Raising strong women.

5 March 2020


Raising strong women.

5 March 2020

Two women pose for the camera

Tech entrepreneur Lilian Breidenbach and her mother Joana. Image: René Fietzek.

Our parents are our first role models, teaching us love, values and confidence from our childhood on. But how can we raise daughters to be strong women that forge their own paths, and that lead fulfilling lives both privately and professionally? Two mothers, one father and their daughters tell us how they do it.

Lilian Breidenbach, 26, broke into the tech-business world with her legal software, Legal OS. Entrepreneurial spirit runs in the family: her mother, Joana (54), created the donation platform betterplace.org.

JB: Becoming a mother shook something loose in me. I was in my mid-20s and scared out of my mind, but having children freed me. I realised I was a good mother. Just like that.
LB: I used to be rather reserved. But even as such a shy person, I always felt safety and support from my family. They lifted me up. My mum told me and my brother stories with us as the main characters, the bravest and smartest kids in the world. Much braver than in real life!
JB: I was worried for a while about how shy Lilian was. She cared so much for disadvantaged people, I was afraid she would miss out on her own life. But then she had a very empowering moment when she spent six months with a family friend in Bali. She was 16 and was dead set on doing it, so I said yes.
LB: And coincidentally, the time when I was apart from my family was when I discovered my confidence. I felt secure knowing my family would always have my back. My brother and I were raised with few rules and a lot of freedom, namely freedom to think for ourselves and make our own decisions. I looked like a boy; my brother grew out his hair. That’s how we liked it.
JB: They cut their own paths. And I’ve been astounded to see how Lilian has surpassed me professionally with her successful start-up. I see new sides of her and think, wow, that’s my daughter! She knows more than me and can do more than me. I think that’s terrific.

A man and a woman pose for the camera

Master mathematician Anne-Marie Imafidon and her father, Chris. Image: René Fietzek.

Anne-Marie Imafidon, 30, earned a master’s in mathematics when she was 20. The Londoner currently holds talks on such topics as artificial intelligence (aimafidon.com). Her father, Chris Imafidon, is chair of the Excellence in Education Programme and a sought-after advisor for computer science and education.

CI: Anne-Marie has always been curious. As a child, she overwhelmed us with questions. She’s the oldest of five, and for a while we thought it was just a phase, but it wasn’t at all. She had more questions than we had answers, so we introduced her to technology and search engines.
AI: There was never any downtime in our home. We often hosted visitors, we ate together, laughed and told stories. I remember being young and studiously examining all the electric devices in our home. They intrigued me. I wanted to know how they worked.
CI: Every child is a genius. They start teaching themselves the moment they’re born. When you put food in front of a baby and the baby doesn’t like it, it throws the food on the ground, though no one has explained to it the laws of gravity. We let our children experiment, and part of experimenting is learning that you sometimes fail.
AI: Realising I could find answers to my questions built up my confidence, which is a major benefit to this day. When others believe in you and in your abilities, and when they help you solve problems, you can achieve anything.

Two women pose for the camera

Paralympic gold medalist Marie Bochet and her mum, Françoise. Image: René Fietzek.

Record-busting skier Marie Bochet has won eight gold medals in the Paralympic Games. Born with an underdeveloped left arm, the 26-year-old got her start in the French Alps with support from her mother, Françoise Bochet.

FB: I have always asked myself, what can I give? We can only pass on to our children what we sense in ourselves, which in my case is abundant love, and faith in people and in nature. For example, I tend a refuge in the Alps, and we would spend our summers in the mountains.
MB: Spending time in the Alpine pastures strengthened me. Nature knows both solitude and community, and that knowledge has guided me through highs and lows. I grew up surrounded by affection, not just from my parents, but from all of the others who looked after us at the refuge – aunts, uncles, second cousins.
FB: Marie was full of energy. I can clearly picture her as a three-year-old on skis, happy as can be. Then came the competitions. Her coach nudged her on the slopes because he knew she would have many disadvantages as the only skier on the starting block with one arm. And Marie said, “Jean-Michel, please stop doing that. I want to see this through with my own strength.”
MB: People say it must have taken a lot of courage to tell him that, but because I trusted myself so completely, it came quite easily.

