Think back to when your girl was a toddler; do you remember that boundless enthusiasm and I-can-do-anything attitude? One day she wanted to be a writer and the next day she’d switched to wanting to be a dentist/astronaut (because dental hygiene is important even in space. Naturally!). But as girls get older, studies show that their fearless sense of adventure starts to give way to something a bit less fun: the pressure to be perfect.
Just how serious is the problem though? By age 13, nearly half of girls say they “aren’t allowed to fail.” Scary, right?
“When girls think people are counting on them to do well—even at things that are seemingly trivial—it creates not only a fear of failure, but also a fear of trying anything new or challenging that could expose a weakness,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “Everyone has to work to develop the skills involved in new activities, but girls are viewing their beginner abilities (or lack thereof) as proof that that they’re not qualified. And this in turn, is keeping them from trying new things altogether.”
It might not seem like a big deal if she’s too nervous to try out for the school talent show, but that tendency can make her less likely to raise her hand in class unless she’s positive she knows the “perfect” answer. And even if she does offer an answer in class, she might be more likely to start her statement with, “This probably isn’t right, but…”
This self-doubt and its ramifications can set up a behavior pattern that will follow her into adulthood. For example, research has shown that women are less likely to put themselves out there for a promotion unless they’re one hundred percent sure they’re going to get it.
The plain truth is that being “good” at everything isn’t what matters. It’s trying her best and being willing to work toward improving that will give her the fullest, most fun, and ultimately most successfullife.
So whether she dreams of landing a coveted solo at the choir concert this spring or is thinking of nominating herself for debate team captain, what matters isn’t whether she makes it or not—it’s that she’s trying in the first place. Even something small, like trying a new food or playing a new game with friends can help set your girl up for future success.
How can you encourage her to test the waters and try new things?
- Start Try-It Tuesdays in your family where everyone is challenged to try something new each week. Whether your girl raised her hand in class (yes!) or you all tried learning some new dance moves together after dinner, you’ll have fun, learn a lot, and discover new things about yourselves as you compare notes. Plus, any “failures” could spark new ideas for innovation and improvements to the way we do things. Let the day’s imperfections serve as inspiration!
- When she does try something new, ask with her what she likes about it or how it makes her feel. If she looks to you for praise or validation, mention how you love to see her happy and how cool it is that she’s willing to try something new instead of critiquing the project or final product. We all learn better when we’re genuinely curious and enjoying the experience.
- Just because she’s enjoying a certain activity doesn’t mean she’s needs to be signed up for a team, art classes, or any more structured version of it. Letting her have the time to play without that structure lets her enjoy the experience on her own terms. Deciding whether or not she wants to pursue it in a more serious way can be a decision she makes when she’s ready. And if an activity ends up being a one-and-done, that’s OK too.
- Lead by example! If there’s something you’re interested in, sign up for a continuing education class or watch how-to videos online. Or it could be something you can do together, show her that having talents and enjoying the process are two different things. It’s not always about being the best; it’s about how an activity makes you feel while you’re doing it.
- Remind her that not everything comes easy, and that even the “pros” need to try, try, and try again—even after they master the beginner stuff! Rarely does an artist put brush to paper and get it “right” on the first attempt. Similarly, the entire business of medicine is called a practice, because it’s something that takes trying and well, practice!
- Teaching your girl to fail or struggle with grace gives her coping skills that she will use in all areas of her life as she gets older. So seeing the growth and improvement that comes with hard work in an activity, school subject, or sport, teaches her that her abilities can be improved with effort and time.
While the pressure to succeed will always be there, how you frame success—as the willingness to try—will ultimately be what helps your girl thrive!
GSUSA Raise Her to be a Leader Series