On March 17, WATG held a Townhall Meeting to discuss the joys and challenges of being gifted and being a girl. Many questions and thoughtful comments were shared during this event, and all of them raised further questions for me. I began to wonder why girls’ confidence often starts out strong, and then seems to diminish during the preteen and teenage years. Sometimes it revives, and sometimes it does not (see Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher).
In this article,
Girls' Confidence Plummets Starting at About Age 8: Here's How to Keep Her Confidence Strongauthors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman share their quest to “help tween girls keep their confidence so that they can be resilient, empowered adult women.” Kay and Shipman worked with a polling company and were shocked to find that girls’ confidence was on par with boys’ confidence until about age 12, and that during the tween years, roughly ages 8-14, girls’ confidence typically plunges about 30%.
Staff from A Mighty Girl interviewed Kay and Shipman in May of 2020 and asked about contributing factors to this phenomenon. Their answer: “As girls approach adolescence, that openness to risk and failure becomes buried under an avalanche of biological and cultural signals telling them to be careful, value perfection, avoid risk at all possible costs. Parents and society reinforce a lot of these messages and behaviors at the same time that girls’ brains are being flooded with estrogen, which heightens emotional intelligence and curbs risk. Not because we (parents and society) are bad, but because there is such a premium on “doing well,” especially today. This emotional intelligence allows them to better read the emotional landscape around them, but also makes them more observant, more cautious, less likely to TRY.” They also added that social media, and representations of teenagers and women in magazines, on TV, and in movies adds to the pressure to look perfect, to be perfect, to act perfectly.
Social media, though fun and often used for good, can be a major debilitating force for tween and teenage girls. Kay and Shipman offer this advice: monitor your daughter’s screen time. Apply rules such as these:
Citing additional evidence from brain research, Kay and Shipman offered that girls have a more active prefrontal cortex earlier than boys, so they are more likely to be good at big-picture thinking and strategy, but are also more likely to choose safe options rather than take risks because they can assess outcomes more adeptly. Additionally, the anterior cingulate gyrex (the “worrywart center”) is more completely developed in girls’ brains during this critical time period, causing them to be more cautious. Fearing failure, ironically, girls may fail at risk-taking. Kay and Shipman shared their research statistics: “Our data shows that the percentage of girls who say they are not allowed to fail rises 150 percent between the ages of 12 and 13, with 45 percent of 13 year olds say they don’t feel able to fail.” The antidote to this paralyzing perfectionism is to encourage risk-taking in girls. We build confidence by building self-efficacy. Remember those “I do it myself” little girls that lived in our houses? We need to revive those girls! By encouraging risk-taking, and learning from failures, we build strong and resilient girls, and eventually strong and resilient women.
In another Mighty Girl article,
Why Bright Girls Struggle: When Ability Doesn't Lead to Confidence, the research of Psychologist Carol Dweck, author of the bestselling Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is cited. Dweck found that "bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up — and the higher the girls' IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel." Further research has shown that this arises from how girls and boys understand their abilities differently: "More often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice." While girls are often praised for their goodness, their compliance, and their smartness (perceived as fixed qualities), boys are often encouraged to work harder, especially when things don’t turn out as expected (growth mindset). So boys learn to try harder, to persevere, to take risks, and to accept this as part of learning. To level the playing field, girls must be encouraged to do these things too.
All of the authors cited in this article offer practical advice, and also additional resources to help us build authentic, strong daughters who will become authentic and strong women. When we nurture our daughters, encouraging them to take risks, persist, find their passions, express themselves, and learn from mistakes, we are shaping their future, and by shaping their future, we are shaping our world.
As always, I welcome your ideas. Together we grow.
Jackie Drummer, Past President
WI Association for Talented and Gifted
(WATG would like to extend a huge thank you to Dr. Martha Aracely-Lopez of Milwaukee Public Schools for translating this article into Spanish for our Spanish-speaking families and educators. The translation can also be found in our website blogs.)
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think.