Power bubbles and playing with worms: my 6 rules for raising a powerful girl

Guest post by Sarah Van Eck
“She Needed A SUPERHERO So She Became One” shirt from KenaBows

Last night my two-year old daughter Shoshanna was blowing some bubbles in the yard, and she kept yelling, “POWER!” every time she waved the bubble wand around. Sho’s auntie and I started laughing: power bubbles? Really? But that word totally sums up a lot of her approach to the world, running so fast her body can’t keep up and flinging herself from tall surfaces and yelling at the top of her lungs.


There are a couple things I keep in mind during our day-to-day adventures to encourage that sense of power in my tiny girl.

Animals are girls, too

Whether narrating the pictures of a story we’re “reading” about a whale or a worm, or pointing out a squirrel doing something crazy, I am often taken aback by my initial impulse to calling everything a “him.” Dude, this impulse sucks. Really, the only creatures of interest are boy-creatures? I am embarrassed to admit that I really have to fight against it sometimes. I hope that Shoshi will always discover that her imaginary friends of the tiger variety are, naturally, female badass tigers. RAWR.

Let her trust her instincts

When I was pregnant, a few peeps recommended The Continuum Concept which (as you may know) is a book written in the 1970s by an anthropologist who lived with the Yequana tribe in South America. She was fascinated by how blissfully happy everyone in the culture was, from the tiny babes to the elders. A lot of what she wrote about is pretty well-known attachment parenting stuff, but the lesser-known parts of the book discuss the almost total lack of injuries among the children — even though they were allowed to play with sharp knives, near open pits and rushing rivers, in an Amazonian jungle to boot.

Kiddos were given the space and respect to discover their world on their own, therefore their instincts about that world were honed from a super-young age. Groovy! And: nearly impossible in our baby-proofing, fast-cars, overprotective culture! Still, I let her take a lot of risks, and play in a lot of dirt. How will she learn how high she can climb, if I don’t let her try? Whenever I can, I try to give my girl the space to explore her own abilities, to climb and reach and (occasionally) fall.

Listen to her (within reason) if she says “no” or “stop”

Obviously I can’t always do this because the kid would never sleep (ever) or wear shoes in public places. But if she says NO to me putting pigtails in her hair, I listen. A girl should always feel like she has the power to say no and be listened to.

Tell her she’s brave

I remember hearing once that boys are usually praised for their abilities, while girls are more often complimented on their outfits or appearance. This is so true when you start being aware of it. So I’ve been on a mission to tell my daughter how brave, tough, and smart she is way more often than I tell her what an insane little cutie she is, or even how awesome her stripes-and-plaids-with-pink-boots ensembles are. Just yesterday she scraped her knee, then looked up at me and said shakily, “Shoshi brave girl.” It was amazing to realize that my words haven’t just been bouncing off her this whole time, but have instead been nurturing in her a feeling of really being that brave, tough girl I say she is. That she could draw on those compliments during a time when she really needed them was pretty awesome for me to see.

A white dress shouldn’t get in the way of a girl playing in the dirt

Our old neighbors had a daughter about Shoshanna’s age, and they were always yelling, “Don’t play on the ground, you’re gonna get your dress dirty!” Man, I felt bad for that kid. Maybe I’m just not fancy enough (very possible), but I can’t think of an occasion that’s so important that it should require clothing that actually restricts the wearer’s interactions with the world around her. I love a darlin’ little sundress at least as much as the next mama, but I try not to freak out when I notice that my girl has just poured an entire bucket of mud and worms all over it.

Which brings me to mud and worms: I’m introducing her to them

Some kids just aren’t into bugs and dirt and fishing and guts, and I totally feel them on that, but I do wish more people would give girls the opportunity to check ’em out without automatically assuming they’ll be disgusted. Kids are social animals, and if you expect them to be grossed out by a spider, they will be happy to oblige. But if you take the time to show them the web the spider is spinning, really look carefully at what it’s doing, and talk about how many pesky insects it gobbles up for us, at least you’re giving that girl a fair shot at not running shrieking from the room every time she sees one.

Shoshi knows that “ewww,” in reference to any kind of insect (or person, for that matter) she hasn’t taken the time to have a good look at, just doesn’t fly with me (so to speak). She drops to her belly every time she sees an interesting bug on the ground, to better inspect it. I hope that throughout her long life, my daughter carries with her that enthusiasm for the smaller, potentially misunderstood creatures who walk this world with us.

