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Why Bright Girls Struggle: When Ability Doesn't Lead to Confidence

"More often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable."

Parents of bright girls are often shocked to discover that their daughters can be quick to assume that they can't succeed at something new and challenging. "In my experience, smart and talented [girls and women] rarely realize that one of the toughest hurdles they'll have to overcome to be successful lies within. We judge our own abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than men do," writes psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, the author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. "At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science... [but] bright girls [are] much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective learners as a result." By understanding why bright girls question their capabilities, parents can find more effective ways to support their daughters, building their resilience and confidence so they can take on the world.

Understanding this tendency toward self-doubt, Halvorson observes, "is the first step to righting a terrible wrong. And to do that, we need to take a step back in time." She is referring to a series of studies from the 1980s that, while a bit dated, she says, still hold relevance today. Psychologist Carol Dweck, author of the bestselling Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 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."

This difference in attitude is believed to develop in large part due to the kinds of feedback children receive from parents and teachers. According to Halvorson, "girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their 'goodness.' When we do well in school, we are told that we are 'so smart,' 'so clever,' or 'such a good student.'" But, she points out, these phrases imply "that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don't."

Meanwhile, she says, "boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., 'If you would just pay attention you could learn this,' 'If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.')" The difference in feedback teaches both groups subtle messages about what it means when they encounter something difficult: "girls take it as sign that they aren't 'good' and 'smart', and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder."

Halvorson asserts that these tendencies often carry on throughout life, "We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives. And because bright girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves — women who will prematurely conclude that they don't have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.... [T]hrough our mistaken beliefs about our abilities, we may be our own worst enemy."

Ultimately, she suggests that it's time to change this ingrained idea that such abilities are innate and unchangeable: "No matter the ability — whether it's intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism — studies show them to be profoundly malleable.... So if you were a Bright Girl, it's time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago." And if you're trying to encourage a bright girl today, focus your praise on how hard she's working, not on how clever she is: the most powerful message you can give her is that, "[w]hen it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot."

To read more, visit Psychology Today, and browse our resource recommendations below.

Books To Help Girls Build Confidence And Perseverance

The Most Magnificent Thing

The Most Magnificent Thing

Written by: Ashley Spires
Illustrated by: Ashley Spires
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

The little girl in this story has an idea in her head for the most MAGNIFICENT thing... so with the help of her puppy sidekick, she collects some bits and pieces and starts building. Except that the result isn't quite as magnificent as she wanted, so she tries again... and again... and again. Eventually, frustration overtakes her, and she not only smashes, pummels, and explodes, she also quits. It's not until she takes a walk with her dog and clears her head that she can see the potential in all her previous design and build something that she really does feel is magnificent. This fun picture book sends a great message to young readers about the importance of persistence.

What To Do When Mistakes Make You Quake

A Kid's Guide to Accepting Imperfection

What To Do When Mistakes Make You Quake

A Kid's Guide to Accepting Imperfection

Recommended Age: 7 - 12

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes... but for some kids, the possibility is terrifying. Perfectionism can trap kids in their worries, and even discourage them from trying something new and challenging in case they don't measure up. And with self-critical thoughts raging, it's hard to build confidence. Fortunately, with this interactive book, kids can learn to use cognitive behavioral approaches to understand their worries, quiet critical thoughts, and cope with mistakes. Encouraging and empowering, this accessible guide will help kids learn to live with imperfection and motivate them to push their limits.

The Confidence Code for Girls

Taking Risks, Messing Up, and Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self

The Confidence Code for Girls

Taking Risks, Messing Up, and Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self

Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Many girls are consumed by self-doubt on the inside, especially during the tween and teen years — but if they can crack the confidence code, they can learn how to set worries aside and focus their energy on what's really important: confidently pursuing their dreams and embracing their authentic selves! In this book, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, the authors of the best-selling The Confidence Code for adult women, draw on the latest research to help tweens understand how to short-circuit the thoughts that drain your confidence and hold you back. Illustrations throughout help draw girls into the book, while lists, quizzes, and stories from real-life girls help readers understand how to embrace risk (and failure), overcome anxieties, and be happy in their own skins.

