Over her 32 years as a pediatrician, Meg Meeker has seen thousands of kids in her practice. She has watched a whole generation of kids grow up, and now they are bringing their own kids in. But boy, have things changed from just 10 years ago.
She gets comments and questions from parents like, “My fourth-grader is on a diet, and I don’t know what to tell her,” “When should I get my kids a cellphone?”, and “How much time on social media is OK?” And when she asks teen girls about their two biggest concerns, they say, without hesitation, “being thin enough” and “looking sexy.”
Parents come to Meeker ridden with anxiety and angst, like deer in headlights, not knowing what to do.
But there is hope… and a lot of it. She’s straightforward about the challenges. There is no getting around the reality; you have to go in with eyes wide open, but from a place of strength rather than fear.
In her latest book, “Raising Strong Daughters in a Toxic Culture: 11 Steps to Keep Her Happy, Healthy, and Safe,” Meeker, a mom of four and grandmother of five, offers advice with warmth and encouragement, with an eye to solutions. She touches on screen time, eating and body image, sexuality, friendships, faith, healthy versus toxic feminism, and the roles of mothers and fathers.
She wants to tell parents this: Don’t be afraid—you can raise a great daughter even in a culture that is relentlessly sending her negative, destructive messages.
“The power lies in the parent,” she said. “I realized many years ago that if I really want to help kids, I had to help their parents.”
She’s seen enough bad situations turn for the better that she is optimistic. She has seen girls at the age of 15 or 16 who made her think “I don’t know where this is going to end up” who, 10 years later, end up walking up to her at a restaurant, looking happy and healthy.
“I always say to parents, you know, your goal isn’t to raise a good 15-year-old, it’s to raise a great 25-year-old,” Meeker said. Why 25? It’s only in their early 20s young people develop more abstract and sophisticated thinking.
The Measure of Success
Most parents want the best for their kids, to grow up to be successful; they may spare no efforts to find the best schools, the best coaches, the best music instructors, the best tutors, which will presumably and ultimately lead to the best college. Meeker knows this well; she grew up in Boston and attended Mount Holyoke College before heading to medical school. (“The bigger the city you’re living in, the harder the pressure is to jump on what I call the Crazy Train,” she said.)
“But what happens when it all stops?” Meeker asked.
For example, a girl athlete might hurt herself and be unable to run for a Division I school anymore. All the hopes pinned on her goal would now be dashed, a huge hit to her identity.
“She literally can fall into a depression because she doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t really know why she’s alive,” Meeker said.
“As conscientious parents, we miss really teaching our kids why they’re alive. And so we give them all the superficial stuff that makes them feel good on the surface and makes us feel like successful parents. Because let’s be honest, if your kid goes to Yale and not a community college, you feel better.”
In the process, parents may be missing the fundamentals: “Have you really taught your kids how to live a good life? How to have joy? Have you taught them how to be resilient, to have deep character?”
Her True Worth
And that all begins with teaching daughters where their real value comes from. If parents don’t teach them, in that vacuum, they’ll turn anywhere: to their peers, to their teachers, to social media.
“We have girls at elite colleges having makeovers and having professional pictures taken that they can post to get a lot of likes by their friends and by guy friends,” Meeker said. “We have a lot of girls at Harvard, Purdue, and Princeton who have terrible eating disorders, because they feel their value comes from being really thin.”
Instead of tying their identities to external success, parents can show their daughters that working toward success and happiness starts with having a strong character and sense of compassion.
“Don’t put too much pressure on your kids; make sure you give them the deep stuff first. And then kids will really thrive and succeed,” she said.
4 Big Questions
Kids have a hunger to know why they are here. With all their intuition, they know that there is more to life than what’s on the surface.
“Even 8-year-old kids, 10-year-old kids know they’re living on a fairly superficial level, and they want to go deeper,” Meeker said.
“Parents are pretty good about teaching their daughters that you can be a really good soccer player, you can get really good grades, but girls aren’t satisfied with that. They want to know, ‘Why am I alive?’”
In her book, Meeker lists four big questions that kids need to have answered:
Where did I come from?
Am I valuable and significant (especially to my parents)?
Is there a moral standard?
Where am I going?
If you come from a place of faith, answering those questions comes easily.
“If you have a strong faith, you can look that daughter in the eye and say, ‘You’re not an accident. Guess what? You were created by a loving God, who put you here for a purpose.’”
“God’s good for kids,” she said. Research bears it out.
“Girls who have faith are less likely to get depressed, anxious. They do better in school, are more likely to stay in school longer, more likely to stay away from all the bad stuff—drugs, alcohol, sex at an early age.”
