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Raising Confident Girls Part II

Posted by David 08/04/17 0 Comment(s)

Raising Confident Girls, Part 2 of 2

by Jessica Lahtner


Got girls? If you’re a parent of a daughter, like I am, you are probably hoping to support her in finding her best self and pursuing a career that leverages her talents and interests. Girls who pursue their dreams are supported by adults who nurture their confidence. Because confidence, after all, is required to take the risks and overcome the challenges required to achieve goals. 


Little Partners’ last blog post, Raising Confident Girls, Part 1, discussed research that suggests our girls see themselves as less intelligent than boys as early as age six. And I outlined steps to reverse this belief and ensure it doesn’t hinder her choices down the road. 


I’m continuing that conversation here. Specifically, how can we raise girls who confidently assert their needs and believe that, with hard work, they can do anything boys can do?

Give girls a voice.

Support your daughter in asserting her wants and needs. This may seem obvious, but studies show that both parents and teachers make significantly more choices for girls than for boys.(1) This teaches our girls that 1) they are incapable of making their own decisions, and 2) they should defer to other’s wants and needs while stifling their own.

And what about that little girl on the playground who freely provides her opinion on what game should be played next, or who should go first? We call her bossy and teach her to keep her opinions to herself lest other girls won’t want to play with her. But replace that girl with a boy, and he would likely earn the praise, “He’s a little leader!” Before correcting your assertive daughter, ask yourself if you would provide your son the same critical feedback.   

Set challenging standards and praise her effort.

If we don’t think we are very good at something, we tend to set pretty low expectations for ourselves on related tasks. Likewise, if you don’t think your child is naturally a skilled tumbler, you probably don’t think he’ll make the competitive team and are less likely to offer expensive camps and other opportunities to sharpen his talent. 

Studies show that we follow this same pattern with our daughters. Over time, this results in girls not developing the skills and confidence required to tackle harder, better paying, more satisfying careers down the road. Take a look: 

•    Both parents and teachers are more likely to attribute girls’ poor school performance to lack of ability vs. effort in comparison to boys. (2) 
•    We set lower academic standards for our girls. (3) 
•    When working one-on-one, we provide boys more thorough explanations on complicated concepts. (4)  
•    Boys are offered more praise for good performance. (5)

It’s no surprise then that, when compared to boys, girls more readily buy into the falsehood that even hard work won’t overcome not being “smart enough.”

We especially see this play out in math. Girls perform as well as, or better than, boys up through elementary, and sometimes even middle school. But, as math material gets harder, even the brightest girls tend to fall behind the boys.8 Our girls give up prematurely due to a belief that they aren’t smart enough to succeed anyway. Whereas boys tend to persevere through challenging material. 

Women, do your recognize yourselves here? Despite being placed in advanced math classes, I vividly recall my high school advanced algebra teacher telling me I would not make the cut in college. She assumed I didn’t have the skill to succeed and made a point of making sure I knew it. While that didn’t hinder me from pursuing advanced degrees, my confidence in math plummeted. From that point forward, I never took another elective math class – not even in college. 

To help your daughter believe hard work can make her smarter and that she can do hard things:

  • Praise her persistence and effort instead what she produces. Instead of, “Look at that A!” try, “All your hard work paid off. You really earned that A.”
  • Comment on her character instead of her looks. Instead of “You are so cute; I love your dress” try, “I love how you persist even when you feel like giving up.” Focus on her inside or she’ll learn that her looks are her most valuable asset. 
  • Resist the urge to jump in when she struggles (we do this more with girls) and allow her to work through the tough stuff so she learns she can do it, even when it gets hard.

We’ve come a long way in how we view girls in our culture, but we can do more. As parents, we can help our girls see themselves as just as valuable and capable as boys. 

(1) Pomerantz, E. M. & Ruble, D. N. (1998). The role of maternal control in the development of sex differences in child self-evaluative factors. Child Development, 69, 458-478.
(2) Bleeker, M. M., & Jacobs, J. E. (2004). Achievement in math and science: Do mother’s beliefs matter 12 years later? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 97-109.
(3) Teenenbaum, H. R., & Leaper, C. (2002). Are parents’ gender schemas related to their children’s gender-related cognitions? A meta-analysis. Developmental Psychology, 38, 615-630.
(4) Good, T. L. & Brophy, J. E. (2008). Looking in classrooms (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.
(5) Gibbs, B. G. (2010). Reversing fortunes or content change? Gender gaps in math related skill throughout childhood. Social Science Research, 39, 540-569.


About the Author

Jessica Lahner, Ph.D. serves as the Child Development Expert for Fox6 News Real Milwaukee and is on the faculty of the psychology program at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. With a doctorate in counseling psychology, she looks at parenting and play from both a child development and mental health perspective. She has published peer-reviewed articles on development in the Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, and the International Journal of Adult Development and Aging. When she’s not teaching or writing, you can find her and her husband elbow deep in finger paint or cheering on one of her four young children at the baseball or soccer fields.


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