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Tips for Raising Confident Girls
by Jessica Lahner, Ph.D.
If your children are anything like mine, they love a good story. In fact, my two youngest will gladly skip their bedtime books if my husband indulges them in his famous oral tale about our (fictional) superhero family.
Imagine telling a story to your 6-year-old daughter about a brilliant person. This person is very smart and has an exciting, successful job. As your story comes to an end, you ask her if it was about a woman or a man, and without hesitation she says, “A man.” This puzzles you, but what is even more interesting is that, just a year earlier, she said the main character was a woman.
This is exactly what researchers found in a recent study. Not only did 6-year-old girls claim that the brilliant character was a man (when only a year earlier they tagged the main subject as female), but these girls were also less likely to approach activities they believed required greater intellect.(1)
So parents, take this in. This suggests that girls tend to view themselves as less intelligent than boys as early as 6-years-old. And this belief impacts the activities they choose. If they believe the task requires smarts, they are less likely to try it. The implications of our girls holding these beliefs are vast. For starters, it could help explain why men dominate in the sciences and other fields that our society believes require the smartest workers.
So how do we ensure our daughters tackle that calculus class or believe they are just as likely to be the CEO of a successful company as their brothers? Changing the gender stereotype that boys are smarter and more capable than girls requires effort on several fronts, but there are important things we can do as parents to help our girls perceive themselves more accurately.
Make accomplished women more visible.
If girls don’t know about all the accomplished women in the sciences and other “really smart fields” they are less likely to believe there is place for them there.
Parents, we have to proactively create opportunities for our girls to read about, see and meet successful women. Case in point: Even though women make up about 29% of U.S. scientists and engineers, only 12% of scientists and engineers in movies were women in 2015.
Give girls choice.
Give girls a full array of choices early on — not just things traditionally considered gender appropriate.
Children learn to sort the world into gender categories at a young age like “boys wear blue, and girls wear pink.” Kids aren’t born with these beliefs; rather they learn them from the world around them. Those pink outfits our girls are gifted every birthday and the balls and bats little boys are encouraged to play with teach them that boys and girls should like and do different things.
Our everyday conversations can also reinforce these gender stereotypes.(2) Even parents who believe in gender-equality fall into the habit of saying “he” when talking about a boss. If we are not conscientious about our word choices, we can fall prey to the cultural gender norms and unwittingly pass them onto our children. Choosing our words carefully can go a long way in helping our girls understand she can do and like things traditionally reserved for boys.
Make a habit of offering girls toys and games that encompass both genders so she can explore and gain confidence in a breadth of activities. Your little girl might surprise you with how rough and tumble she can get when asked to join the backyard football game.
Today’s girls have more options in toys, activities and careers than ever before. As parents, our goal isn’t to devalue the real differences between boys and girls. Rather it’s to help our girls believe that they can be or do what they want without restricting themselves to traditional gender assignments.
Want more tips on raising confident girls? Watch for our next blog post: Raising Confident Girls, Part 2 where Dr. Lahner discusses the gender discrepancy in school achievement and how parents can set their girls up for success.
(1) Bian, L., Leslie, S., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 27, 389-391.
(2) S. A. Gelman, M.G. Taylor, & S. P. Nguyen. 2004. Mother-child conversations about gender. Monographs of the Society of Research in Child Development, 69, p. 46.
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.