CEDAR CITY, Utah — Bethany Bingham, 3, stands by the automatic pancake maker in the dining room where continental breakfast items are served each morning at the Holiday Express. She scrunches her face and looks at the array of foods for a minute, before pointing her finger at the carousel containing different cereals and announces she'd like Froot Loops for breakfast, please.
She doesn't know it, but she's exercising at a young age muscles that will help her make an array of decisions, from little choices like what to wear, to the mid-level ones like what class to take. The more she makes choice and speaks up, the better able she'll be to handle such big ones as what career to pursue and whether she'll engage in risky activities like drug abuse.
Speaking up and making choices are key to building a strong personal foundation, experts say. But many girls don't get the encouragement they need to build confidence in themselves and their abilities and futures.
"The voice is a fundamentally important tool we use to connect our inner and outer worlds — to make it possible for people to know our thoughts and feelings," said Anea Bogue, self-esteem expert and author from Los Angeles who specializes in working with females of all ages. She created REALgirl(R), an empowerment program for girls 9 to 16 and has been a middle and high school teacher, as well. She said when girls aren't encouraged to find and use their voices, they can believe what they think or feel doesn't matter.
"The voice is a muscle that needs to be used regularly to remain healthy and to become strong. The more girls are encouraged to use their voice in day-to-day life, the more prepared they will be to use it at moments in their lives when the stakes are really high — like saying 'No,' challenging perspectives that are harmful or disrespectful to them as girls and asking for help or standing up to someone else," she said.
New York-based Girls Incorporated feels so strongly about the need to teach girls to speak up and participate that it lists "Girls’ Rights" that adults should support, with suggestions for doing that. Girls, it said, have a right to be themselves free of gender stereotypes, to express themselves with originality and enthusiasm, to take risks, to strive freely, and to take pride in success, as well as to accept and appreciate their bodies, have faith in themselves and be safe in the world and to prepare for interesting work and economic independence.”
But Bogue said on a daily basis "girls see a significant absence of women's voices" in media, where only one-fifth of characters on TV and in movies are female; in school, where 10 women are mentioned to every 100 men in history books; in most high school English classes where only one of the top 10 works of literature used was written by a woman; in the seven top chemistry texts, where 85 percent of the images shown feature men; and in politics, where America ranks 90th in terms of women representatives in government.
"The message is that women's voices are not important and that they have been and continue to be 'absent partners' in the construction of our collective daily life, which simply isn't the case," she said.
Parents, said Bogue, need to give girls lots of practice at speaking up from an early age, starting with letting a girl at around age 2 choose what to wear from two or three options. When she's a bit older, she should be asked what she learned that day or what she liked about her day. "Remind her often that using her voice is the only way people can know what her valuable thoughts and feelings are," she said.
It's also important parents and other adults let girls know they are listening. "Nothing prompts people of any age to stop using their voice like consistent feelings of not being heard," said Bogue.
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