How to be a good role model for your daughter

The question is, of course, what makes a good role model? Or, better yet, what do we want to model?

And I think the answer is self-confidence. Whatever role you have in the world, if you do it with self-confidence, then you model for your daughter what one version of a self-confident woman looks like. And while you can’t expect your daughter to grow up to be like who, at least your daughter can have a reference point in her mind about what self-confidence looks like.

My son once announced, “Dad and I have farm chores and mom is the cook and the cleaner.”

I was appalled. I wanted to lecture my son about how I do a lot more than that. But I thought better of it. He is trying to make sense of things. This is one way to understand it. I told myself to just muster the self-confidence to know that I do a lot more but not feel compelled to scream it out to the world. (So instead, the next morning, I had my son cook breakfast for everyone.)

Kids pick their own role models. You can help guide those choices, but the research shows that most of what determines who the kid chooses is nature, not nurture. If your daughter loves math, she won’t pick Taylor Swift as a role model.

Sometimes mothers worry that if they don’t have a job outside the home then they are not being a strong role model for their daughter. But if daughters need to actually see a parent doing something in order to believe it’s possible for themselves, then no mother could be a good enough role model because mothers can only live one, single life.

It’s important, instead, to make sure daughters know that you respect whatever choice they make. which includes choosing family instead of work. Not everyone has to work. And not everyone has to take care of family. But everyone needs to respect both choices equally.

And something else: be careful about conveying to your daughter that she can “have it all”—stay at home with her kids and have a big exciting career. You know she can’t do both. That’s not how the world works.

Start telling your daughters (and sons!) early on about the personal sacrifices people make to be important or famous people. Talk to your kids about how parents give up some things to be with children. It’s not a conversation about regret and misery—it is about personal responsibility. And how it’s nice that we each get to choose our own life, based on what’s important to us—not anyone else’s standards but our own.

That’s being a good role model for sure.



25 replies
  1. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    Love this post, Penelope, it’s what I NEED to read right now. As you know, I have a 3-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy, my husband is not helping at all at home, and it’s not very easy to take care of the family while trying to make it with my art career/business.

    I don’t see myself as a “motherly-mother”, who loves nothing more than packing the kids lunches, or baking them cookies and cooking a nice family meal – all those things I dread! But I’m trying my best to be my best, in as many areas of my life as I have a responsibility or a dream.

    I want to make myself the role model to inspire my kids to find and have the courage to choose to walk their own quiet path. Not always easy, but it’s the only path that is worth of living.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I am not a “motherly-mother” either and that’s ok! I love having a nice kitchen and then never cooking in it because I hate doing dishes, or else I will look up the most simple baking recipes where I only have like one bowl to clean up afterwards. I don’t necessarily believe that the cheery sunshine and rainbows all the time person is a better mother. I think you are doing great!

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      Lucy, your site looks great. I love your recent March self-portrait. I’m seeing a bit of a defiant attitude in it and I like it!

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Lucy, I don’t think you need to be the role model for your children.

      One can only model the role one has. Perhaps your children will want to play different roles than you have when they grow up. In that case, they may need to pick other models for those roles.

      Perhaps your kids will be more interested in the role your husband plays. Perhaps they will be more interested in the role of another person farther out on the family tree, or even outside it.

      My son and daughter are only 10 and 4. I don’t know who their role models will be, but I don’t imagine it must always be me. Even less do I imagine that I have to be the role model for the boy and my wife has to be the role model for the girl; those days are, thankfully, gone.

      Nobody else in my family really took their parents as a role model, so this doesn’t bother me in the least. My kids can find their own paths, like we all did.

      I see the concern about being the number one role model for our kids as being similar to the idea that as a homeschooler we have to teach our kids everything. Sometimes we have to teach; sometimes we have to model. But most of what our kids learn and emulate they need to do for themselves.

      There’s even a sense in which trying too hard to be perfect could limit our children’s horizons. They do need to see past us; perhaps they can do that better where we fall short.

      It sounds like your children won’t follow your model as a chef, but there’s no reason to worry about that. Personally, I love to cook, as does my mother, but we both throw the kids out of the kitchen to do it. I learned to cook despite that, because I learned to love to eat from my mother’s great food. If your kids develop a strong interest in cooking, they can do it without much help from you.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Don’t you see that you *are* a role model for your kids? I don’t think it means you have to be an engineer for your kid that wants to be an engineer, you can find tutors and mentors for that. Helping them find their path is awesome, that is a great role to model.

        Parents are the greatest role model in one’s childhood, this doesn’t mean that everyone has great parents. Role models can also show how *not* to be in the case of bad parenting and can break the cycle.

        I think embracing our choices and being confident vs trying to be technically competent at everything is what she means here.

        • Commenter
          Commenter says:

          I see nothing of the sort. My children, as they get older, will probably identify one or a series of reference groups to which they aspire to belong, and role model(s) within those groups. I believe I am unlikely to qualify as such, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

          As a child, I did not identify with or wish to join the reference groups of my parents (let alone my teachers), and they were not role models for me. My role models were historical or even fictional.

          It wouldn’t make me unhappy if my children aspired to surpass me, and chose more impressive role models.

      • Lucy Chen
        Lucy Chen says:

        I see what you are saying. And I also agree with YesMyKidsAreSocialized that there is no denying a parent (or parents) influence on their child.

