Teach girls bravery not perfection


Reshma Saujani is a woman with a mission.  She is on a campaign to change the way that we socialize young girls. Her premise is this: girls are taught to be perfect, while boys are taught to be brave.  This immediately resonated with me for two reasons:

  • As a young girl, I can think of numerous times when I was taught to be perfect; to do the right thing, follow the rules and make good grades.  I received much encouragement and affirmation for efforts in that direction.  I can’t think of a single time that I was taught to be brave and take a risk.
  • In my coaching business I work with a lot of women with big dreams for the future. What usually holds them back?  Certainly not talent or ability.  Almost always it is the fear that they won’t get it right.  They will often fail to make changes for fear that they will make the wrong decision and go down the wrong path… even though they know that the path they are on now is not a good fit.

How does this happen? 

Reshma discovered a similar thing.  In her effort to challenge more young women to tackle careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), she realized that part of the problem was that young girls were not exposed to role models of women who followed careers in these areas.  When she began intentionally introducing them to successful women in STEM careers, she discovered that was only part of the problem.

As she began opening mental and experiential doorways to these young girls, she discovered that these young girls often did not choose STEM careers because they ran the risk of being wrong.  In other words, they were not willing to take imperfect actions and make mistakes.  Instead they gravitated toward careers that they knew they could be good, even perfect in.  Girls, Rashem says, are socialized to do the right thing, make others proud and follow the rules.  Boys on the other hand are socialized to take risks, play hard and take failure in stride as a way to get ahead. By the time they are adults, boys have been rewarded repeatedly for taking risks and they are accustomed to it.  Girls on the other hand view risk as something to be avoided.

Research supports Reshma’s premise.  In a study by Carol Dweck, the psychologist found a decided difference between 5th grade girls and boys when given challenging work.  The higher the IQ, the more likely the girls were to give up.  Boys on the other hand, viewed the work as something to be overcome and persisted in solving problems.  Another way bravery vs perfection is demonstrated is in application for employment.  Men will apply for a job if they meet 60% of the job qualifications.  Women on the other hand will apply only if they meet 100% of the job qualifications.

Want to learn more?  Here is Reshma Saujani’s Ted Talk on teaching girls bravery, not perfection:

How can you help?

As parents and educators we have the ability to change this mindset among young girls. For years we have been concerned that  girls do not maximize their abilities, but we have focused on increasing self-esteem through praise and affirmation.  While this is important, what if its possible that we are focusing on the wrong characteristic?

Here are some ways that you can teach girls (and boys) to be brave:

  • Encourage imperfect action instead of perfect results— Much of problem solving and critical thinking is not about getting the right answer.  It is about trial and error. It is about research and development.  Children who learn to value this above perfect solutions will eventually get the desired result. You can do this by sharing your own failures and how you coped with them.   As Thomas Edison said about inventing the light bulb, ” I haven’t failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  • Praise specific effort not generalities–It is much more effective and helpful to say, “You really worked hard studying for that test.” than to say, “You made an A?  You are so smart!”  When you affirm effort, you help a student prepare for the future and learn strategies.  Effort is something the child has control over.  Being smart on the other hand is more something that is inherited.  And what does the alternative mean?  If they fail the next test, are they no longer smart?
  • Recognize and encourage brave actions–Foster brave actions by re-framing difficulties as challenges.  Don’t protect children from failure.  Instead teach them how to cope with it rather than giving up.  Teach children how to take calculated risks.

Related Posts:

Before there is grit, there is pain

The secret to helping students develop grit

Teaching a child persistence


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