Today's girls are growing up in a more gender-neutral environment -- what does that mean for mom and dad?

Story highlights

Keep the playroom level: Put toy trucks and tools next to princess dolls

Girls often feel a loss in sports is their fault: Learn how to promote positivity

It's great if your little girl looks nice, but it's more important if she is nice

CNN  — 

On baseball fields across the country, girls are taking their turns at bat – on the same teams as boys. Toy labs are creating girl versions of trucks and cars for kids as young as 12 months.

In Washington, women hold more congressional seats than ever. They’re flooding into colleges and grad schools, and studying subjects, such as medicine and law, that were almost entirely dominated by guys just a generation or two ago.

Our kids are growing up in an increasingly gender-neutral environment very different from our own. So how do we prepare them for … well, who knows?

Because these days, a little girl could grow up to be anything from a housewife to the House majority whip and it would be totally acceptable. With a vast universe of opportunities up for grabs, it’s important to raise girls who know how to reach for what they want – without knocking others out of the way. It means promoting not only their confidence but also their kindness, smarts and a sense of sportsmanship.

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    It’s a tall and tricky order for sure, but you can do it. We asked leading experts and real parents what today’s girls need to succeed tomorrow. Here’s the skinny on how to raise a lady in the 21st century:

    Girl Power gotta-have No. 1: Being comfortable playing like (and sometimes with) the boys

    If you want to keep the playing field level for your girl, start with her playroom. Do the princess dolls share at least some space with trucks and tools? If she’s a little older, is there a skateboard sitting alongside the mani-pedi kit?

    Maybe there ought to be: ” ‘Girl toys’ and ‘boy toys’ are nothing more than a marketing concept,” says Rosalind Chait Barnett, senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and co-author of “The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children.”

    “If you’re walking down the toy aisle thinking, ‘Maybe I should get Susie that soccer ball,’ yet pass it by, stop and ask yourself why that is – girls need a variety of playthings so they can explore and develop their strengths and preferences,” she says.

    You might be surprised at the results. Your daughter could spend all her time on a woodworking project at a play workbench – or ignore the workbench entirely and instead spend hours lovingly combing the mane of a Pepto-Bismol-pink pony. Even if she played with the so-called boy toys, she might do so in all kinds of delightfully unexpected ways.

    “My 20-month-old, Abigail, loves playing with her big brother’s ‘Star Wars’ figures but acts out some more nurturing scenarios,” says Melissa Pheterson of Rochester, New York. “She always makes sure to put Luke Skywalker on the toilet in her dollhouse before he fights.” Totally ridiculous parenting products

    Your gal could also come up with her own unique mash-up play style. “My 6-year-old daughter, Roari, loves to put on pink and purple tutus – then go climb a tree or dig in the dirt for bugs,” says Valerie Lopez-Conover of Chino Hills, California.

    Different girls, different preferences; the point is to nurture the individual, drawing out her interests and unique talents. And here’s a bit of good news if you’re stocking a playroom for sons as well as daughters: There are more gender-neutral toys on the market than ever, from building-block sets with both male and female figurines to a new Easy-Bake oven that comes in sleek black and chrome instead of pink or purple (did someone say chocolate-chip cookies? Booyah!)

    Speaking of providing variety, it’s also a good idea to try out a couple of playdates with boys if there are no brothers or male cousins in your kid’s social circle. Don’t force it if your daughter’s really not into it (and especially as she hits the tween years, she may not be), but at least sometimes ask, “Hey, how about we see if Zack wants to come over?”

    The benefits: “Playing with a child who doesn’t have her exact same experiences broadens her own,” Barnett says. Zack may know a few more rough-and-tumble games than your daughter does. Or who knows, maybe she’ll introduce him to tag, and he’ll show her the joys of making pictures with sidewalk chalk. Either way, being comfortable around the opposite sex is a big plus these days since we’re increasingly a society in which men and women work closely together in school, in the workplace and, maybe soon, on the battlefield, too. (Hopefully not too soon on that one for anyone of either sex.)

    Girl Power gotta-have No. 2: Being a terrific team player

    The days of girls’ sitting on the sidelines, or limiting themselves to a cheerleader role, are long gone (and good riddance to them, we say.) Nowadays they’re expected not only to try sports but to be good team players (both on and off the field, in academics as well as athletics.)

    How do you instill in your daughter a can-do spirit and these kinds of high standards? Introducing her to a sport at a young age can help her get in the groove. “My 2½-year-old, Kaylin, took ski lessons this winter and was the youngest and only girl in her class who had no fear of going down the bunny hill by herself,” says her proud mom, Tara Wilson of Andover, Massachusetts.