Isn’t that what raising powerful girls (and boys) all about? Imagine a world full of women — our daughters — who are strong enough to get dirty and climb high, brave enough to look closely at their surroundings, and smart enough to recognize just how awesome they really are.

Comments on Power bubbles and playing with worms: my 6 rules for raising a powerful girl

  1. This post is completely awesome. I was in a store once where this little girl’s grandmother kept calling her “my little princess.” The kid got fed up and told her “I am NOT a princess. I’m a SUPERHERO.” Telling the story later to my friends I remarked that I have never been so proud of someone else’s kid.

    • Sounds like a co-worker of mine who calls her 3 year old daughter “my little diva” all the time. No other nickname or pet names…just the diva.
      However she doesn’t live up to that name (and it’s assumed behaviours) all the time – she LOVES action heroes. It’s hilarious to hear about her waking up at 5am to look at comic books when she should be sleeping!

      • A friend of our’s from church tells a story where her daughter was sitting on the floor, legs spread. Her grandmother chastised her to “sit like a lady”. The reply: “I’m not a lady, I’m a WOMAN!” Awesome.

      • Once when we were at a store a clerk called my daughter a princess and my daughter called her a princess back. I think the clerk was flattered and amused (as I was). As much as I am not about princesses, I hope to impart to my daughter that it’s just another fun thing to pretend (like being different animals, or a firefighter) instead of something to aspire to actually be.

  2. I love this post and it sums up everything I want for our girl, if this little tatertot turns out to be missing a y chromosome (we’re not finding out sex).

    However, let me pose this to the community. I want any son or daughter I have to be fascinated by their world, not fearful of it. I was raised to be afraid of everything and as such, I now have a genuine phobia of bugs. How can I encourage fascination with nature when I can’t always model it?

    • I don’t know if other areas have this, but where I grew up in Colorado we have “The Nature Center”


      My mom wasn’t particularly outdoorsy, but she always brought us to programs sponsored by the Nature Center. All the classes and programs were free! We would go on hikes, learn about trees/bugs/etc, collect pond water and bring it back to look under the microscope, and so much more. In the winter when it was too cold to hike, we would stay in their lodge and make molds of animal tracks, or make our own volcanoes.

      It was SUCH a blast. You should do some searching to see if there is anyplace in your area that offers a similar program.

    • Start learning about it yourself! Chances are that once you start learning about the natural world, you will find at least one thing that fascinates you. Even an urban setting has lots of less creepy wildlife, like fireflies, songbirds, flowers. You don’t have to personally feel excited about all of it, as long as you encourage curiosity and exploration. Once you know more about the things that creep you out, you might become less afraid because you will understand how interesting and important they are. Starting in your own local area is great for this. You can go out and see stuff first hand and really feel connected to how some of those creepy crawlies contribute to your personal habitat. How the bats and spiders keep the bugs down and the snakes eat the vermin, etc. I don’t think you have to love the creepies to find an appreciation for them.

    • It might only work once the child is older, but what about “Sometimes people are scared of things they shouldn’t be. I’m scared of bugs, but I’m trying not to be.”

      Or, ask another trusted adult to be in charge of bug education?

      • This also models examining your fears and working with irrational fears and not letting them limit your life. Which is ALSO an important skill for powerful girls (Or boys.)

    • One mom I know is actually using the fact that she doesn’t want her child to have a phobia of spiders as a way to deal with her own phobia of spiders.

      When she sees a spiderweb & spider, instead of shrieking, she picks up her son, walks over to it, and talks about how cool it is. I’m really proud of her for taking control of her fears.

      You could even be honest with your kid about how you have a silly fear about bugs/spiders and because s/he is so brave, maybe s/he can help you get over your fear. I’ve known kids in the past who have been very proud when they feel they’re even braver than mommy or daddy about something and they feel even more proud when they can help their parents. 🙂

      • I hope that when I have kids I’ll have the fortitude to do this with cockroaches. I’ve gotten better already, I don’t scream (not loudly, anyway) on sight anymore, but at this point that’s the best I can manage :-/

    • I went to summer camp at our zoo and at the Botanical Gardens. I strongly recommend both. Can’t remember which one taught me about how awesome bugs are, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was both.

    • You can start by simply curbing your “ew!” impulse. I overhear so many parents at the zoo go “Ew! Bats!” “Ew! Snakes!” “Ew! Bugs!” And their toddlers don’t even look at the animal, just parrot their parents and say “ew!” Even if you don’t want interact with the animal in question, or even look at it, simply encouraging your child to look closer, to ask questions, and when they tell you what they learned, say “Isn’t that neat?” As they get older, you can be honest with your kids “Mommy is scared of snakes, even though I know that snake right there won’t hurt me.” It could even be an opportunity to talk about how and why we get scared of things even if we “know” they won’t hurt us.

