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February 20th, 2017

Why aren't Girls Brave?

Does that headline make you cross? Is the feminist in you outraged? Are you saying of course girls are brave! My girls are brave. Boys don’t have a monopoly on courage.

Well, think about it in the context of school and work. Are girls as willing to put their hand up in class to answer a question where they are not certain they know the answer? Will girls choose to study subjects unless they think there’s a chance they’ll get top grades? Will they choose careers that they think they might not excel in? Will they put themselves forward for jobs if they think they are don’t have all the necessary qualifications?

Boys will.

It’s arguable that boys pay less attention than girls to what other people think for one thing, but even if they only reference their own evaluation boys will put themselves forward where girls will not.

It is well known that women are under-represented in board rooms and parliaments across the world and various theories have been put forward about women’s self-confidence. You may have heard of the Hewlett Packard report of 2014 which stated that men will put themselves forward for positions when they have 60% of the necessary qualifications while women won’t apply unless they have 100% of the qualifications.

Reshma Saujani suggests in her fascinating TED talk Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fC9da6eqaqg, that we are teaching our girls not to take risks. That women have been socialised to aspire to perfection.

Perfectionism means that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. Girls tend to suffer from it more than boys. Many believe that being perfect, whether in relation to school work, sports or extra-curricular activities or their appearance or behaviour, is not only possible but their duty. They can think that if they are not perfect they are unacceptable.

Does your daughter like to do things right or not do them at all? Does she screw up a drawing or piece of work that looked perfectly ok to you? Does she not take risks for fear of making mistakes/looking silly? Will she put up her hand in class? Does she suffer from learned helplessness, i.e. ask for help a lot so that if there is a failure it won’t be her fault? Does she give up easily? Does she attribute success not to her own efforts but to luck? Does she berate herself for making mistakes whether in school work or relationships? Are you afraid to tell her off because she takes it so badly?

Typically girls suffering from perfectionism engage in black and white thinking, critical self-talk, avoiding things as a means of coping, and generally negative thinking and reasoning. Perfectionism can actually lead to a drop in grades, anxiety and lack of sleep in the short term and missing out on opportunities over the long term. Not to mention the great loss to society of what that girl might have contributed.

Think about this in terms of body image. We know that girls and women often have quite unrealistic views about how they should look due in part to the preponderance of airbrushed and photo shopped images and exaltations to ‘look after ourselves’ in the media. Body image is very important to girls (and dominates their engagement with social media). Their obsession with it reaches a peak in the teens but starts much earlier (studies show 3 year olds are very aware of their bodies and talk about being fat-some kids insult each other by calling others ‘fat’).

Saujani claims that we are raising our girls to be perfect and raising our boys to be brave. She says we teach our daughters to play it safe and avoid failure while boys are encouraged to aim high, no matter the risks. Boys are habituated to take risks and are rewarded for it.

Saujani really caught my attention when she referred to the Mindset research of Professor Carol Dweck of which I’d been a huge fan for many years. She referred to an aspect of it I hadn’t come across before when she claimed that there was a difference between boys’ and girls’ mindsets, that girls(especially bright girls), when faced with a problem that was challenging were more likely than boys to give up. Boys found the tasks energising and were more likely to redouble their efforts. Dweck’s research included presenting children with tasks that were beyond their abilities and observing how they responded to those challenges. She found a difference between the children according to what words of encouragement the researchers used. The children who more likely to rise to the challenge of the beyond reach task were those who had been praised in an earlier task with words which addresses the effort they’d applied rather than any innate ability they might have. Eg they were told “Oh you did really well, you must have tried really hard” as opposed to the other group who were told “Oh you did really well, you must be really good at these.”

Interestingly the boys in the study appear to have embraced the challenge more and Dweck explains this by reference to their earlier school experience. She says that in early schooling boys usually get told off quite a lot! They get used to criticism and are often told to apply more effort. Girls, who are working hard already, are not being given the effort message.

So herein lies the solution for parents of girls:

  • build self-esteem through giving LOTS of descriptive praise and providing opportunities to establish competencies (in other words let them try things, and fail)
  • make your praise focus on effort rather than on achievements,
  • encourage risk-taking,
  • talk to your daughters about the risks of perfectionism and the advantages of being brave,
  • model healthy attitudes toward mistakes. When you make a mistake don’t beat yourself up about it but acknowledge the mistake and if possible why it was a mistake. Then, where appropriate, take steps to remedy it. Articulate what you are learning from your mistake and show that you are not diminished by your mistakes but can profit from them.