    It’s smart to foster a healthy sense of competition, too: Explain to your girl that you expect her to always play her best, even if she’s facing off against pals. That’s not to say you should teach her to pursue victory at all costs, but she should know that only one team can win, and it’s OK to want it to be hers.

    Girls may often feel it’s unfriendly to go for the gold (or, in your kid’s case, a plastic gold trophy with “Achievements in X Sport” emblazoned on it), thanks to the tradition that they should “play nice.”

    Our daughters are also more likely than boys to feel that losses, even when they’re on a large team, are entirely their own fault.

    “Females tend to attribute loss and errors to themselves rather than to external factors,” says sports psychologist Caroline Silby. So take extra care to teach your mini-Mia Hamm that she doesn’t have to be so hard on herself when things don’t go her way. “I tell parents to always say ‘Good effort!’ after a game, even if their child doesn’t win,” says Judy Vredenburgh, founder of Girls Inc., an organization that offers programs to empower today’s young women. What to do when kids defy gender roles

    “Pick out something specific that your child did well, or better than she did the last time she played: ‘You did a great job of passing the ball’ or ‘That was a really nice try you made at the free-throw line.’ ” And talk about what else was going on that might have ultimately turned the tide against her and her teammates – “Wow, the other team’s new coach seems to have taught them a few extra moves!”

    Yet it’s not just about helping your child play as enthusiastically and guilt-free as the boys; it’s still also about making sure she acts like a modern-day lady on and off the field. Meaning? Let her know that “You are not responsible for the feelings of others, but you certainly can take actions that allow you to be respectful of your teammates, friends, self and rules of the game,” Silby says.

    You can start setting these standards earlier than you think. “I told my daughter, who’s 4, that when a teammate scores you should high-five her, and she should do the same for you,” says Teana McDonald of Coral Springs, Florida. “I said that if she’s a star, she’ll shine on her own and doesn’t need to be a ball hog to do it.”

    Establishing these good habits early on will make your girl a winner both on and off the field. “It builds the kind of social and emotional intelligence women need to excel in teamwork at school and in their careers,” Vredenburgh says.

    Girl Power gotta-have No. 3: Knowing her true worth lies in her inner beauty

    “When you think about it, it’s strange to be so focused on externals for our girls, but we often are,” says Carol Gilligan, author of the groundbreaking gender-studies book “In a Different Voice.”

    “And our requirements for how girls have to look, in order to be considered dressed up, are narrow. Why does your girl have to wear a skirt or dress to look extra-nice? And what’s even more important is that she is nice. Is she caring, empathetic and sympathetic? Is she a good listener, and if she sees that another child is feeling left out or having a hard time, does she reach out to him? Those are the qualities we need to encourage.”

    Emphasizing character over cuteness can be hard, especially given today’s culture: For Shannon McCormick of Columbus, Ohio, mom of 3-year-old Sophie, the trick lies in mixing inner-beauty compliments in with the usual ones: “I tell Sophie ‘You’re pretty and you have a big heart!’ or ‘You look gorgeous and did such a creative job of matching your outfit this morning.’ ” A beautiful way to help our beautiful girls. – “My daughter wants to be a boy!”

    Thinking differently: It’s what made Apple so successful – and it can work magic for your daughter, too. When she grows up, some of the best careers will use skills that are typically more encouraged in guys, in fields such as science and tech. Which means we’ve got to move away from the old days fast, when girls were called geeks if their interests weren’t totally fem-tastic. Here are some ways to help your girl stay confident outside the old-school comfort zones:

    She loves: Science

    Do this: Give her a magnifying glass and read a few library books about how great worms are for the soil. And let her know it’s cool to have that kind of curiosity. Explain that other girls have become famous and won awesome prizes at science fairs. The gals swept Google’s first-ever science fair a couple of years ago, in fact, scoring big bucks.

    She loves: A traditionally “boy” instrument such as the drums or trumpet

    Do this: Help her blow her own horn with a beginner’s instrument. Give her a way to handle it if she gets teased: Instead of getting upset, she can say, “Well, I really like the sound. Want to try?” Surf YouTube and find some fun videos of girl drummers to watch together (or go retro and show her a clip of the Go-Go’s.)

    She loves: Computers

    Do this: Talk to her about gals who are making high-profile cyberspace careers, such as Sheryl Sandberg (who heads up Facebook) and Marissa Mayer (Yahoo’s CEO.) Even little girls can appreciate hearing about the big girl who’s heading up a huge company.