    • LB,
      I grew up with a Mom super afraid of snakes. As I child I saw that chink in the armor and instead of emulating it I went for the kill. She still tells the story of how once at a zoo when I was a pre-schooler I rushed her and sweetly begged her “to see something really neat around the corner” and scared the %#@$ out of her with a giant snake. (I have since apologized)
      My dad was into reptiles so we had his teaching influence there, but we learned a bigger life lesson by watching my Mom. She was always continuously working to be accepting of our interests, even when they scared her to death, explaining that it was “her thing”. We actually gave her the exposure and chance to conquer her fear. By the time we were in H.S. my brother kept an 8 ft python and she was “fine” with it!
      She gave us the space to feel how we felt without imposing those feelings as a rule, all the while teaching us how to do that ourselves.
      The influence happens both ways. If we as parents are aware of what we are teaching and don’t expect our kiddos to feel the same, we have a great chance of our children teaching us and expanding our boundaries us in positive ways.
      I think you are going to great, as aware of it as you are already you have the right thing going.
      Good Luck and best wishes to you and your new bundle!

  3. “looked up at me and said shakily, ‘Shoshi brave girl.'” This totally made me tear up! What a little bad-ass you’re raising. I hope to hear those words from my 16-mo-old some day! Go Mama, go!

  4. Love this article! I’m expecting my first little girl in a little less than a month, and I’ve always been a tomboy at heart (my mom says that when she’s taking care of her granddaughter while I’m napping, she’ll be dressing her up in pink, LOL).
    I have been honoured to become a stepmom to a beautiful little five year old…when I first came into her life, she was very much “eww” and “icked” out by anything not pink & frilly…and now, with her dad and I giving her the opportunity to appreciate the finer things, she can spend hours observing caterpillars, helping canker worms get into trees, and watching a spider spin its web. Just the other day we spent 20 minutes looking at pictures of bats and learning about them – and there was no ‘eww’ in sight!
    I think that not making a big deal out of things (“Eww a spiiider!”) as a parent and actually taking the time to show her the beautiful intricacies have helped her to see more beauty in the world around her – even in plants, she’s very proud of her growing ‘popcorn’ plant <3
    I'm a tomboy at heart and she still loves her pink, which is a-ok by me, but her dad and I are taking the opportunity to show her all the colours of the rainbow =)

    • Awesome comment, except for the use of “tom boy”. We need to embrace all girls, even the ones that don’t like pink (I’m with ya there!) as full fledged GIRLS who are awesome. Being into mud and bugs is just as girly as pink stuff! 🙂

  5. We don’t have kids yet…and I secretly fear that we’ll only have boys (boys run in his side of the family). Sure, boys would be fine (I guess)…but I really really want a girl to raise up awesome like this. I almost feel like with boys it’s less of a challenge. I want to raise a powerful, badass girl who wears a Batman mask with her princess dress!

    • I don’t have kids either, but I think raising boys could be just as much a challenge, just a different one. How about raising your son to be accepting of girls as equal play buddies, that playing house and helping in the kitchen are great pasttimes, or that knitting, sewing, crafting, glitter, shiny things, and Wonder Woman are just as awesome as insects, mud, and reading comics? It seems like just another side of the same coin to me.

      • I agree. My cousin’s little boy loves pink, and often wants to wear his mom’s bracelets. He is also obsessed with cars, trains, airplanes, and really anything that has an engine. I think it’s really powerful that my cousin & her husband are encouraging all of his interests, no matter where on the pre-supposed “gender spectrum” they may fall. boys have more advantages in our society, but they are still pidgin-holed by the gender spectrum. the more we can teach the next generation of males to think outside of the boy things vs. girl things value system, the more inclined those grown-up males will be to respect women who similarly push those boundaries. win-win!

      • I really agree with you on this one. I think that ‘tomboys’ are often a lot more socially acceptable than ‘girly’ or sensitive boys, at least in our culture. Even just giving a boy a baby doll would make half the population of the US go crazy, whereas I don’t think there’s quite as much controversy in letting a girl muck around in the mud, at least not these days. Raising kind, empathetic feminist BOYS is just as important and difficult a job as raising girls with the same characteristics! Probably somebody out there needs to tackle a “6 Rules for Raising a Sensitive Boy” post! 🙂

  6. “I hope that throughout her long life, my daughter carries with her that enthusiasm for the smaller, potentially misunderstood creatures who walk this world with us.”

