Pamela Davis-Kean recalls getting frustrated as a 10th grader because she wasn’t excelling in her Algebra II class. She’d done well on standardized tests when it came to reading, but struggled in math. Still, she didn’t expect her parents to let her teacher in on her difficulties during parent-teacher conferences. The teenaged Davis-Kean was horrified when, in class the day after the conference, her teacher, Mrs. Crickenberger took her aside and explained, “You’re just as good as everyone else.” The teacher then offered to help her after school.
Davis-Kean didn’t like being singled out. “I thought, ‘She thinks I’m good at something I’m not good at.'” So Davis-Kean began working harder on her homework. “I literally just started doing my homework all the time,” she explains. “Before, when I couldn’t figure something out, I’d just give up.”
But after the talk with her teacher, she pushed through and worked on math problems until she understood them. And she did. “I learned persistence.” It’s a quality she says has helped her to become the person she is today: an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan with a Ph.D. Oh, and she also happens to teach advanced statistics, which is akin to math on steroids.
For decades, studies have shown that feelings like those Davis-Kean experienced – thoughts of self-doubt – are common among girls, especially beginning in pre-adolescence. One of the most significant studies in girls and self-esteem, conducted in 1991 by the American Association of University Women, found that at age 9, a majority of girls were confident, assertive and felt positive about themselves.
However, by the time they hit high school, fewer than a third of girls still felt that way. More than 20 years later, and studies still come to the same conclusion: Girls’ self-esteem “takes a nosedive” after age 9, according to a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association.
It’s worth noting that historically, boys’ self-esteem has also taken a hit by the time they entered high school, but not nearly as much as girls. Why? According to a study from the New York University Child Study Center, one of the main contributors is that at around age 10, girls’ focus starts to shift from their accomplishments and abilities to their appearance – and they never measure up to the models they see on TV, movies and ads.
The APA study also cited the sexualization of girls as a key contributor, causing girls to see their self-worth as synonymous with their sexual appeal. The result is that they can become passive, self-conscious, appearance-obsessed and, ultimately, unhappy with themselves.
So, what can parents do to build up a girl’s sense of self, while curbing feelings of self-doubt, no matter what her age? Help her develop the qualities of a strong, independent young woman. Raise her to be a Rosie the Riveter of the modern age – a girl who believes in herself and in her abilities, who takes pride in her fortitude and tenacity, doesn’t shy away from challenges and takes on new tasks. Here are some key qualities for raising a girl with grit.
Confident girls develop an attitude of “I can do this,” says Rachel Simmons, the author of several books, including The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. As girls learn to rely on their own ability to make decisions, they grow more confident.
Parents can help build up this quality, explains Simmons, by offering them opportunities to show they’re capable. For example, for a young daughter it might be tying her shoe; for a teen, perhaps it’s making the call to order takeout. Simmons cautions that parents sometimes avoid letting kids do these tasks because it’s easier, faster and maybe better when they do.
“A lot of girls feel enormous pressure to please others and be perfect in everything,” says Simmons. “They become risk-averse because they worry that they’ll make a mistake.” By providing girls with the chance to show that they’re capable and then following up with praising both her efforts and abilities, parents can raise capable daughters.
These aren’t just physical muscles, but also emotional ones. “I don’t think we do a very good job with teens teaching them how to communicate,” says Simmons. “Just like you need to practice an instrument or a sport to get better, good communication is a skill.”
You can help your daughter develop her communication muscles through building up her emotional vocabulary. When a girl is able to identify the emotions she’s experiencing, she’s better able to understand – and deal – with them.
Parents can model this by making an effort to name their own feelings. Are you feeling anxious about an upcoming presentation at work? Or maybe excited about a vacation? Let your daughter in on your emotions, so she’ll begin to decipher her own.
Another lesson from Simmons: When your daughter says she’s “fine” or “good,” follow up with questions about what she means. That’s not to say that you interrogate your daughter about her day. Make it a casual conversation that has the benefit of giving her a chance to express her thoughts. And through listening to what she has to say, you’re instilling in her a sense that her feelings matter.