Healthy self-esteem is a direct result of the child seeing that she can make mistakes, solve problems, struggle and come out triumphant, and that her value as a human being is not contingent upon her results.

Messages to encourage a healthy mindset:

  • Great, that tough sum will make your brain grow!
  • Did you challenge yourself today?
  • I love that when that first strategy you tried didn’t work you tired a different tactic.
  • I’m doing this crossword to make my brain do something different.
  • You didn’t give up when it was tricky learning to ride your bike. You persevered and you found ways to help you
  • balance.

The Parent Practice runs regular courses on Raising Boys and Raising Girls.

Click here to see when the next ones are running

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March 20th, 2015

Can boys play with dolls?

I think parents these days are often mindful about stereotyping on the basis of gender and try to avoid it by not dressing their children in ‘gendered’ colours (but did you know that up until the early 20th century pink was thought of as a strong boys’ colour?), providing them with opportunities to play with toys and to take part in sports or activities generally associated with the opposite sex, exposing them to different role models (in literature and in reality) and speaking to them in gender neutral terms. 

But it’s actually really easy to get caught out by little gendered remarks that slip out unnoticed. For instance have you told either your sons or daughters to ‘man up’? What does that mean? If it means to toughen up and be strong is that an attribute just for men? If it means don’t give in to your feelings or don’t talk about your feelings or, worse, don’t have those feelings, what are we saying about men and emotions? The answer to that last question was made abundantly clear to me once when I was giving a workshop on Raising Boys. I was talking about encouraging boys to identify and manage their feelings when one father said “I would question my son’s masculinity if he was talking about his feelings”! 

Sometimes with the best of intentions we’ll say things like “big boys don’t cry.” In hundreds of little ways we give our sons the message that it is weak and unmanly to express emotion and to be a man is to cope on your own. Statistics show what terrible repercussions this has for adult men not seeking help when they need it –men don’t even go to the doctor let alone ask directions! More seriously the suicide rate is much higher in men than women. 

It’s just as problematic if we’re giving limiting messages to our daughters. Have we fallen into the trap of calling our daughters ‘bossy’ for behaviour that we would find acceptably assertive in our sons? I hope you’ve seen the wonderful you tube video ‘Run like a girl’ by Proctor & Gamble which aims to celebrate the phrase rather than allowing it to be derisory. 

And of course there is still much stereotyping in music, the media, video games and in film through images and the behaviours portrayed by men and women despite recent efforts by children’s programme makers. Certain ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ qualities are ascribed to men and women. And children will be exposed to a lot of gendered stereotypes in shops with pink and blue aisles and packaging as well as boy toys and girl toys. 

There is much that parents can do to avoid these stereotypes and to offer contrary images and messages to those absorbed through the media etc. But what if, in spite of your best efforts, your child is the one coming up with stereotypes for boys’ and girls’ behaviour? 

One parent told us that her three and a half year old son had been making comments like "only boys can play with this…" to which the mum responded that "Actually boys AND girls can play with the same toys!" she was curious as to where this fixed attitude came from as neither she or her husband had ever consciously stereotyped boys vs girls. She said she always tried to use gender-neutral words such as ‘firefighter’ instead of ‘fireman’ etc. 

It is perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate behaviour for a young child to explore his or her identity including gender roles. Research has shown that children may be born with gendered tastes in toys, in that girls prefer dolls over cars and nothing we do or say can change this! However up until the age of 12 months boys are equally interested in dolls. It is only after this age that boys show a preference for toys with wheels, whereas girls continue to prefer dolls. This suggests that this is attributable to social factors rather than genetics. By the age of 3 or 4 children have surprisingly definite ideas about what behaviour and dress is appropriate for boys and girls. By this age most children when interviewed give stereotypical answers about behaviours appropriate for male and female dolls -100% of the children interviewed in one study said the female doll liked to clean the house and took care of the babies while the male doll went out to work! 

These perceptions of ‘boys’ toys’ or ‘girls’ toys’ and dress and behaviour show a normal, healthy development of gender identity and a natural inclination to want to fit in with their sex. This adapting to belong is a sign of good social skills but parents are wise to offer contrary messages as well. The strongest message we can give our children is through what we model so if boys see their dad sewing on a button or cooking a meal they will think that is an appropriate activity for a male. Likewise if mum mends the fuses or changes a tyre then obviously women can do those things. Children will model themselves on the same gender parent so dads please let your sons know its ok to talk about your feelings.

Children this age are very black and white –its only as they get older that they can understand the grey areas of life, including the idea that boys and girls can do things beyond the stereotypes.

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