Social Media and Depression
Studies are clear about the connection between the risk for depression and the amount of time spent on social media. It’s no wonder: Girls crave approval and social media offers it—but it can just as easily deepen their insecurities.
“No matter how beautiful a girl can make herself look on social media, it’s never good enough,” Meeker said. “Eventually, somebody out there is going to say something negative about her, and that’s going to really pull her down. So she gets in this vicious cycle of trying to find enough ‘likes’ to feel good about herself.”
Here’s the thing, Meeker points out: Social media is not going away, and as much you might like to set her phone on the driveway and run over it, it won’t solve the problem.
Instead, teach her to manage how she uses social media and phones. If you can get her social media use down to 30 minutes a day, her risk for depression will drop significantly.
Here’s another idea: When it’s dinnertime, have everyone put away their phone for an hour. This might jolt parents as well, but taking charge of screens at home will teach your daughters that they will be OK without having to be alerted every minute, and it trains them to decrease their screen time over time.
“And guess what? It really feels good to daughters,” Meeker said.
But don’t stop there. Have a conversation with your daughter about what she really thinks about social media. Does she derive value from it? What kind of value? What does she really like about social media? Does she think “sexting” is a healthy form of communication?
By asking the right questions and guiding her, Meeker said, your daughter will get to the right answers.
Don’t be afraid of setting boundaries for your daughter, with social media as with other issues, like dating. It makes them feel loved and safe.
“Teach her how to live within those boundaries, because when she’s older, then she knows how to set [them] herself,” Meeker said.
Toxic Feminism’s Casualties: Good Dads
Back when Meeker was a young woman, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were heroes to her and the generation of women she grew up with. The sentiment went like this, Meeker said: “We said we were going to beat men at their game. … We can make as much money as men can and we can do everything men can.” They were going to work 60 hours a week and raise healthy kids on top of that.
They realized it didn’t work, but feminism kept getting bigger. “It morphed into this division between men and women, and we see that so clearly right now,” she said. “In every revolution, there are casualties. And the casualties in the feminist movement are good dads.
“Fathers are demeaned, they are put down.” And this is harming children, she said.
“My voice is saying, on behalf of kids, they need their dads,” Meeker said. Instead of jumping on this “bandwagon … filled with anger,” parents can teach their daughters what it looks like to be a healthy woman, to be assertive but not hammer men.
Today’s culture might say that dads and moms are really interchangeable, but Meeker wants parents to know that’s not the case—they each play a crucial but different, complementary role.
A mom, Meeker explains, looks at her daughter and sees a mini version of her. She can mentor her daughter, teach her to be strong but humble, and model for her what a healthy body and self-image look like. She is the one who holds the family together. Mom’s love is “non-negotiable” and “inherent,” or in other words, a “security blanket,” Meeker called it.
Girls experience their dads’ love in a completely different way.
“A dad’s love is negotiable,” Meeker said. “A daughter feels that ‘if my dad chooses to pay attention to me and chooses to love me and show me affection, I must really be something—because it’s my dad, he’s larger than life.’” She will expect him to be her protector and to have her back.
As her first experience of male love, Dad sets the standard by which she will view the relationships with other males for the rest of her life—whether that’s her brothers, teachers, coaches, or pastors. If a young man were to treat her without kindness and respect, in a way that her dad never would, “she’s out of there, because Dad sets the standard.”
And if Dad believes in her and says, “You got this,” then she’s “already there,” Meeker said.
A Girl’s Heart
Meeker talks to parents about knowing their daughter’s heart—diving in and learning what she feels and wants. Girls have a deep, primal longing to nurture and love others, Meeker says.
When we encourage girls to focus too much on themselves, though, it can lead them to a dark place. For Meeker, one solution is work; you can teach them to contribute to life at home, starting with chores.
“You know how many times I heard my kids say, ‘But I didn’t eat, I didn’t dirty all the space.’ It doesn’t matter. You know, you’re part of the group. Life isn’t just about you. And beyond that, I think it’s very important to teach kids how to serve,” she said.
It not only helps their families and communities, but it also makes them feel good.
“When we teach girls how to look outside themselves and think about other people, it makes them feel valued and takes the focus off themselves. It develops empathy, and it fills that deep need to nurture,” she said.
Today’s culture isn’t kind to today’s girls. But in the end, Meeker knows parents make the whole difference.
“As a parent of a daughter, [you know] that what she’s exposed to is tough. And there’s a lot of exposure you can’t control and it scares you to death,” she said.
“But let me tell you something. Today, this moment, Mom or Dad, you’re wired with everything you need to be a great parent, and to help your daughter navigate all of that stuff and to emerge on the other side, a very strong young woman. You have the wiring and you have the power. Don’t ever forget that.”
Joshua Philipp contributed to this report.