful even when they are messy, sweaty or candid. Direct your praise away from appearances to actions.  Rather than saying “you looked cute yesterday”, try saying “you were great when you were kind to that dog”. Teach them that it is about being comfortable in one’s skin and the way we carry ourselves that makes us good looking. While it is great to be complimented on looking beautiful, but teach them that inner qualities are more important. It may sound cheesy, but it’s true.

  1. Teaching them how to protect themselves.

Gender equality is a good thing, but practicality is better. We live in a country which is not very safe for women. Teach age appropriate lessons on self care. At preschool, teach about not talking to strangers and the “good touch bad touch” lesson. As they grow, teach them about how to stay safe when alone in a place or how to handle unwanted male attention. Teaching self defense and common sense go a longer way than over confidence and a false sense of equality.

  1. Encouraging them to have an opinion.

Studies show that girls are encouraged to be sweet and conciliatory. While we do not want our girls to go out into the world with a chip on their shoulder or start fist fights at the slightest provocation, we need to teach them that having an opinion and sticking to it is allowed. Teach them how to express their beliefs strongly, but respectfully. Discuss each opinion before you agree or disagree without landing into an emotional slugfest. As Sheryl Sandberg writes in her book Lean in, “I want every girl who’s told that she is bossy to be instead told that she has leadership skills!”

  1. Introducing them to reality.

We might be the modern age parents who believe in gender equality, but it is important to show our daughters that there is an alternate universe out there, where girls are not treated as equal to boys. Make them read the newspaper everyday, so that they are aware of the current affairs.Teach them to extend a helping hand in any small way to those who are less privileged. For example, teaching the house help how to read and such.

Tell them that they will have difficult choices to make,that no man may ever face like, whether to choose a career or motherhood, whether to have babies in their twenties or thirties and so on. Teach them that making these choices will never be easy and that there is no right or wrong way to go about them. Inspire them to follow their dreams and support them in the roadblocks which they will inevitably face.

When these become a part of the parenting routine for daughters, maybe in the future somewhere, we may not need to have a discussion that I mentioned at the start of this blog ever!

About the Author

Preethi Shanbhag


My name is Preethi Shanbhag. I am a psychiatrist and a mother. In my free time I love to read, write, travel and cook.

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