Fortifying My Mormon Daughter Against Negative Messages at Church and Beyond

I have a wonderful ten-year-old girl — my only daughter. She’s quiet, observant, reserved, affectionate, and kind. She’s on the cusp of puberty, and I worry what these coming adolescent years will do to my already shy and sensitive and daughter, given the evidence that tween and teen girls’ confidence levels plummet compared to their male peers.

I doubly wonder what will happen given the fact that I am raising her in the LDS church.  Will messages about her having divine worth, being a daughter of God, and being fundamentally and profoundly important in this universe help buoy her up when the negative rumination and perfectionist tendencies kick in? Will she see and recognize the talented and smart women around her in the congregation? Or will she pick up on the cues strewn about LDS church liturgy, practice, structure, and scripture that girls are less important than boys? Will she see how men dominate church leadership, General Conference, The Book of Mormon, and even our weekly Sacrament Meetings? Will she read that word “preside” in The Proclamation and wonder if God has less faith in her than in her male peers?

I worry. How I worry. “God,” I pray, “let me not screw up this one chance I have to raise my daughter to understand her potential, her abilities, her strength, her resilience. Let the church not damage her sense of self-worth and make her doubt herself, as it did me for so many years. Let her not hold herself back. Let her dream huge dreams.”

My worries arise from my own experience. I held myself back. I didn’t think big as I graduated from college. I didn’t aggressively pursue a career that could sustain me and my children. Years and years of YW lessons about the importance of motherhood swirled around my head, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to be a good mom someday if I embarked on a career. I also felt pain for so many years about the status of women in the church. The temple hurt like hell. The Proclamation was a thorn in my side. The male-dominated hymns, scriptures, and meetings were paper cuts, and I came home from church bloody every week. Additionally, I feel that messages I got about the importance of being physically attractive — messages I got at church and outside of church — did me no favors as I lived out my teen years worried that I would never be pretty enough.

Will my daughter encounter the same self-doubt, the same deep sadness? What can I do to help her be her bravest, most confident, most compassionate self? What can I do to protect her from damaging messages at church and beyond? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I have done a few things I’m hoping will help.

  1. Mother Daughter Book Group: A year or two ago, I started a Mother Daughter Book Group with four  friends of mine and their daughters who were the same age as mine. We pick good books, usually with strong female main characters, read them with our daughters, and then come together to eat dinner, discuss the book, and do a craft/play a game that relates in some way to the book. I can’t tell you how much I love this book group. It’s honestly the best thing I think I’ve ever done as a parent. We discuss bullying, bravery, racism, kindness, hopes, and more. As she ages, we’ll discuss body image, sexualization of women, gender inequity, LGBTQ issues, etc. I’m hoping this group will be a place she can feel comfortable voicing her thoughts and exploring important ideas, and the fact that she’s doing so with a team of women of various faiths whom I greatly admire makes it all the better.
  2. Good Media: Don’t laugh, but I really like some of the American Girl movies available on Amazon Prime. My daughter never was into the American Girl dolls or books, so I wasn’t expecting much from the movies. But I loved one called Melody 1963 — Love Has To Win, about a ten-year-old African American girl during the Civil Rights movement. It was so well done and provided a great opportunity to talk with my daughter about racism. I loved every moment of that hour and a half we spent watching and talking about that movie. Several other American Girl movies have been good too and have covered issues like bullying and homelessness. I’m also awaiting the day when she’s old enough to appreciate Whale Rider, one of my all-time favorite movies, about a Maori girl destined to be the leader of her people.
  3. Selectively Participate in Young Women: I’m wary of the messages my daughter will get in Young Women. I know there will be a lot of good stuff, but I’m also fairly confident there will be a good share of things taught that I would consider damaging. Modesty (clothing) discourse? Unacceptable. Obedience to the priesthood? Uh uh. Nope. Universally prescribed gender roles? Hell no. My daughter isn’t in Young Women yet, but I’m planning to ask her leaders to let me know beforehand the topics being covered in lessons and in activities, or at the very least, to warn me when lessons on modesty, priesthood, or gender roles are planned. I’ll be sure my daughter is either absent or that I come with her so that I can talk to her afterwards.
  4. Debriefing after Church: I’m not sure yet how this one will work given that my daughter doesn’t tell me anything about what happens in Primary, but if I ever can get her talking, I’d love to have conversations with her about her lessons, Sacrament meeting talks, etc. My hope is that she can learn early about fallible people and leaders in the church, how people and leaders are just people, usually doing their best, but that we don’t have to agree with them. Hopefully, I’ll get across to her the core traits and principles embedded in our tradition that I most value: compassion, integrity, justice, community-mindedness, agency, kindness, and “all are alike unto God.” Hopefully, she’ll find a way to escape or fight off those messages that told me that I was less than what I was — and which tell others (I’m thinking particularly of LGBTQ folk these days) that they are less than what they are.