    • Amy A
      Amy A says:

      To me being a “motherly mother” is about closeness, relationship, affection, intuition, and attunement. Doing chores (including cooking) falls more under “homemaker,” but even more so under “housekeeper” because being a homemaker has to do with being a -presence- in the home. I think these distinctions can make a big difference in how one feels about being an at-home parent.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        What a great differentiating description.

        A few of my close friends live in S.America. They have nannies/cooks/drivers. It’s completely common in upper middle class, even middle class, families. The ‘care’ for the children in your first description, everything else falls under the things that can be done by other people category.

  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Penelope, when you first told me about choices and not having the goal be about “having it all” it totally clicked for me ever since.

    My husband and I have three daughters and we are both role models for them. He is a feminist and is always advocating for STEAM type stuff for them since he is an engineer as well as both of us helping around the house with domestic chores and getting them involved in DIY projects and our own engineering projects. Watching me mess something up and then fixing my mistakes I think allows them to see failure from a different perspective (I have been known to rush through DIY projects and miss a few screws here and there).

    Men and women both need to make the same choices, work or family? Hopefully this is all planned out before children are in the picture because that would certainly be a relationship setback if a couple found out *after* children that they were both on different pages of staying home or working.

    My job is to stay confident and healthy in my decision to stay at home and unschool, which I am totally doing. Being authentic and trying to help others learn about unschooling and changing mindsets on what education really means brings a huge amount of personal satisfaction to me. Being able to see my kids make challenges for themselves and mastering skills while loving learning in their own way is all icing for me.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      “(I have been known to…miss a few screws here and there).”

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were missing, exactly. A bit loose? Definitely! :D

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Haha! I’m so glad I can set myself up for your wise-cracking jokes. :) Definitely a few loose screws.

        • MBL
          MBL says:

          And I really appreciate it!
          I sat on my hands for about 5 seconds debating as to whether or not I should leave this for someone else. But I think it is always best that this sort of thing come from friends. :D

  3. Marina
    Marina says:

    Yes, no mother can be the model nowadays, because children wants to be trendy, Hollywood like, not good and responsible persons. The stupid media ruined even the relationship between mother and child, and it’s very difficult to bypass that.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This comment is not only defeatest but also displays an incredibly shallow understanding of childhood.

      You can be sure that when a parent ignores a child it matters way more to the child than when Taylor Swift ignores a child.

      I often find that the most cynical comments on this blog are from the people who are fastest to run from personal responsibility.

      It’s easy to tell yourself you don’t have to do anything if you lay the groundwork by saying everyone else has the power to ruin things for you.


  4. galeforcewind
    galeforcewind says:

    Live is a series of choices and you can’t choose to do everything. Modeling the practice of actively deciding your path is one of the most important things that parents can do for their kids. It’s so much more than just giving kids plenty of resources, it’s about showing them how to use them to craft the life they want and being an active participant. One still has to sacrifice things even if they’re not actively chosen, so it’s better to choose what to give up so you don’t feel stuck with what you ended up with.

  5. Sarah Faulkner
    Sarah Faulkner says:

    I really find it interesting that you have a chair in your kitchen, (and what a cool chair). I like the egg beaters in picture frames on the wall. Thats so creative.

  6. Amy A
    Amy A says:

    Ooo. This will prompt a good convo with my kids today. Actually, I talk with them about a lot of PT’s articles and people’s responses. I love asking my kids’ take on these sorts of topics and checking in with them to find out what they think about life and choices, etc. Plus, I find out what I need to tweak within myself (am I making motherhood seem like a miserable choice, for example).

    I would say “high self-esteem” over self-confidence is more important. Many people can put on a show of self-confidence. But self-esteem is deep, and self-esteem is there even when one isn’t good at a particular task or skill.

    I think not being good at something but sticking with it because it matters to ones loved ones (such as basic housekeeping), and still having self-love in the middle of it all, is being a great role model. As is saying, “I really don’t know what to do right now. But with some time, I know I will find my way.”

    Yes, for sure teaching that we can choose what we want for our lives but we can’t do it all at the same time (without someone or something getting neglected or ignored because it’s not humanly possible to care about everything and still be present and available).

    And life doesn’t need to be so busy, there is no one to impress but yourself (so quit looking elsewhere for validation), and trust that each moment is full of everything you need right now therefore there is no such thing as “sacrifice”.

    P.S. I don’t know how someone can be a role model by being away, unless having a good, fulfilling relationship with that person doesn’t matter–so it would be like admiring a celebrity.

  7. Maya S
    Maya S says:

    Related to a show of self-confidence, I think it’s important to show your daughter that life as an adult woman can be fun. It’s not all work, housework, shuttling the kids around, flopping in front of the TV, and feeling bored and dissatisfied.

    Certainly it can be that, so you have to push back, even if it means carving out some time for creative projects, when the kids wreck the house or watch TV for a little while and Mom is “busy.” I’m a single working mom and just started a blog, and already I’m much happier. If my daughter ends up a busy working mother too, I hope she’ll know on some level that she still counts, and can do as she likes.

  8. Anna Clarke
    Anna Clarke says:

    I love this article. I love the honesty of it. I’ve had multiple conversations with women around this very topic…”whoever told you you could have it all is full of it!” The more we are realistic with women or men for that matter I think the more we will create a better “balance” of family life & overall happier life. I think had I had more coaching around this earlier in my 20s, I may have been able to define my career path a little more efficiently!

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