Parent Like It Matters

How to Raise Joyful, Change-Making Girls

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An accessible blueprint to embolden our daughters to be critical thinkers, fearless doers, and joyful change agents for our future—from the proud mother of teen activist Marley Dias, founder of 1000BLACKGIRLBOOKS.

“A powerful resource for caregivers trying to raise courageous girls . . . It’s my go-to and my how-to.”—Kwame Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of Light for the World to See

Renowned sociologist Dr. Janice Johnson Dias has devoted her life to nurturing and training girls to become change-makers—whether through her investment in her daughter Marley’s humanitarian projects or through her work with the GrassROOTS Community Foundation’s “SuperCamp.” In these unprecedented times, her work has never been more urgent, as parents find themselves asking: How do we teach our children to change the world?
 
Dr. Johnson Dias knows that self-realized girls are created through intentional parenting. And so she asks parents to make deliberate choices—from babyhood through adolescence—that will give their girls the resources and foundation to take hold of their own futures and to create sustainable social change. 
 
Unlike other parenting experts, Dr. Johnson Dias doesn’t urge parents to focus solely on their children. Instead, she tasks them with a personal challenge: to find their own joy. Just as Dr. Johnson Dias brings her own jubilant passion to parenting, mentoring, and teaching, she inspires caregivers to do the same. 
 
Using cutting-edge research and Dr. Johnson Dias’s own experiences, Parent Like It Matters offers information and strategies for making discussions of racism and sexism a daily practice, identifying heroes and mentors, educating yourselves together, and uncovering your girl’s passions and what issues drive her the most. 
 
Parenting is enormous work; it can be as overwhelming as it is fulfilling. Within the pages of Parent Like It Matters, parents will find the invaluable tools they need to raise resilient, optimistic girls who determine for themselves what their world will look like.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Parent Like It Matters

1

A Look in the Mirror

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”—­Kahlil Gibran

As we undertake this journey with our girls, first we need to understand who they are, on their own terms. If we honor the ways that our girls are uniquely themselves, then both parent and child can gain insight into who she really is and (just as important) who she isn’t. Sometimes this is hard because we have our own ideas about who our girls should be. Sometimes we think they should be just like us! Other times we think they should be our opposites—­boy, I hope she doesn’t turn out like me! But let’s think of Gibran’s point above: Raising your girl means honoring her on her terms. Despite the labor it took to bring your girl to the world, once she is outside of your womb she no longer belongs to you. Her presence in the world means she is a sentient being with her own wants and inclinations.

As individuals, children must cultivate and nurture that voice so that they feel capable of expressing opinions with confidence in all areas of their lives. In the early stages, caregivers must therefore attune to their girls’ interests and points of view so that they can help the girls grow and value who they are. Research shows that listening to children’s wishes and opinions will shape their participation in the family and the world; more specifically, when kids feel that they are heard, they are more likely to share their frustrations and joy with their parents, and they are more likely to be socially integrated at school and in their communities. By listening you are demonstrating to children that they belong and are cared for. Taking the time to listen will help girls understand the important distinction between adults who look after them and those who actually care for them.

Caring begins with listening.

Listening to what your child wants and reconciling her desires with your own wishes is important for building a stable bond between you and for creating a fuller expression of her. However, listening and caring does not mean granting your girl’s every wish. Instead, it means as caregivers and parents we must develop strategies for attending to her wishes—­all while guiding her to make healthy choices. Negotiating and achieving this balance between our girls’ requests and our responsibilities as guardians can be difficult. Often it means making hard choices—­as well as helping her see the value in you rejecting her wants. She may want the latest pair of sneakers, but her feet are still growing each month. You can and should say no without any regret. She may want to spend the night at a friend’s house during the school week, but that will interfere with her sleep schedule. You should say no. Don’t worry: Becoming familiar and comfortable with no is good for her. She will be okay. But note that your refusal must be thoughtfully made and conveyed. It must first begin with listening to and hearing your girl’s ideas and opinions. Let her make her case. Hearing her point of view will give you insight into the logic she is using to make decisions and assess situations. Ask her to listen to the arguments that you lay out because she needs to become familiar with your point of view. Trust me, this will come in handy for the future. The more she knows about your perspective, the more she will be able to discern what things you value and do not value—­and vice versa.

This reciprocal understanding will facilitate your relationship and bring you closer. Decision-­making then becomes a process of thoughtful consideration born out of dialogue. If we listen to our girls, then when we have to draw the line on some things, they will be more likely to understand and/or accept our decision. But the work begins with listening and exchanging ideas.

Parent-­­child communication—­both form and content—­is critically important for youth development. The way parents communicate with their children can impact the kids’ emotional competency and self-­esteem. Scholars have found that parents explaining events and emotions clearly has been linked with higher self-­esteem in their children. Furthermore, when parents and children collaboratively discuss and make meaning about children’s experiences, it enhances self-­esteem.

