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Four ways to raise joyful, change-making girls

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Upon learning about Marley Dias, the young activist who started the #1000BlackGirlBooks project, I wondered what was in her parents’ secret sauce.

Looks like we all have the recipe now.

Parent Like it Matters: How to Raise Joyful, Change-Making Girls,” a new book by Marley’s mother, Janice Johnson Dias, gives a blueprint for raising girls, especially those with intersectional identities.

Although rooted in academic research (Johnson Dias has a PhD in sociology), the book is plain-spoken and realistic. I keep a copy of the book by my bedside as a reference and as a reminder that I am working to build a reciprocal relationship with my own daughter and to ensure she goes into the world as a confident, knowing woman.

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Below are four of my key takeaways from our spirited and wide-ranging conversation.

Mom, you can find 10 minutes.

While the book speaks to caregivers in general, there are some gems that speak directly to women. Johnson Dias advises caregivers to take care of themselves and find joy from within, to model and spread joy at home. “I’ve never heard a man on the planet Earth say, ‘I cannot find 10 minutes for myself,’ ” she said. “It is the most insane sentence!” Johnson Dias suggests female caregivers let go of being martyrs. “I don’t find martyrdom interesting. They [martyrs] are dead. We don’t have to embrace this approach, and we never want to say to ourselves that, ‘I just don’t want her to be like me.’ ”

Instead, Johnson Dias urges women to actively find 10 minutes to do something for themselves daily. Build the habit, and then build on that habit. Surround yourself with other women who take this approach and share that energy with the other caregivers around you. As Johnson Dias noted, parenting can be depleting work, especially when you are also waging a war against inequity. Nurture your own soul to better nurture your daughter’s and those of people around her.

Manipulation can be a good thing.

Years ago, my mom set up a playdate with a girl in my sixth-grade classroom. I didn’t know her well, but my mom volunteered in our classroom and loved her, so she invited her over. That girl is now my sister-friend Katie, a cornerstone in my life.

Johnson Dias would give my mom props for this move. “I’m not silent about friends, even the ones she [Marley] really adores,” Johnson Dias says. “It’s not always clear to me what rubric she is using about friendship selection.”

Johnson Dias cultivates a relationship in which her daughter can openly process her thoughts about friends and other personal topics. That foundation makes it easier for them to talk through the loss of some friendships, especially when some relationships fractured in the face of the country’s recent racial reckoning.

At the same time, Johnson Dias says, “So much of what is happening in terms of values is happening without articulation. I want us to be as articulate and explicit as possible, but there are certain areas around where you have to create the space and you must model.” To this end, Johnson Dias surrounds herself with joyful, generous women from a variety of backgrounds. She models healthy female friendships for her daughter, something that may be more impactful when seen rather than spoken.

Stop telling Black kids they have to be “twice as good.”

Johnson Dias acknowledges that parents of Black children, and especially Black daughters, feel a variety of external pressures that give way to worry. “The way we express it is, ‘You’re going to have to work harder, be twice as good. Be serious,’ ” she says. We are guilty of doing this in our own home.

Johnson Dias wisely notes that yes, our children may experience external pressures, but parents do not have to be a part of that pressure. She said it’s akin to the reasoning that “society is going to reduce your humanity, so let me start doing that for you now. If you’re comfortable with that now, you’ll be buffered for when society does you really dirty.”

Johnson Dias instead offers this approach, rooted in joy and hope: While her daughter may have to be twice as good for the world, her own home is a safe space. “Knowing that society will treat you this way, treat your girl with every bit of grace and beauty now,” she says. “That way, she will have this buffer later.” When the world meets your daughter with ugliness, she will have a repository of positive memories and grace from home.

Help girls identify the external structural conditions (inequities) in which they are operating.

“So much of having an intersectional identity is you trying to manipulate yourself in ways to deal with your structure,” she says. We often unintentionally tell ourselves and our daughters that contortions are necessary to make a way in the world.

Instead, give your daughter the insight, language and framework to recognize structural inequity. If we simply shield our children from having hard conversations about inequity, they will make their own assumptions. As Johnson Dias says, they may assume that “something is wrong with my eyebrows, my butt, my eyelashes. If we don’t give inequities meaning and context, kids will come back to the thing they can most control: themselves.”

Johnson Dias advises us to acknowledge and address outside structural conditions so our daughters internalize that they are not at fault and do not have to change themselves to adjust to a society that is flawed.

From that vantage point, Johnson Dias says, we ensure that our daughters have the language to name what they see. To identify injustice. There lies the next pivotal moment, when we can ask our daughters what they wish they saw instead. Help them imagine what they want to see and then work on finding meaningful ways they can create the change they envision. “Help them to imagine something different,” Johnson Dias says.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey is the cofounder of Zoobean, and mother of two in Washington D.C.

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