The Confidence Gap in Girls

The answer to life is yes…. Take every opportunity and risk you can. You’ll only regret the things you didn’t do because you were afraid to try.”--Cecile Richards

Parents have it tough.  Many of us grew up during the “Don’t Talk Back to Me” years and now we’ve got to give our daughters the “Speak Up Loudly and Frequently” message.  Boys are expected to be loud, rowdy roughhousers.  They get into trouble 8 times more often than girls at school, but they also get comfortable with risk and failure.  They rarely get the perfectionist messaging that comes down on girls from many angles, including body image, good grades, soft voices, playing cooperatively and so on.

How does this translate into adulthood?  Women tend to take fewer risks than men, whether it’s in asking for a raise, going for a job we want, speaking up in meetings or leaving test answers blank because we aren’t absolutely sure of the right answer. 

Men, on the other hand, speak up more frequently, initiate salary negotiations 4 times more often than women do, and go for jobs they are not exactly qualified for – which they often get, due to the confidence factor – which counts as much as competence in today’s world, according to a recent Atlantic article.

Studies show that men consistently overestimate their abilities and performance.  And women?  We tend to consistently underestimate our abilities, even when our performance outpaces men.  Though we are making great strides and fast becoming the richer sex in the U.S., women still suffer from more self doubt than men.  This includes women of all ages and income levels, including those who have broken the glass ceiling.

Women by nature are spirited and strong, but in our culture, we are more likely to get negative feedback about being assertive, while men are rewarded for being assertive.  Women who speak more in meetings are considered less competent, while men who use the same amount of words are considered smart (performance has nothing to do with it).  These are double-standard hangovers from the Mad Men days, and I’m glad to help hasten their end.  How?  By sowing the seeds of the future in our children now.  Girls need to get comfortable taking the lead, speaking out, and being heard. 

Building confidence is an inside job, because it is ultimately what you believe about yourself that you project to the world.  “Fake it till you make it” will only take you so far.  The good news is that confidence can be learned and developed.  Middle childhood (ages 7-11) is the most important stage of development for identity and self-esteem. 

Growing Confident Girls

Okay, so you’re the shy type.  You don’t have to become Lea Michele on Glee to prove you have a voice.  First rule of confidence:  be yourself, ups downs ins outs all.  Work with what you’ve got. 

Get physical.  Roughhousing is good for kids.  It helps them explore their own power, and builds resilience and self-control by helping children constructively channel their competitive energies.

Practice self-expression.  Allow your daughter to vent, argue her point, be emotional, within reason.  Let her practice on you.  Girls need to learn their own minds and what they want, and find effective means of expressing themselves, without trying to smooth things over as many of us do.

Encourage exploration and independence.  Encourage your children to take some risks and be proud of their courage to do so.  Ditch the perfect ending.  Resilience is a skill best learned through things not going right.  Teach them discovery is about what you don’t know.   

Role model arguments.  Let your children see you fight sometimes with your partner – but do it right.  Let them see you defining your spaces and working to find a solution.  Stand up for how you feel.  Let your children see it’s okay to disagree, and even better to find a way through it.

Team Sports build confidence, strong bonds with teammates, and physical agility.  Though girls traditionally are less enthusiastic about sports, kids who participate tend to do better overall in school and social skills.

Enroll in confidence-building activities, great for both boys and girls:  martial arts, debate team, theater, music, gymnastics, dance.  In choosing activities, pay attention to your child’s signals.  My daughter, who is usually as boisterous as a baby kangaroo, showed a ho-hum lethargy in her ballet class.  But then she switched to taekwondo.  Suddenly she was wild with enthusiasm (especially when she was able to bust a board with her foot). 

The whole idea in building confidence is to give your children opportunities to feel more in control of their world. 

Happy parenting!