This article lists other helpful strategies for raising confident girls, my favorite of which is to talk about your own failures openly, so she can see failure is a part of life and learn to shake it off.  Do you have ideas for raising confident girls and fortifying them against damaging messages at church and beyond?



Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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16 Responses

  1. Chiaroscuro says:

    My daughter’s entry into the YW program was one of the biggest triggers for my faith deconstruction/transition. good for you looking out to proactively protect your daughter as she navigates a very patriarchal world

    • Caroline Kline says:

      Thanks, Chiraroscuro. I’m really worried — I remember that that’s where a lot of gendering was explicitly taught to me, and I don’t want her to limit her vision like I did. I’m determined to be vigilant.

    • Bon says:

      That was one of the biggest triggers of my (and my husbands) faith transition as well. There was so much debriefing and deconstruction every week that it left my daughter exhausted trying to Be true to herself in a super patriarchal setting. She came home asking questions like do I really have to have kids right away? Is my only virtue really tied to being a wife and mother? Do I really have to play dumb? Do I really have to stop having ambition to work at NASA? Is motherhood really equal to priesthood? Do I really have to fit into this gender role box? she ultimately chose to not attend anymore. She is much happier because of it and it finally opened my husband’s eyes to these destructive messages that young women receive repeatedly. He started to seeing and understanding the patriarchy much better due to her experiences. It was very sad that she had to go through that for his eyes to be opened and for her to decide it was a destructive setting for her.

  2. Ziff says:

    I love your list, Caroline. I have a daughter who’s a little younger, but like you, I’m already looking ahead and worrying. I was planning to lean on your #3 and #4 suggestions, but in comparison with your first two, I can see how they’re kind of playing defense rather than offense in that they’re countering or removing bad messages. I love the ideas in your #1 and #2 for actively promoting *good* messages for my daughter.

    This is kind of out of left field, but I’m thinking of Jennifer Finlayson-Fife’s research on women’s experience with the law of chastity. If I remember right, some women found it empowering in that it was a rule they could lean on while they enforced boundaries around sex that they didn’t want to cross. So I’m not sure exactly how to do it, but I’d like to emphasize that aspect of the law of chastity with my daughter rather than the overwhelming focuses on shame and virginity and gatekeeping and being “nice” at the same time.

    • Caroline Kline says:

      Hi Ziff,
      that’s a good way to think about it — playing both offense and defense when it comes to fortifying our daughters in the face of negative messages. And yes, I think I read some pages from JFF’s dissertation on how Mormonism can create safe environments for women to explore their sexuality (in marriage) and avoid what they saw as male-advantaging casual sex and abdication of responsibility. I think what you said is definitely the better way to talk about the law of chastity. I hate the idea of my daughter getting pushed into doing physical stuff she doesn’t really want to do.

  3. Kirsten says:

    I would suggest that you also keep tabs on what goes on in Activity Days. As my ward’s AD leader, I try hard to help the girls discover their strengths. My main goal is to help them feel loved and practice kindness. I have each girl be in charge of an activity so that they can share their interests with the group. A good AD program can help them be ready to enter YW.

    • Caroline Kline says:

      Hi Kirsten, yes, I want to definitely utilize the AD forum and empower as much as I possibly can. I’m the AD leader at the moment, and I’ve actually gotten a lot of joy from reading them these brief tiny bios of amazing women from the Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls books. I want them to be able to envision themselves doing anything in the world. I like the idea of having every girl be in charge of an activity! I’m going to steal that idea. Thanks!

  4. Abby Hansen says:

    I also have a 10 year old daughter too, and being her girl scout leader has been awesome. We’re planning an overnighter in two weeks where we do a “Journey in A Day” that is focused on gender stereotypes and what they mean for girls. All of them have picked a role a woman could have in our community and interviewed her. We’ve had girls interview female veterinarians, a school principal, a chemist, a best selling author, a playwright and actor, and my daughter has interviewed two marine biologists (one a local professor and another is in New Zealand getting her PhD studying coral and climare change). I don’t know what all of the girls had done yet, and I’m excited to hear about it!

