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How to Raise Girls Who Become Joyful Change-Makers

Parenting is one of the biggest honors — and biggest challenges — we’ll face in our lives. We all want our children to be healthy individuals and caring citizens, but as we all know, there are many internal and external factors that can influence our kids’ lives. As much as we try to make it so, things aren’t always guaranteed to turn out the way we imagine for them. And when it comes to raising girls, there are unique pressures that will come their way as they see themselves reflected through the world around them. So how do we, as parents and caregivers, teach our girls to strive and thrive in this ever-changing world? Renowned sociologist, educator, public scholar, and author Dr. Janice Johnson Dias wrote a book, Parent Like It Matters , to shed some light on the subject of parenting girls — and she shares invaluable tools to help parents, as the book says, “raise resilient, optimistic girls who determine for themselves what their world will look like.”

Dr. Johnson Dias knows that self-realized girls are created through intentional parenting. She has devoted her life to nurturing and training girls to be change-makers — whether through her investment in her daughter Marley Dias‘ humanitarian projects (including the change-making initiative #1000blackgirlbooks) or through her work with the GrassROOTS Community Foundation’s “SuperCamp.”

Blending cutting-edge research and her own personal experiences, Parent Like It Matters is a gem because it offers information and strategies for parents and caregivers to discuss the tough topics with their girls, find mentors, and help them uncover their passions. SheKnows recently spoke to Dr. Johnson Dias about making deliberate choices as parents, what it means to be joyful, if our girls should be on social media, and more of what it takes to give girls the foundation to take hold of their futures and create social change.

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SheKnows: In Parent Like It Matters, you task parents with finding their own joys in life before focusing on their children and asking them to be joyful. Why is that important?

Janice Johnson Dias: People, especially mothers and parenting caregivers, once they have children, they forget that they are humans. And they want to be superhumans. You want to be the most attentive person, you want to be the most engaging person, you want to be able to give to your child, or children, everything. And in the process, many of us spin the pendulum too far and forget our own humanity. And in the instance that we forget our own humanity, I think that we also forget the child’s humanity.

SK: So you’re saying that parents tend to brush aside their own happiness when it comes to their children? And would you say joy is deeper than just being happy?

JJD: When I am talking about joy, it is an attempt at either cultivating or reclaiming something that is specifically yours so that you can model for the child a kind of humanity. Joy is that thing inside of you that is yours. It is not for others, it is for you and it is your level of optimism that you can draw on in everything that you do. And I argue in my conceptualization of joy that you’re doing things that are not just about being a servant to your child, or to your workplace.

SK: If you’re doing something that’s highly productive to the world, that feels even more enriching — especially if you’re a mom who has an intersectional identity, you feel like you’re helping to make the world better, which I think is one of the greatest things we can do for our kids.

JJD: Most of what we worry about as parents is, ‘what is the world going to do to our kids?’ So if we can engage the world and try to make the world a better place, that really helps to quell some of the problems we have in terms of, ‘Oh my God! The world is going to meet my kid in some harsh way and make my parenting even more difficult.’

SK: Your book couldn’t come at a better time, because the world is in a tough spot right now. 

JJD: I am hoping that from reading the book, parents  — especially for people like you and me, we have these teenagers — decide, where’s the ‘me’? Because very soon, the kids are going to be out of the house, and parents have not been paying attention to themselves. We have a bunch of external things to [work on] to make the inside of ourselves work.

I can tell my child to be polite, kind, all the rest of those things, but if the world is racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, and I do none of that [parenting] work with my child, my child is left wondering, well I’m polite, why are they still hating me? Because we keep forgetting that doing the [parenting] work inside the home is just not enough. And more importantly, when we do things [like activities and community service, traveling and meeting new people] outside of the home, I actually argue that that really helps us be this kind of joyful person. You say, I did something to make the world a better place … that’s a real thing.

SK: After we’ve done the work on ourselves, how can we do the work with our kids to make sure they like themselves and have the confidence to then help someone else and be a change-maker in the world?

