When Being a Good Girl Is Bad

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Following up her best-selling book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls with The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence, author Rachel Simmons argues that girls are taught early on to suppress their emotions and not to live as loudly as they might be inclined to. TIME talked with Simmons about how to raise girls who aren't afraid to be assertive and even a little less than perfect.

Could you explain the progression from your first book, Odd Girl Out, to this latest one?

When I did research for Odd Girl Out, my main finding was that the pressure girls face to be nice all the time leads them to repress some of their most powerful emotions and deprives them of skills to express those feelings. As a result, a lot of anger gets expressed indirectly, like online or behind someone's back, earning girls a reputation for being sneaky and cruel. Again, that's not about girls themselves but about the culture that they're growing up in.

What were your experiences with the good-girl identity crisis growing up?

I don't think I understood how much of a good girl I was until I grew up. I was always the loud girl, the expressive girl. I had no problem telling everybody how I felt all the time, probably too often. I think it was more that I noticed around me that my friends very often could not express themselves when they were unhappy. I spent so much of my adolescence going up to friends and saying, "Are you mad at me?" And having them say no but knowing that they were. I had so many confrontations in my youth with girls that became disasters because nobody had the skills to express difficult emotions and have a difficult conversation. It was actually only as I got older that I realized I had trouble asking for a raise. I had a really hard time with constructive criticism and with making mistakes and as an adult understood that I was coping with the fallout from that pressure. That's why I wrote this book. Not just for girls, but so that girls don't have to grow up and become adult women who can't ask for raises.

You talk about your mother's influence. One example you mention in the book was her embarrassing you by asking for cold fries to be reheated at Roy Rogers. Can you describe how that helped you?

My mother embarrassed me every day, it felt like, with her assertiveness. Anytime she spoke up for herself, I wanted to throw myself under a bus. It took years, but I finally realized that my own ability to assert my needs had come from watching her. I joke with parents and say, Embarrass your daughters as often as you can — you are giving them a real script to use when they are ready to use it. My No. 1 advice to moms is, What picture does your daughter see when she looks at you? Does she see a woman who has sacrificed her feelings and her needs and her dreams for her daughter? Or does she see someone who is a caregiver but who also creates the space to assert her authentic self?

How difficult is it for women who have not dealt with issues of courage and confidence to parent their daughters?

Being a conscious parent is so important — being able to connect with both your strengths and your vulnerabilities before you start working with your child. Like on an airplane, they say to put your own air mask on before you put one on your child. Know yourself before you start to parent.

What is the role of fathers in this parenting? How is it possible for them to understand these issues?

Dads just need to be themselves. Not every dad is going to be a stereotypical guy who acts as a counterpoint to the typical good girl, but there's no question that men have more social permission to take up space, in every sense of the word. So just having a father in your life who takes up space comfortably and who helps you do it and makes you feel good about the times that you express yourself completely has an extraordinary impact on a girl's development.

Do boys and men have the same conflicts, just to a different degree?

I don't think so. Not to say that men don't have conflicts. A really great exercise that I learned from a colleague is to ask girls to sit the way a typical guy sits and then ask girls to sit the way a typical girl sits. And you will see two completely different postures. Guys have way more permission to take up space in every sense of that phrase. There just aren't the same rules as there are for women, and that's going to lead to a different consciousness and a different set of concerns.

In Asian cultures, there is a heavy focus on good grades and for women to be deferential. Have you seen this reflected in your work with young Asian girls?

When it comes to achievement, there's obviously enormous pressure there, but I would say the same pressure applies to boys. I think the biggest difference in an Asian family is going to be the expectation that a female be deferential to men and really repress the expression of negative feelings. The very first countries to translate Odd Girl Out were all Asian. I think that there is a huge, huge indirect aggression problem in Asia. It has to do with the Asian culture's very inflexible expectations of women and girls.