From a young age, girls are trained to be modest, caring, polite, and accommodating. This is not a formal training, but rather one that society subconsciously instills in the mind of a young girl. We tend to see girls as vulnerable and fragile so, as parents and educators, we want to protect them from harm and judgement. We tenderly guide them towards activities they will excel at, and steer them away from ones that may cause them frustration.
We can see it in the toys that are available to kids. Toys have a very specific gender narrative. The toys that are aimed at developing large motor and STEM skills are considered “boy” toys (except Evo, which we know ALL kids would love!), whereas toys that involve making crafts and social interaction are aimed at girls.
It can be argued that these teachings start as young as infancy. Baby girls are “sweet” and are dressed up in polished outfits with matching headbands, always being told that they are pretty and criticized for being messy and loud . Baby boys are assumed to be “tough little men” and are expected to be strong emotionally as well as physically.
When girls get older, they start to tune in to what their mothers say and do. If they hear Mom unintentionally compare herself to someone else or talk critically of other women, they suddenly start to get caught up in this dynamic of comparison and redirect their radar inward to determine how they measure up. The same goes for other female role models a young girl looks up to, like a teacher or relative.
Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, recently wrote a book titled Brave, Not Perfect. In the text, she describes this conditioning “like a code that has been programmed into us, over many years of perfect-girl training.”
While it’s nice to teach our girls to be polite and considerate, we need to also raise them up to be brave, strong women. If we are constantly shielding them from negative feedback, how will they build resilience to falling apart later in life when they encounter setbacks and criticism? Bravery is what picks us up off the ground and keeps us going through difficult times.
If our girls focus solely on being the best (or “perfect”), they are holding themselves back. They will be too afraid to speak up for themselves (to not cause conflict) and beat themselves up when they make a mistake or fail at something. Striving for perfection causes unnecessary stress and anxiety and teaches girls to reach for something that is not even achievable.
Society has began shifting towards a more positive outlook for young girls. We are now telling our children, “you can do and be anything!” However, because of the subconscious micro-messages our girls are receiving daily, that phrase can easily be misunderstood as “you have to do and be everything.”
How can we raise our girls to embrace bravery and let go of perfection? Here are a few strategies we have adopted from Reshma’s book:
#1. Embody the power of “yet.”
Teach her to add the word “yet” to the end of negative statements she makes. For example: if she claims, “I am not good at math,” coach her to instead say, “I am not good at math…yet.” This mental shift can have a powerful impact, especially when it comes to making mistakes. She will learn that setbacks are only temporary.
#2. Be a role model for bravery.
Kids learn from what they see and even what they don’t see. Do things that scare you so that she can realize it is okay to take risks when you are afraid.
#3. Curb the “damsel in distress” mentality.
Fixing things ourselves gives us a sense of power. Teach her to fix or build things herself (age appropriate, of course) so she can realize that she can do it! It may be hard at first, but it will also teach her perseverance.
#4. Encourage others to be brave, too!
Invite her to lift other girls up and teach them to be brave, too. There are many ways she can do this, for example:
- She can brag about her friends when they do something amazing.
- She can give honest feedback, in a polite manner, instead of a white lie to protect someone’s feelings.
- Instead of hiding her mistakes in shame, she can share those mistakes so that others can see that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
#5. Celebrate her mistakes and teach her to try again.
She will fall and have setbacks; we all do. But these failures teach us what not to do next time. They make us stronger, wiser, more vulnerable, and more real. If she failed at something, it means that she tried and took a risk and that is brave. Celebrate the achievement of trying!
#6. Support her to claim her voice.
Advise her to stand up for what’s right and for herself. If someone says something that she knows isn’t right, tell her to call them out on it. If someone tries to intimidate her, tell her to stand strong. She should also learn to feel confident in promoting herself for her achievements. Studies have shown that women who promote their triumphs are overall happier with their success.
#7. Support her to try something she isn’t great at.
Doing something we aren’t good at is a great way to build tolerance for imperfection.
Raising our girls without the expectation to be “perfect” starts small. It may seem overwhelming at first, but the good news is, it is never too late to shift this “perfect girl” mindset. Dr. Lisa Damour, author of the book “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls,” says, “Brave is a positive word — it’s something we aspire to be. Built into the word is the understanding that the person is scared and yet they are doing something anyway. Scared is here to stay. Anxiety is part of life. It’s not our job to vanquish these feelings. It’s our job to develop the resources we need to march forward anyway.”