How do I raise my daughters to know they are just as smart as boys?

Language such as calling a little girl 'princess' or 'bossy' can have negative effects.
Language such as calling a little girl 'princess' or 'bossy' can have negative effects.  Photo: Juri Pozzi/Stocksy

When I first found out that I was going to have a son, I was terrified. Not that I didn't want a son, but somehow the idea of being father – and role model – to a boy felt like so much more pressure than being father to a girl. This poor little dude, having to rely on me to show him how to be a good man – how was I supposed to teach anyone how to be a good man when I didn't know myself? The reality of course, always turns out differently: the horror of being a male role model quickly took a backseat to the question of how to change a nappy in less than half an hour, and I found that setting a good example for my son isn't as daunting as it seemed.

But while the fears you have so often turn out to be baseless, new ones you never considered spring up. When I had no children, I had thought that having girls would be easier than having boys, but when my twin girls came along, the real world hit me like a freight train. The girls are nearly eight now, and I don't look like running out of things to worry about any time soon. This week the latest panic took hold, when I read about a new study that found that girls are less likely than boys to think members of their own gender possess high intelligence, and that this attitude can take hold as early as age six.

That's a seriously depressing bit of science right there. Little girls growing up with the assumption that they're not as smart as boys: not a conscious assumption, just something they've internalised, something they'll carry with them without even knowing. When the collective force of the world around them implants that kind of negative stereotype in a child's brain, are the feeble, stumbling efforts of a single father going to be of any defence? How can I possibly fight against those pervasive forces of history and culture? And is it too late anyway? My daughters are nearly eight: what if that misperception has already taken hold in their minds?

I know my daughters. They are bright, quick-witted, funny as hell, and frequently entirely infuriating. The thought that they might not know how brilliant they are – that they might assume that just because they're girls, they can never be as clever as the boys – breaks my heart. It should break all of our hearts. It should offend our sense of justice. Frankly, it should scare us.

I know I'm not perfect as a father, that I sometimes slip and fail to act as enlightened as I want to be. When I assume that my son will be into football and my daughters are less likely to be, or ask him if he wants to go out and play cricket, but leave the girls as an afterthought. When I think of dance lessons as obvious options for the girls, but not for the boy. When I hug and kiss the girls, and realise it's been a while since I hugged and kissed my son, because I somehow unconsciously thought he'd be less in need of physical affection. I'm no more immune to stereotypes and cultural conditioning than anyone else. But I do my best, try to correct when I catch myself acting in those ways, and I know for sure I've never, ever considered the possibility that my son, simply by virtue of being my son, could be innately more intelligent, or more capable of achieving great things in his life, than my daughters. But the scary thing about that study isn't the fear that I might be passing down sexist prejudices: it's that I might be powerless to prevent it.

As a parent, you like to think you're in control, that the development of your child is in your hands and that all will be well if the decisions you make are the right ones. News like this study are reminders that we have far less control than we think: our children are growing up shaped by a thousand different influences, good and bad, and not always in our power to change. A little girl doesn't come to the conclusion that girls aren't as brilliant as boys because one person told her so, and preventing her from reaching that conclusion will take more than one person telling her the opposite. Sometimes, being a parent can be an exercise in utter helplessness, when you realise that the world will hurt your child, and you can't do anything about it.

Or can you? As much as I'd love to have the answer here, I don't. I know that I'll never stop telling my children, boy and girls, how brilliant they are. I'll never stop telling them to ignore anyone who says that their gender will prevent them doing what they want to do or being who they want to be. But it's not all about me, or all about my children: there's a whole world of prejudice to break down here, and as helpless as we feel to do so on our own, we can all do our best. We can make sure to not make assumptions about what our children want, what their passions are: ask them what they love to do, and encourage that whatever it is – don't let yourself unconsciously push them into the areas that old assumptions might suggest they'd be "suited" for. Practically speaking, we can volunteer to help out with our children's clubs, school activities and hobbies, keep pushing the message of equality not just to our own children, but to all those we meet. And challenging anyone pushing the opposite message. We can celebrate people who defy stereotypes, and intervene whenever we see a child giving voice to those stereotypes themselves. We can't change the whole world, but we can make the elimination of these prejudices an active project in our own little spheres of influence.

I don't know if that will be enough, if the messages from the world outside that try to grind children down will be too powerful for well-meaning parents to counteract. I might be being naive to even think I can win this one. But maybe if enough of us keep fighting to instil in our children that their potential resides in themselves, not in their gender, we could one day reach the point we don't have to worry about studies like this coming along to terrify us anymore.

Or maybe we won't. The only definite truth I know about parenthood is: you can never stop trying.