“They were good,” my 16-year-old daughter Liz answered matter-of-factly when I asked how the morning’s biology and American history SAT exams had gone. No hedging her bets about the outcome; no false modesty about her performance. She was simply confident that she had done well.
How different from what I was like at her age. I would have been so unsure, no matter how often I’d gotten great previous test results. This got me thinking about how girls learn self-assurance.What role had I played in the development of her self-confidence?
As I mused, I wondered how Liz sees me, now and over the years. I know that our daughters are watching us all the time, even when we’d rather they not. They analyze our good choices and our bad ones. They learn from what we think of ourselves and what we do—so much more than from what we tell them. And they hear our comments about ourselves, even when we hardly know we’re making them.
They listen, for example, when we talk of how our lives would somehow improve dramatically if we could lose five pounds. What’s a daughter to think about that? That minor physical imperfections result in a dismal life, I’d guess. I don’t ever want to pass that message on to Liz. She’s a dancer and has the classic slim build of one. I have the body of an overweight, middle-aged mother—but one who loves to dance and wear eye-catching clothing, and one who wants her daughter to know that life is not about losing those five or even twenty extra pounds.
I decided to ask Liz directly about her perception of my influence. Liz was not taken aback by my probing questions. She’s used to being the daughter of a developmental psychologist who wants to know the why and how of everything. In fact, she seems to welcome my questions, at least some of the time. “You don’t tell me what to do,” she tells me, “but you ask me good questions, the kind that help me work things out on my own.” When she says that, I see how alike we are. I’ve always hated anyone directing me. Even when I was very young, I had to make my own decisions and my own mistakes.
Liz, too, has always needed to figure things out independently. Yes, our shared genes might play a role in our similar styles, but my guess—and maybe my hope—is that Liz has learned from watching me think through again and again how to mesh my passions with the reality of my life. Work, for me, has never just been about holding a job. Work is a part of my soul, part of what makes me unique.
When Liz questions me repeatedly about what kind of work she might do when she gets older, she’s trying to discover how she can stay her own person, true to what she loves doing, and get paid for it. She has always been intrigued by the different jobs I’ve held, including a whole career in the academic world that happened before she was born. Liz knows firsthand that I stand up for what I believe, and now I see her conquering her natural shyness to speak up for what’s fair and right.
Still, in the end, I know that what I say will have far less of an impact on Liz than how I live my life. So that means she’ll see me wearing bright red (my favorite color) sweaters, getting excited about a scientific breakthrough, enjoying time with the people I love, and working out at the gym several times a week because it’s good for my physical and mental health. But then I have to remember that although a part of Liz comes from what she’s seen in me, there’s a big part that’s hers alone. Blue is definitely her favorite color.
Harriet S. Mosatche, Ph.D., and her daughter Elizabeth K. Lawner (Liz) are the authors of Getting to Know the Real You: 50 Fun Quizzes Just for Girls and What’s So Bad About Being Good? How to Have Fun, Survive the Preteen Years, and Remain True toYourself.