JJD: One of the things I’ve seen people do is demand their child love themself. I’ve seen parents chant to their child, ‘You’re great!’ It’s not realistic for children to think they’re great every day. They’re human. You can’t expect to have everything all at once. But for our children, we can engage in a set of practices that really help them. And I think for anyone who has grown up in certain families, in a certain time, receiving self-praise was not valued unless it was an oppositional sentence, like ‘You’re better than him!’ That’s not truly rewarding.

SK: If self-praise isn’t the way, what’s an alternative?

JJD: I’m suggesting a kind of reframing for parents to help children recognize their own value in and of themselves. You don’t have to do anything to demand respect — you were born, you should be respected. But the first person who has to respect you has to be you. And if we don’t do that for ourselves as caregivers and if we don’t practice with our children they won’t know it, especially if you have a girl. Regardless of race or income, girl children take the hit in society.

I’m really encouraging caregivers to really take this seriously because since 2009 we’ve had a 182 percent increase in Black girl suicide rates in high schoolers. So we have children who are really faced with a lot of things. Certainly, suicide is a combination of biology and social stuff, but we can control the social stuff. The social things that impede our children, we can do something about making sure that they know that their lives matter, that they are valued, and that they should value themselves. So that’s what I’m hoping for — the long-term results of investing in and celebrating yourself.

SK: Speaking of social things that impede our children, what’s your take on young girls being on social media?

JJD: I tell parents that it’s variable but there are things that I think are important to measure. My daughter had to get on because of her [#1000blackgirlbooks] campaign; she was 11 and no one else was on social media so she didn’t feel that pressure. Now she’s 16, and last year was the first year she took herself off social media. Although she has to use it for work she just decided not to do it so much because people unfollowed her because they said her page was ‘too political for social media,’ but she was celebrating women each day. One of the things I’ve been really clear about with my daughter is — and I practice this myself — if you have any strong emotion about a thing, it doesn’t go on social media. If I really love a thing or if I really hate a thing neither of those two emotions makes their way to social media.

We never feed trolls. That is always a thing. If 95 people have something nice to say and three people have something negative to say, why would you give the three people your attention?

You also have to think about whether you have a child that is mature enough for social media. Also, if you’re not on social, your child shouldn’t be on social. That, to me, is a super clear thing. This is the first technological thing that they’re native to, that we are not native to. If you’re a caregiver that does not know what Instagram is, then your child should not have it because you cannot lead them in any way. You can’t support them because your level of knowledge is too low, so let it go. Then your child might be inspired to teach you how to use it, then you can actually play in that field.

SK: There’s a great chapter in the book that speaks to girls, especially Black girls, feeling the pressure to be trailblazers. But what are the consequences of encouraging our girls to be trailblazers that we may be missing as parents?

JJD: Sometimes kids don’t have all the words… You don’t know why you feel tired, you don’t know why you’re exhausted, you don’t know why everything feels like it’s coming down and it’s just that constant eye on you, and that inability to be all of what you can be, right? It’s that truncated humanity that I’m really just hoping to get us to move away from. There’s so much pressure, said and unsaid, for all of our girls at every level to be something extraordinary and that somehow being regular is just not enough. I don’t like it. I have a kid with a lot of attention on her and I was like, ‘You know, you can just fail, you can just say, I can’t do it’.

This is why the conversations with them are so important because they learn it’s okay to be… not perfect.

SK: You have such a wealth of parenting advice that you share. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

JJD: I got this great piece of advice really early from my friend Mary, when Marley was about 2, that I still use today. I was concerned about her father not doing everything right. I left the house one day and I’m like, she needs to eat at this time, she needs to sleep at this time, she needs to be bathed at this time. And Mary said: ‘let it go.’ She elaborated that Marley needs to see different ways of being and that a few mess-ups here and there are not going to take everything down. Although she was talking about my husband Scott and that incident, it had me thinking about all the times where I didn’t get it right. All the times where I didn’t achieve for her what I wanted and it really sat with me that things are going to go wrong all the time, and it’s okay. And maybe I took it too far, [laughs] and now when things go wrong, people are like, ‘Why are you not bothered?’

It’s not that I’m not bothered, I just know that things go wrong all the time. So I have become the greatest Plan B to Z’er. So that piece of advice about letting it go and it’s okay if it’s not perfect is the best advice that I’ve been given.

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Ballantine Books.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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