I always wanted to have daughters—and I got them. I love every minute of it, from the tea parties and pedicures to what we affectionately (mostly) call the “hair wars” in our house. But I’d be lying if I said it was easy. From a very young age our girls are targeted with messed-up media messages (think “Thin is beautiful, and beautiful is everything, and if you want to be happy, you needthese shoes!”) and exposed to all manner of temptations, online and otherwise. As a parent who can shape who they’ll become, there are many life lessons that I’d want to teach any child of mine. But there is also some specific advice for daughters. Here are 20 girl-centric things I want them to know.
1. Learn the word NO. Sure, I don’t like it one bit when you say it to me, but in the big, scary world out there you will be faced with endless tough choices. From boys to beers to inappropriate Instagram photos, potential trouble will lurk everywhere you go. You know that little voice you have inside, the one that tells you something doesn’t feel right? Listen to it. Respect it. And most importantly, use it to say NO. It won’t be easy a lot of the time, but I assure you, you’ll almost always be glad you did.
2. Spend more time worrying about how beautiful you are inside than outside. It’s fine to take pride in your appearance and want to be pretty. But if how you look is all you care about, you’ll pay for it down the road. Yes, you are beautiful—magnificently, achingly so—but never forget that you didn’t do anything to create or even deserve that. True beauty comes from being kind and thoughtful and compassionate. If you’re ugly on the inside, you’re ugly. Period.
3. Stuff won’t make you happy. Oh, in the moment—when you’re pining for that headband/skateboard/Fijit Friend/designer purse—you will truly, madly, passionately believe that they will. But things break. We lose them. They run out. They go out of style. They become uncool (the worst!). Happiness comes from appreciating the things you do have, not acquiring more.
4. Some girls are mean girls. Be extremely careful when you choose your friends. At the risk of throwing our entire gender under the bus, girls can be nasty and petty and jealous and cruel. Some of them will lie to you or pretend to be your friend or stab you in the back, and it will hurt like hell every single time. If you’re totally unprepared for it, it will crush you even more.
5. Girlfriends will save your life. Yes, girls can be awful, so when you find a loyal, true friend, hold onto her for dear life, and do your best to be loyal and true right back. Boys will come and go, but a good girlfriend will be your steady through the peaks, the valleys and everything in between.
6. Don’t judge people (but know that you will be judged). It’s a catch-22, kid: I’ve taught you not to assume things about people simply by the way they look or the clothes they wear; unfortunately the rest of the world won’t always do the same. Remember that when you want to bare your belly or pierce your tongue or dye your hair blue. (This may not matter much to you now, but wait until you’re trying to get a job or meeting your first boyfriend’s—or girlfriend’s—parents.)
7. Boobs are overrated. Until you have them, you’re going to want them. When you get them, you’ll obsess about them. Are they big enough? Too big? Is one bigger than the other? (Yes, it probably is. Every breast on the planet is different, even the two sharing the same bra. Accept it and get over it.) No matter how you feel about your boobs, remember that they’re not called “private parts” for nothing.So do yourself (and me!) a favor and cover them up. Nothing you could ever do screams I NEED ATTENTION like putting your perky young rack on display.
8. Get to know your grandma. Sure you love your granny, but have you taken time to really talk to her? Grandma’s had a lifetime of experience being a woman, and it would be a waste to not tap into her wisdom. Ask her about what it was like growing up, the first boy she liked, how she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. It’s sad but true: She won’t be around forever, so make sure you get to know her while you still can.
9. High school is not real life. It feels like there’s so much at stake, with cool girls you’re desperate to befriend and boys you’re crushing on so hard you can’t imagine ever meeting anyone better. But trust me: Life gets so much bigger when you go to college and then out into the world. And what someone is like in high school is little indication of who they become as an adult. The popular kids? They might peak as a teenager while some of the kids who don’t fit in go on to achieve great things. It’s impossible to have that perspective when you’re in it, but please trust me and believe these words when it seems like your world is ending.