    None of this would happen without the girl scout program giving us these ideas as leaders, and none of it would’ve ever been part of Activity Days curriculum. I really love it as another source of education for her.

    • Elizabeth Moore says:

      Not gonna lie, this is why I became a Girl Scout leader too. There’s another Journey for this age group that has to do with finding your power as an individual, as a troop, and as a community. My daughters are now in high school and we’re learning about how food choices impact the environment. They’ve done backpacking & high adventure, and are going ice climbing in January. Because of Girl Scouts, my girls have gotten to try and learn so many things we wouldn’t have done otherwise, and they’ve grown into young women of confidence and character as a result of their experiences.

      • Caroline Kline says:

        I’ll look for that journey you are describing — sounds great. I think I may just need to volunteer to be a co-leader in GS at some point, so that I can initiate great activities like this. Reading your comment and Abby’s makes me more determined to stick with Girl Scouts and give my daughter these experiences.

    • Caroline Kline says:

      Abby, Your girl scout troop is awesome! My daughter is in one, but it doesn’t have the vision you are describing here. I absolutely love these ideas. In fact, I think I’m going to use that interview idea and incorporate it into Activity Days. I’m also going to look into that Journey in a Day. Sometime I want to talk to you more about girl scouts — I’m interested in my daughter getting the Gold award, but I don’t feel like I understand the process.

      • Abby Hansen says:

        If your daughter is 10, then she would work right now on a Bronze Award, something she does in a group with the other junior girl scouts her age. (If her leaders aren’t organizing this, you could ask about it and volunteer to help? It’s a 20 hour project, and you can sign up for a training with your local girl scout office to learn exactly how they work.)

        Then she’d do the Silver Award in a couple more years in a small group (3 or 4 girls, and about 50 hours) during middle school, and THEN she’d do the big Gold Award (80 hours) in high school all by herself.

        It’d be a lot easier to earn the Gold Award if she earns the bronze and silver first as stepping stones, so it’s worth looking into now. She’d also attend the awards banquet and see the older girls earning the Gold Award and have examples to look at.

      • Caroline says:

        Thanks for this! Luckily her troop is doing the Bronze award now. I think I’ll probably need to spearhead the Silver award in a year or two. Thanks for the tip about GS trainings and taking her to banquets. Maybe she’ll catch the vision if she sees what other girls have done.

  5. Katie says:

    I didn’t participate in Girl Scouts, but I did participate in 4-H. It allowed me to have so many youth leadership opportunities (like visiting DC to visit with my state representatives and senators) that I know really influenced me. I was deeply frustrated with the gender limitations and messaging I received at church, so 4-H really made a positive difference in my life.

    • Caroline says:

      I’ve heard of 4-H but I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in any school that had that program. It sounds like it was terrific, especially if you got to go to DC with reps and senators! I’ll look for 4-H at my kids’ high school — thanks!

  6. Marie says:

    I love the idea of a mother-daughter book club.

    My oldest daughter turning 12 resulted in a bit of a crisis for me. Here’s what helped me:
    1. Therapy. It took a few tries to find an effective therapist yet this has been vital in working through issues and experiences I had at church. Resolving my own past experiences has helped me stand in strength and peace and not pass on anxiety to my daughter. I had an “aha” moment recently at church when I realized helping my daughter develop a strong sense of self will give her the power to go anywhere and do anything. It’s what my therapist has talked about — giving my daughters armor.

    2. Remembering Jesus and keeping Him first. At one point in life, my main religious attachment was to the church. That’s changed. Now my main attachment is to Jesus. Church has a role in my life however I now have boundaries when it comes to church; simple things like being able to say no.

    3. Read good books. The Jesus Storybook Bible is a favorite.

    4. Talking to YW leaders. I’ve met with both YW and Activity Day leaders and expressed my concerns about they way items such as chastity and modesty are taught. I’ve been surprised at the support I’ve received. It opened up helpful dialogue. Selective participation is also helpful and now the leaders know why we sometimes pass on certain activities or lessons.

    5. Following Dr Julie Hanks on Instagram. As a therapist who is also a church member, she combats a lot of junk (for lack of a more descriptive word) that many of us were taught at church. Seeing what she writes helps me clarify my own thoughts and gives me language to talk to my daughters about issues.

    6. Girl Scouts. It’s already been mentioned and it’s worth saying it again. It’s been awesome and provided the types of experiences I want my daughters to have that they aren’t going to get at YW. At least where I live, Girl Scouts camps are amazing!!! They set a high standard for their camps.

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