Doable

The Girls' Guide to Accomplishing Just About Anything

Doable

The Girls' Guide to Accomplishing Just About Anything

Written by: Deborah Reber
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Lots of girls find it easy to dream big, but sometimes it can be hard to clarify dreams into a workable goal and then figure out the steps to making that goal a reality. In this step-by-step guide, Deborah Reber teaches girls how to write clear, definable goals; plan the steps they need to take to achieve them; and dodge common obstacles (including procrastination) on their way. Equally importantly, she discusses what to do when your goal doesn't work out the way you'd planned — and how you can still turn that "failure" into a step on your path to success.

The Grit Guide for Teens: A Workbook to Help You Build Perseverance, Self-Control, and a Growth Mindset

The Grit Guide for Teens: A Workbook to Help You Build Perseverance, Self-Control, and a Growth Mindset

Recommended Age: 13 and up

Want to power through the challenges in your life and achieve your goals? Then you need grit! The term "grit" encompasses all the attributes you need to accomplish what you want, from tenacity to self-control to the ability to bounce back from failure. This guide introduces teens to the concepts of grit and growth mindset — focusing on improvement and hard work — and shows them how these ideas can translate into turning disappointment into opportunity, embracing challenges, managing stress, and more. And to counter the perfectionist thoughts that can derail you on your way, check out The Perfectionist Workbook for Teens.

Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens

A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back

Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens

A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back

Recommended Age: 13 and up

Negative thinking habits can lead teens to develop a distorted view of themselves and others, leaving them feeling anxious, angry, and sad. Fortunately, it's possible to learn to recognize these habits — whether it's the "I can't" habit, the "zooming-in-on-the-negative" habit, the "mind-reading habit", or any of the other common negative thinking habits — and develop more helpful ways of thinking that can help teens gain perspective, resiliency, and self-confidence. Psychologist Mary Karapetian Alvord and writer Anne McGrath provide sections addressing the emotions and bodily sensations that are commonly associated with each habit. Filled with real-life examples, the guide gives teens a step-by-step action plan on how to take control of their thinking and their lives.

The Confidence Code

The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - What Women Should Know

The Confidence Code

The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - What Women Should Know

Recommended Age: Adults

Contrary to what most people believe, confidence it not an attribute that you either have or lack: it's a state that you can learn, foster, and improve! In this groundbreaking book, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman investigate both the neuroscientific research into the origins of confidence and the real-life stories of women in a wide variety of fields who have harnessed the power of confidence to their own benefit. By changing how we act, women can also change how confident we feel — and change our lives. Both insightful and inspiring, The Confidence Code will help women step forward and claim their confidence.

Enough As She Is

How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives

Enough As She Is

How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives

Written by: Rachel Simmons

Although girls seem to be more "successful" than ever today, outpacing boys in GPA, college enrollment, and more, they're also reporting feeling overwhelmed by the need to be exceptional at everything. This book takes a look below the put-together surface that girls project to the world, and provides practical tips for parents to help them reduce negative thoughts, embrace risk and authenticity, and prioritize feeling confident and happy as the ultimate sign of success. Best-selling parenting author Rachel Simmons relies on in-depth case studies and careful research to create both a portrait of the challenges facing girls today and a road map to help girls create their own paths to happy, healthy lives.

Written by: Carol S. Dweck

What makes the difference between someone who perseveres until they succeed, and someone who gives up? The answer is mindset! Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck has conducted decades of research into how mindset affects performance, and in her book she talks about how developing a growth mindset — the belief that abilities can be developed — helps set the stage for achievement. A selection of case studies highlight the differences between fixed and growth mindset, while the included tips can help parents and educators foster growth mindset in both individuals and communities, so that everyone can reach their full potential.

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