    It totally will. My mom taught me (and my sister) not to be scared or grossed out by bugs. One of the best things that ever happened to me was watching a spider make its web ON MY HAND!!!! 🙂 It was so cool.

    • That is pretty great, of you and the spider. As a science teacher, my mom was similarly cool and that’s totally why I’ve always been more interested in creepy crawly things than grossed out by them. Yeah spiders!

    • Thank you so much! That movie IS one of the reasons why we named our girl Shoshanna…that character was just so irresistibly bad-ass, plus for some various other unrelated reasons. You’re actually one of only a few people to make that connection! It sure suits her thus far, I like how it’s the sort of name to grow with a kid, from Shoshi to Sho to Shoshanna, whatevah she feels like. Thanks again!

  7. “I remember hearing once that boys are usually praised for their abilities, while girls are more often complimented on their outfits or appearance.”

    I remember reading the article you link there and, within the next two days noticing two different fathers complementing their little girls on how strong they were. One little girl was helping her father carry in grocery bags but I can’t remember the context of the other example.
    I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, but I thought I’d share.

  8. This reminded me of my nine year old daughter, and my friends 1 1/2 year old daughter. When my daughter she wanted to bring home centepides and earwigs from the playground at daycare, Now she is a fishergirl (her word), afraid of spiders, loves bats, and cant wait for when we feed or take out our snake, and loves reading more than anything. While my friend (always a tomboy) has a little bitty who climbs into the bathroom sink to brush her hair and admire herself, but also had no problem jumping into a muddy kiddie pool in her flower girl dress after my wedding (it was adorable.) Just thought I’d share, I always encouraged questions, and for my daughter to explore things (as long as she was safe). All in all I think it turned out well, she has a healthy respect for most danger, and loves things that are considered un-girly.

  9. jeebus… thank you for writing this. and for raising your girl like this. i could have used a lot more of this growing up. and i think adults could use more of this. let’s talk to everyone first about the stuff that makes them who they are and awesome and not about their clothing size or hairdo. let’s all trust our own and each others instincts and support our choices and voices. let’s all get down in the mud.

  10. On the animal front, I have to say that one of my pet peeves is that most movies/books etc for kids in which an ant is a protagonist, it’s always a boy worker ant. There’s NO SUCH THING as a male worker ant. The males are there to mate, and then die, end of story.

    I used to work for as a park naturalist, and we would make a concerted effort to refer to animals by “it” unless we knew the gender of the specific animal in question. Even now, I still catch myself not using “it” when I should.

    On the dress not getting in the way of playing in the mud, I wholeheartedly agree. When I was like four, we went to a family reunion at my Great Aunt’s farm. There I was, the only girl (and a “red church” girl no less) with all my Old Order Mennonite boy cousins (the Old Order have church in white clapboard meeting houses, so they are “white church”. “Red Church” refers to churches made from brick that other groups might use.) taking turns pushing the wagon up the hill by the barn and then riding down it again. I have vague memories of a woman helping me clean the mud off my dress shoes under the pump.

  11. This article is amazing. Im not a mom yet but I want to raise my kids like this. I feel like this is how my mom raised me and it really helped my childhood. I likes this article so much I put a link to it on my facebook, hope thats ok.

  12. It may be hormones but I got choked up when she recounted the “Shoshi brave girl”. That’s exactly the kind of person I would want my daughter to be.

  13. My dad raised me as his “first born son” and took great pride in the fact that I love to help him dig worms to go fishing and even loved cleaning the fish we caught! I’ve always appreciated that he (and my mom, most of the time) never pushed me or my brother to 100% follow strict gender rules. And I totally hope to carry that through to the babe in my belly regardless of what chromosome mixture they come out with!! 🙂 I love hearing about other parents who are planning or doing the same!! Well done mama!

  14. I’ve been reading OBM for a while now though we are only just now expecting our first. I love this article and my husband fully agrees with everything in it. I’ve been working hard on curbing my “eww” reaction (or squealing and running away as has been known) because I don’t want my fears to become my child’s. We also fully endorse exploration and freedom to fall.

  15. Great article, Sarah! Thank you! My daughter is 6 and she mucks in the dirt and has a good old time exploring and digging. I tell her she’s brave often. She’s one of the bravest little girls I know!

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