Attitude, assurance and heart
– no magic formula, but vital ingredients for raising girls to be strong women.

The question of confidence comes later. In the beginning, we’re cradling a wee bundle of joy in our arms. We are overwhelmed, and we smile as we shake our heads in delirious disbelief. These are the rapturous moments after the birth, moments in which we lose ourselves completely. We are purely present in the here and now.

But what comes, then, a few years later? This baby eventually grows into a small child that asks questions, builds itself up, and grips us with all its might like a force of nature. Eventually, this phase will wane and make room for gender stereotypes. In 2017, a group of researchers in the United States showed that girls start doubting themselves at six years. When they are read stories featuring brave, strong protagonists, girls tend to assume the character is a boy. They consider these traits as typically male. Many parents thus ask themselves: How can we raise girls to be strong, confident women? Women who overcome hurdles by having the right attitude and reassurance? Women who feel successful professionally and privately?

Recognise and understand yourself

Many women of the latest generation are taking the lead, blazing their own trails and trusting their instincts. They are not at all afraid to make mistakes. They are precisely so free to think for themselves because they have confidence and assurance, but another prerequisite is something we normally only get from our parents: fundamental trust in ourselves, in others and in life. Parents must first be in touch with themselves before they can pass these values on to their children.

Only then can they offer the firm support their children need when they venture into the storm. Parents are, after all, their children’s first role models; others come later, and are found either in the family or the community. “Parents have to first recognise their own values and understand themselves,” says Ainnat Lifshitz. She currently lives and works in Ontario, Canada as a family coach. “And parents have to be aware of themselves and be able to regulate their behaviour both inwardly and outwardly. Then, they can impart these traits to their children.”  

Two women, one with her back to the camera

How can we raise our daughters to be strong women that forge their own paths? Image: René Fietzek.

This is exactly what Joana Breidenbach noticed in herself when she became a mother in her mid-20s. She knew she did not want her children to inherit the restrictions she grew up with in her own childhood. Her solution was to clearly define what she wanted for her progeny, and what she did not want. For her daughter, Lilian, that meant providing her with a childhood free from constraints and from societal pressure. The freedom she raised Lilian with was, more than anything, intellectual freedom, Joana says. Lilian had the room she needed to explore ideas and decide things for herself. She could stumble through uncertainty without ever losing security. Without doubting herself. And she could learn to see her own mistakes as valuable.

Community also plays a role

Whoever starts venturing into the unknown from a young age will have an easier time later in life dealing with matters both quotidian and momentous, for themselves and for others. In 2017, an international research team from the Max Planck Society in Leipzig found that children as young as two years old experience equal gratification when they are helping others achieve their goals as they experience when they achieve their own.

This means that not only parents are needed to set young girls on a path to strong confidence in themselves, but community also plays a role. An oft-quoted Nigerian proverb states: “It takes a village to raise a child.” German developmental psychologist Heidi Keller aptly says: “Western culture dictates that children are equal members who are expected to express their wishes on their own, starting when they’re young. Other cultures put community front and centre,” says the expert. “In these kinds of cultures, the parents say: ‘Children need to take part in the community if they are to gain confidence.’ That being said, all people share the same values of happiness and fulfilment everywhere in the world.”

Françoise Bochet spent summers with her children in a mountain cabin isolated from the rest of the world. “I believe it gave them a certain strength.” Strong parents, strong children: the desire to give children a happy childhood with a healthy balance of rules and freedom, of individualism and community spirit, unites mothers and fathers around the world. And each of us has a story to tell.  

This article was originally written and published for Mercedes-Benz AG.

By Iris Mydlach