However, listening to our children and accepting their ideas is sometimes difficult, especially when we have our own perception of who they are or what they should want. Too often, in an effort to balance a fear that outsiders may perceive that we overindulge our children, some of us reflexively balk at our daughters’ desires.

For example, I strongly advise against caregivers choosing celebratory moments like birthdays to teach or train children about self-­control and character development. These are not the ideal moments for such action. Choose, instead, everyday moments as opportunities to help your girl recognize her resources and privileges so that she can practice good decision-­making.

A constant repetition of “no” will not help her make good choices. “No, you cannot have this game. No, you cannot get those shoes. No, you cannot go to that event” will not teach her why those choices may not be appropriate. Consider asking her to share her plan for how and why she wants to do something. Provide her with a few probing questions about her plan and then ask her to describe the pros and cons of her choices. Explain to her that her plan and decision must not demand your time or money. She must use only the resources that she has available to her. Example: If you go to the game on a school night, how will you get there? Who will come and pick you up? Have you completed all your other obligations including homework? What time do you expect to get back?

Having a lot of material resources will not satisfy her most insatiable desires. Still, it’s important to understand the sources and natures of her desires. Acknowledge what she craves, so that you can recognize her in ways that are meaningful to her, not just to you. Do not simply give her what you wish to give, but rather give her, within reason, what she wishes to receive. Respond in her love language. Too often parents want their children to acquiesce to their wishes without considering their children’s perspective. This oversight can make your girl feel like her ideas and feelings do not matter, or worse, are less important than yours. Hear the way your girl wants to be celebrated and honored. Give priority to her requests. Recognize and separate yourself from her.

Take the case of Nadine and Patrice.

One of our GrassROOTS SuperGirls, Patrice, had always wanted a birthday party with lots of friends, but her mother, Nadine, did not honor her wishes, choosing instead to host intimate events in her backyard. Nadine often invited few of Patrice’s friends because she wanted the party to be convenient and easy for her to execute. She did not negotiate with her daughter or her daughter’s friends and their parents about attending, and as a result there were often more adults than children in attendance, the majority of whom were Nadine’s friends. There was no dancing or children’s games. All activities—­with the exception of cake cutting—­were held outdoors. The whole event would be wrapped up before nightfall when caregivers picked up their children.

Nadine hadn’t had birthday parties herself as a child, so she didn’t see the big deal in these celebrations. In fact, she found birthday parties to be ostentatious and financially wasteful. She prided herself on the fact that she was not one of those parents who threw lavish celebratory events. Each year she planned the party by herself with little input from Patrice. Although Patrice could select some of the friends she wanted to attend, Nadine made the final decision.

I was always among those invited, so I got a chance to see the parties for many years. They were always nice; the adults had a great time. We watched movies, ate food, and drank mixed beverages. The kids seemed happy enough in the backyard, and everyone indulged in cake.

I didn’t learn how Patrice felt about these parties until I asked what she would be doing for her ninth birthday, which was just around the corner. She told me that for years she had asked her mom to plan a proper birthday party with lots of friends, but her mom had simply disregarded her opinion, opting instead to hold the usual festivities. Saddened by Patrice’s story, I talked with Nadine about her daughter’s request.

Nadine was frustrated by the idea that she would have to coordinate such a large event. As a busy working mother, she felt that she did not have time for party planning. Furthermore, she was frugal and did not want to spend what she felt was an excessive amount of money on a child’s birthday party. I asked her how much her annual birthday party budget was. She spent roughly five hundred dollars each birthday. To me that felt like a hefty sum. Actually, most of the funds were spent on the adults who ate and drank. Significantly fewer dollars were spent on the kids who ate pizza and cake.

- About the author -

Dr. Janice Johnson Dias is a tenured associate professor of sociology at John Jay College in New York City. She is the co-founder and president of the public health and social action organization GrassROOTS Community Foundation and leads its SuperCamp for girls. She holds a PhD in sociology from Temple University. Her collaborative work on Black girls’ mental, sexual, and physical health issues earned her a special congressional recognition and grants from the Robert Wood Johnson and Annie E. Casey foundations. Her work on the effects of safety on girls’ physical activity in low-income neighborhoods led her to serve as an advisor to the city of Newark, where she focused on violence as a public health issue. Born in Jamaica, Dr. Johnson Dias moved to the United States at age twelve and now lives in New Jersey with her husband, Scott, daughter, Marley, and dog, Philly.

More from Janice Johnson Dias, PhD

Parent Like It Matters

How to Raise Joyful, Change-Making Girls

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Parent Like It Matters

— Published by Ballantine Books —