A ten-year-old girl sits in my office, her gaze averted. She tells me that she’s worried because she “froze” and couldn’t remember anything on her math test. She thinks her parents will be upset. She also worries that her teacher will tell her to study harder. She doesn’t want extra math homework. She’s sure that she’s just “not good” at math and there is nothing she can do about it.
She tells me that her brother is “amazing at math” and that “he doesn’t even have to try.” She wishes she could be more like him. This young girl is not alone when it comes to questioning her natural abilities and wondering if she can succeed in the classroom and out in the world.
A recent US-based study found that girls as young as age six believe that brilliance is a male trait. That’s not all. The study also found that by age six girls steer themselves away from activities perceived to be for the “really, really smart.”
Published in the journal Science, this study by researchers from three different universities carried out a range of tests with 400 children (half of them girls) to determine whether or not gender stereotypes impact children’s beliefs about intelligence and ability.
In one test group, boys and girls listened to a story about a highly intelligent person and were asked to predict the person’s gender. They were also shown a series of pictures, including pairs of adults, and asked to pick which were “highly intelligent.” Finally, the children were asked to match certain traits and objects to men and women. Results show that six-year-old boys chose men as “really, really smart” 65 percent of the time while girls in that age group only chose women as brilliant 48 percent of the time.
Girls get a lot of mixed messages. We tell them to be leaders, but we call them out for being “bossy.” We tell them they are strong and resilient, but then we jump in and solve their problems for them. We encourage them to be assertive, but then we pepper them with tips on being respectful.
Our words have a profound impact on our daughters. They take their cues from us. Parents can inadvertently reinforce gender stereotypes and undermine self-confidence with their words and actions. Parents can also bolster girls’ self-confidence and empower them with their words and actions.
Follow these steps to nurture self-confidence in your daughter:
Show interest in her academics. Let your daughter teach you! All too often we get caught in the cycle of asking about homework, checking to see how girls perform on their tests and quizzes, and focusing on grades. But this teaches girls that results are the most important part of school. We should be sending the message that the process of learning is what matters most.
Resist the urge to run through your usual list of questions and ask your daughter to tell you about something exciting she learned. Take an interest in the things that inspire her when she’s at school by engaging in meaningful conversation about it.
Get her outside. The best way to build self-confidence and resilience in young girls is to give them the opportunity to test their strength and limits. They need to push themselves. They need to fall and get back up and maybe even fall again. They can’t do that if they don’t have enough free time to get outside and climb trees, balance on walls, and jump from swings (or other things.)
Too many girls live in highly structured environments where they move from adult-directed activity to adult-directed activity with little time to test their strength or even learn to fill the space that kids call “boredom.”
Let her make choices. When girls don’t have any say over their own lives, they struggle to make important decisions outside of the home. Give your daughter the opportunity to practice decision-making skills by involving her in everyday choices. Let her choose which chores she wants to do for the week, what she wears to school, and how she wears her hair. When parents trust girls to make decisions, girls internalize the message that they are capable.
Let her pursue her own interests. As a former college athlete, I love that girls are playing a ton of sports these days. Team sports can help girls learn to work together, build physical strength and build resilience. There’s more to life than sports, however, and I see a lot of girls stuck in a rut because they don’t have the time or opportunity to explore their other areas of passion.
It’s important to let girls follow their passions and try out several different activities. Ask your daughter what she really wants to do with her free time and see where that takes her.
Believe in her. It’s not enough to know that you believe in her, you have to tell her. On repeat. Girls will face ups and downs as they grow. They will experience successes and failures. Whether or not they believe they can continue to be successful and recover from their failures is largely determined by the amount of unconditional love and support they receive at home every single day.
Let your daughter follow her own dreams. Encourage her to speak up for her beliefs. Commend her for her grit and resiliency. Above all, tell her that you believe in her. The more she hears it from you, the more she will believe in herself.