It’s International Day Of The Girl Child. Over To Nelly Thomas…


I posed the following question to my 10-year-old daughter, “How do you think we can raise girls to be happy?”

Her answer: “Give them as many lollies as they want and buy them an Ipad.”

When I asked my five-year-old the same question she pulled a face at me, farted and threw her hair back in hysterical laughter.

You’re welcome. Please do share the wisdom.

Today is International Day of the Girl Child. I am a parent of two wonderful girls and I could tell you all the things I try to do to be a good mum. And I will. But first, let me tell you about a kid I met in Bali.

Her name is Wayan we met when I found her “borrowing” some crayons from our hotel balcony. I invited her to sit down and we did some colouring together.

Over the next few weeks I learned that she’d suffered a high fever as a kid, had a febrile convulsion (because her family could not afford paracetamol – let alone a doctor) and this had left her deaf.

She was then 10-years-old and considered “damaged goods” because it was assumed no-one would marry her. She was not sent to school – even if they could afford it there were no services for deaf kids anyway. In short, Wayan was an uneducated girl child with (apparently) no prospect of marriage, and therefore considered a profound burden. The only good news was that her family had kept her.

Nelly Thomas' 10-year-old.
Nelly Thomas’ 10-year-old.

Three images have stayed with me for years after meeting Wayan: her defiant smile as I found her every morning, on our balcony, in some item of clothing she’d stolen from us.

Two, the old white men visiting her village on their own.

Three, the fact that she wore the same pair of underpants every day.

Wayan’s story is unfathomably sad from my position of profound privilege and good fortune. It is also the story for many girl children the world over. I keep getting asked to write pieces about “how to raise happy girls”, but I cannot talk about the health and happiness of my girls without talking about these girls – their world is our world, and we are all in it together.

Keeping Wayan in mind at all times, here’s what I do to try and raise happy, confident and resilient girls.

One, when they’re old enough – and in an age-appropriate way – I tell them about girls like Wayan, and how they can help.

I love a worthy cause, but I have a personal bug-bear about kids being landed with terrifying information about grown-up issues they have little or no control over. Whatever the issue – no matter how important – give them only as much information as they can reasonably handle at their age, and give them a way they can help. You take the rest on your shoulders. That’s the job of the adult.

Secondly, don’t assume they’re all the same.

For all the progress we’ve made, we still seem to think “girl” is a predicative category. I have two daughters, both raised in the same house by the same parents. One wants to know when she can wear nail polish to school, while the other can’t understand why she’s not allowed to punch people. One is confident and assertive in social situations while the other would tunnel back into the womb if I laid still long enough. One looks like a “girl” and the other looks like a cross between Katniss Everdeen and Justin Beiber. One is accepted by society, the other – as she put it at just four-years-old – finds the “world takes it hard on her”. Both are dearly loved, but they require very different parenting.

Which brings me to my next tip: don’t parent them the same. One of my girls can be encouraged to do new things without too much fuss, for the other, it requires tremendous fortitude. She calls it “finding her bravery”. Given bravery is in limited supply for all humans, we push her only so much – yes, find your bravery, no, we don’t have to persist with swimming lessons right now.

Nelly Thomas' four-year-old.
Nelly Thomas’ five-year-old.

Similarly, one daughter can be pushed more to try new things, but we have to be careful not to assume she’s got unlimited reserves of patience, fortitude and self-esteem. When you’re the sibling of any kid who has something of a hard time in the world, you’re often asked to take a back seat. That’s ok, that’s life, but there’s a point at which you have to realise that while that kid might be “easier” to parent, they’re no less in need. They’re still a child.

Finally, I try to teach both my girls to be naughty. Really!

I’m very strict and quite old-fashioned about manners, respect and kindness, but I actively encourage my girls to question rules, to point out bad or hypocritical adult behaviour (mine included) and how to be defiantly naughty in a safe way – eat a piece of chocolate at breakfast, write in chalk on a footpath, say out loud (at home) that someone is bloody annoying.

I spent at least 35 years of my life trying to be a good girl and please everyone and we all know how that works out.

How do you raise strong, resilient and confident girls?

I don’t really know, but I’m doing my best to teach them to like themselves just as they are, to know and understand the incredible privileges they have, and to wield both these types of power (because insight is powerful) with kindness, generosity and humility.

That’s all I got.

Happy International Day of the Girl Child.

* Nelly has recently written her first kid’s book – Some Girls – encouraging all girls to shuck off stereotypes and be themselves.

Nelly Thomas has been described as one of Australia’s most natural comedians. An award-winning performer, she was listed as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers” in The Age Newspaper’s, The Zone and was featured on the ABC’s Big Ideas: The Smartest Stuff on TV, Radio and Online. Nelly is a regular guest on ABC Radio and writes extensively in the print and online media. In 2012 she published her first book. Nelly has performed in over sixteen festivals and directed shows by the likes of Maria Bamford and Stella Young. She’s also grown two humans of her own.