10. Love yourself first. Not everyone is going to like you and that’s okay. Women often are obsessed with getting approval from everyone, but here’s the thing: It’s impossible to please everyone. The only person who absolutely must like you is, well, you. As long as you can look at the chick in the mirror and know you’re making the decisions that are right for her, even if they displease someone else, you can’t go wrong.
11. It’s okay to wait. The other kids are rounding the bases, while you’re not even sure what the bases are. That feeling of overwhelmed discomfort with the whole thing is telling you you’re not ready. You’ll get there someday, and there’s no reason to rush. Hardly anyone ever regrets taking things slow, while a lot of girls do have remorse over rushing.
12. Sex should be fun. You shouldn’t be in any rush to have sex, but when you do feel totally ready to do the deed, remember it’s supposed to be fun—really fun. If your partner doesn’t care about making you feel good, both emotionally and physically, or you don’t know enough about your own body to lead him in the right direction, see #11.
13. Not every problem is the end of the world. Remember that book I used to read you, The Boy Who Cried Wolf? That lesson applies to pretty much everything you do for the rest of your life. If every dilemma or disappointment you face is a 10 on the Drama Scale, you won’t get much sympathy from me (or anyone else). It will take you a while to develop full-fledged perspective; in the interim, play the “will this matter in five minutes/days/years?” game before you freak out about something that feels major in the moment.
14. Don’t compare yourself to others. You may not want to hear this, but there will always be someone prettier, richer and more popular or talented or athletic or artistic than you are. Don’t assume her life is better or happier than yours because of it. Life isn’t a competition, it’s a journey. You’re here to work on being the best you can be.
15. It’s only hair. Seriously. You will curl it and straighten it and pull it back and pin it up. You’ll wish it were thicker or longer or wavier or straighter. You’ll braid it and twist it and color it (please, not pink). You’ll spend untold hours counting your split ends. And for what? It’s hair. Life is too precious to waste so much time on the pursuit of mane perfection. Put a baseball cap on it, and go out and have some fun.
16. Being smart is cool. Sometimes you may feel as if you have to hide that you’re smart. Listen closely to me when I tell you: You don’t. Don’t ever dumb yourself down because you think it’ll make you seem cooler or to try to impress a guy. There may be a window of time when your peers genuinely think that brains are for dorks, but it’s a very small window, I promise. If you choose to use your brain, I promise you those dingbats will be drooling over how cool and successful you are.
17. Don’t lose yourself in a guy. The goal of dating is to find a guy you like just as he is and who likes you just as you are. Don’t pretend to love wind-surfing or scary movies just because he does, or act like you don’t love the clarinet because he thinks it’s lame. There are plenty of boys out there who will love and admire every last quirky thing about you. Hold out for one of them.
18. Speak up. I’m not talking about complaining or boasting or trying to get your way… but if you have an opinion or you aren’t being treated fairly or you see something happening that you know isn’t okay, it’s your right and your obligation to open your mouth. You may annoy some people when you do or even impress them. Either way, it’s okay. The more often you stand your ground, the sooner it will become second nature.
19. You have power over boys. At some point, it will hit you: You are the reason he stumbles over his words and gets sweaty palms. It’s a pretty heady feeling to realize you’re in possession of feminine wiles, isn’t it? But with great power comes great responsibility, so make sure you are always gentle and never cruel. After all, boys can have their hearts broken, too.
20. You’ll hate me some days, but I’ll always love you. I hope you know enough not to say it to my face, but I accept the fact that there will be moments you feel like you detest me. All daughters think their mothers just don’t/couldn’t possibly/will never ever get it at some point. But even if you hate me—even if you tell me so—I am still there for you. If you need a ride home from a crazy party, advice on a guy problem or just a good cry, I’m your girl.
Jenna McCarthy is an internationally published writer, TED speaker and the author of five books including If It Was Easy They’d Call the Whole Damn Thing a Honeymoon: Living with and Loving the TV-Addicted, Sex-Obsessed, Not-so-handy Man You Married (Berkley Books, 2011). Find her at JennaMcCarthy.com.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVilla