Want to Raise Empowered Women? Start in Middle School.
In my research I came across an amazing article by, Phyllis Fagell. Her powerful words and inspiration left me thinking, ” Wow…how would my life have been different as a teen if I had had this support and message in my youth?”
Here are 6 powerful tips parents can give middle school girls to help them keep their confidence at a vulnerable time and develop skills they will need for the workplace.
1. Don’t try to be perfect.
Girls’ desire to please can backfire. Rachel Simmons, author of “The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls With Courage and Confidence,” explains that when girls focus on winning approval, they shy away from risks. “If you’re a quintessential good girl, you experience failing as letting someone down. Instead of saying, ‘I missed that goal in the soccer game,’ it’s that everyone will hate me.” She urges parents to emphasize performance rather than relationships and to help girls avoid ruminating, which amplifies the impact of the setback.
Girls also may be more likely to attribute failure to lack of ability, while research shows that boys tend to blame external factors, such as not studying. Simmons notes that parents can counteract this mind-set by focusing more on progress than results.
For Claire Shipman, co-author of “The Confidence Code” and the mother of an 11-year-old girl, understanding that failure helps kids develop resilience was liberating. “Instead of obsessing, I am able to quickly say, ‘Okay, life lesson,’ and focus on helping her move forward.”
Recently, her daughter didn’t make a soccer team, and Shipman worried she would drop the sport. “I told her there were other tryouts, and another team ended up really wanting her. It was a hellish 24 hours, but I was so glad she decided to keep trying.”
2. Identify mentors
Parents can encourage girls to get in the habit of connecting with mentors they respect, whether they are teachers, coaches or supervisor at an after-school job. This is a deceptively simple task that requires judgment, and it will be a critical skill in the workplace.
Mentors can provide a space where girls feel heard and validated, Simmons says. She explains that girls often are unable to be authentic with peers because they worry they will be judged or criticized.
Mentors can help by encouraging girls to embrace their differences as strengths instead of failures. Janine Shelffo, the mother of a 14-year-old girl and co-head of technology, media and telecommunications at UBS Investment Bank, says she benefited from role models early in her career who had the confidence to embrace their own idiosyncrasies. They reinforced for her that there was no single blueprint for career success. Mentors don’t have to be the same gender, Shelffo says, adding that men with daughters have been some of her most impactful mentors. She notes that they often have greater appreciation for the subtle obstacles to female success in the workplace.
3. Own your own success
It’s important that parents encourage girls to take credit for their work. Shipman says that girls are more likely than boys to be self-deprecating or to attribute their success to luck or other people. She explains that girls worry about coming across as arrogant and just want to fit in, but the problem is that they start to believe their own rhetoric and experience self-doubt.
Parents can reassure girls that it’s not immodest to have confidence and to know their own worth. As Shipman says, “Teachers and employers want to be associated with talented, passionate people.”
4. Manage your money
As girls begin to make their own money, parents can help them open a bank account and learn how to make their earnings grow. Shelffo frequently tells stories from her work to illustrate basic financial concepts for her daughter, such as the relationship between risk and reward, the time value of money and the pitfalls of excessive leverage. She hopes this understanding will provide a strong foundation for making good decisions down the road about saving for the future and investing wisely.
Simmons plans to encourage her daughter to negotiate her babysitting fees. “I think that learning to negotiate your salary is important, and a lot of young women don’t have that skill,” she says.
5. Strive for self-care
Parents can help girls learn how to evaluate their commitments, prioritize and recharge. “I think a lot of this has to come from the mom,” says Simmons, a single parent by choice. She has consciously tried to avoid leading a crazed life. “Moms need to model saying ‘No, I can’t pick you up right now.’ ” The prototypical “good mother” can never do too much for her child, she explains, and that sets a really destructive example, particularly for girls.
Although it’s important for parents to model balance, it’s also important for mothers to communicate that a career can be satisfying. “I’ve known too many moms who feel so guilty about being away from their kids, they are apologetic and fail to convey . . . that their careers are intellectually stimulating and fulfilling,” Shelffo says. Parents can have a lasting impact by modeling partnership at home. Shelffo sees a direct link between her daughter’s intolerance to gender stereotypes and her husband’s willingness to serve as primary caregiver when her daughter was young.
6. Stick up for yourself
Parents can coach girls to solve problems on their own, whether they need academic support or want more responsibility at an internship. They can encourage them to look for opportunities to use their voice. This may mean actively contributing to class discussions, joining a debate team or championing a cause.
Recently, Shipman’s daughter was upset that a school activity was offered only to boys, and she summoned the courage to ask administrators to revisit the policy. Although she didn’t love the initial result, she felt good about representing all girls. It was a learning experience for Shipman, too. “Halfway through, I realized the outcome didn’t matter, because it was such a valuable experience for her to advocate for herself.”
Parents can make a point of speaking up in front of their daughters. “When I was little, my mother would complain at Roy Rogers that her french fries weren’t hot,” Simmons recalls. “I was dying at the time, but when I was about 30 I found myself doing the same thing.” She says that parents may not know what will make an impact, but their daughters are watching and listening. The organization Girls Leadership, which Simmons co-founded, offers parents more practical advice about empowering girls on its website.
*Allison Cole for The Washington Post