“From the time girls are little, we tend to focus as a culture on her looks,” says Carole Lapidos, the mother of two daughters – one in college, the other in graduate school. “The comments are ‘She’s so cute’ or ‘She’s so pretty.’ It makes it so girls begin to define themselves according to what other people think, and that’s usually based on their physical appearance.”
Lapidos became concerned about her own daughters’ emotional development when they were just in elementary school. Together with another local Ann Arbor mom, Sally Wisotzkey, they formed a grassroots effort to support young girls. The organization, Raising Strong and Confident Daughters, provided a support group for parents that evolved into training sessions Lapidos and Wisotzkey still offer throughout Michigan, usually in schools.
To foster resiliency in girls – a quality that’s not about looks but character – Lapidos says parents need to resist some of their own parental urges. In particular, she notes that parents often want to rush in and help their daughters when they feel hurt. These hurt feelings can come from a variety of sources, from friendships that sour to a poor grade in school to any number of experiences.
“Our mama bear instinct is to protect our daughters from the hurt.” But girls need to learn to deal with these hurts on their own. She gives the analogy of a bounce toy that, when it’s knocked down, is able to spring back up.
Parents can instill this same ability to “bounce back” by prompting girls to come up with solutions on their own. For example, if your daughter is having a disagreement with a friend, instead of giving her advice about what do to, ask her, “What do you think you should do?” Simmons says girls will often say, “I don’t know.” Ask her to come up with two or three solutions to the problem. Talk her through the potential consequences with each scenario. Then let her decide – even if you don’t agree with her solution.
Why is curiosity important for a girl with grit? She needs to ask questions about the world around her – and about herself.
Guiding girls toward developing their sense of curiosity isn’t difficult, explains Lapidos. It’s simply a matter of encouraging girls to ask questions, which can in turn help them to develop new skills. Take a walk outside with your preschooler. When she asks “Why is the sky blue?” or “What kind of bug is that?” research the answer online or in the library together. As she gets older, step back and let her research the answer on her own and then teach you what she’s learned.
Figuring out her interests and abilities are also a part of curiosity. Lapidos advises parents to look beyond the easily named interests like sports and music performance. While developing skills in these areas can help a girl develop her sense of self, what about abilities that are more difficult to pinpoint, but that are part of your daughter’s makeup? Maybe she’s good at finding out how things work. Or perhaps she has an innate ability to tell when someone is feeling sad.
No, your daughters shouldn’t be looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. But they also shouldn’t get in the habit of constantly putting themselves down. And this is where a girl’s age comes in to play.
Davis-Kean notes that researchers believe “there’s a developmental shift at 8 years of age related to the adolescent brain.” Prior to that age, children don’t seem to be concerned with what other people think; they don’t tend to compare themselves with peers. But with the developmental shift, “kids pay more attention to their environment and start placing themselves in a hierarchy across their environment.”
That can mean that they compare themselves based on their achievements, their looks, their friends. Davis-Kean says this development in research circles is often called a “loss of innocence” as children start dropping out of various activities because they don’t think they’re good at them. The shift doesn’t seem to be gender specific, explains Davis-Kean, “but there is some evidence that girls seem to be shifting earlier than boys.”
Comparing yourself to others isn’t all bad. In fact, honestly evaluating your abilities and talents is an important quality. Yet it’s the honest evaluation where some girls can go wrong. They can either be too hard on themselves and “be overtaken with shame” at their lack of abilities, says Simmons. Or, they can “have a false sense of superiority.” Parents can guide girls to understand their own flaws and learn from them and to do regular “self checks.”
These informal self-checks can take place during regular conversations you have with your daughter – at dinner or during a car ride. After a test, a big assignment or a performance, ask her to evaluate what she did. “Keep the conversation light,” says Simmons. You might ask what she thought she did well, what she might have done better, how she might do things differently the next time.
By teaching girls to evaluate themselves realistically on a regular basis, when those times do come when they have big mistakes – and they will – they won’t be devastating. Instead, she’ll understand that mistakes are a part of life, and how she deals with them is what really matters.
Illustration by Himanshu Sharma
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2016.