Setting Examples for our Daughters: What Mothers teach their Daughters about Girly Thoughts

By Patricia O’Gorman, PhD,
author of: The Resilient Woman: Mastering the 7 Steps to Personal Power (HCI, 2013)

Order: Amazon / Barnes & Noble

and coming in 2014

Out Your Girly Thoughts…Embrace Your Strength workbook (coming April 2014 from HCI Books)

We say one picture is worth a thousand words. If that is so, then one video must be worth many more.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

I encourage you to watch the video below (sent to me by a reader) of a participant at the Barnard College poetry slam. In it, a young woman speaks to what she sees in her mother that both concerns and infuriates her. She expresses her pain about how the intergenerational messages she has internalized hurt both her and her mother.

Those of us who are mothers may believe that our daughters just follow our directives and do not see the context, do not see our actions or those of our mothers (their grandmothers). We think they do not see the price we pay for following the culturally directed girly thoughts that tell us how to act and how to think, and that promise rejection if we stray from acting in this narrow cultural band.

Think again.

Learning to Take Up Less Space

The poet in this video speaks to how generations of women in her family have been groomed and coached to take up less and less space. “I have been taught accommodation,” she says.

She speaks to being concerned that her mother sneaks downstairs at midnight to secretly eat food to which she does not feel entitled. She talks about how her mother masks her pain with lips coated with wine.

Yes, women have been coached for generations to be smaller, to “wane” as their husbands ‘wax’; coached to be the “woman behind the man,” to be important, yes, but invisible and unrecognized.

But our daughters will break this cycle, won’t they?

“Spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits. That’s why the women in my family have been shrinking for decades,” the poet muses.

Sound familiar? Listen to Lilly and ask yourself… is this me as well?

What Can We Do to Support Our Daughters?

    • Encourage them to give voice to their concerns about us

Ask your daughter to discuss what concerns her about you. Her answers may be difficult to listen to, but it is better to have your daughter put this into words than just do what women have been trained to do, which is to internalize what they are concerned about and not speak up.

    • Listen to what our daughters are saying

Sometimes it is difficult to listen to our children, particularly when they are angry—speaking to us with raised voices, using profanity, acting in a way we feel is inappropriate, yelling to us from another room. Our children’s behavior may mask what they are saying—but what they are saying may be right on. Listen to the message; don’t just tune it out because you don’t like the delivery.

    • Change your behavior

Yes, you may need to change. Your daughter’s concerns may be well-founded.  There may very well be something there that your daughter is picking up on that you should address by changing your actions, changing your thinking, changing the messages you are sending.

Crisis Is Opportunity

As I wrote in the first step of my book, The Resilient Woman,, crisis is opportunity. Let this “crisis” of your daughter confronting you on modeling inappropriate, ingrained behaviors and attitudes be the opportunity for you to change in a way that benefits you and frees your daughter from following your girly thoughts.

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Patricia O’Gorman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Saranac Lake, New York, is noted for her work on women, trauma, and substance abuse and for her warm, inspiring, and funny presentations that make complex issues accessible and fun. She has served as a consultant to organizations in preventative and clinical strategic planning. Dr. O’Gorman is a cofounder of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), and she has held positions ranging from clinical director of a child welfare agency to interim director of a crime victims organization to director of the division of prevention for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Learn more at