Recent research shows that girls still believe boys are naturally smarter than girls. How is this outdated idea still alive?
The U.K. researchers tested the beliefs of children at various ages and discovered that five-year-olds believed their own sex could be brilliant. Sadly, when children turned six and seven (about the time they start school), their attitudes change and girls become less likely to believe they are as smart as boys.
It seems a fair conclusion that we are somehow socializing our girls towards feeling inferior to boys when it comes to being smart.
Perhaps children are noticing we still live in a world with a significant gender gap where women are paid less than men (and women of colour are affected by this the most); are underrepresented in top tiered job positions; and are almost completely absent from the STEM ( science, technology, engineering and math) careers.
On this side of the pond, Standford University researcher Carol Dweck has been studying something called the psychology of mindset. She identified two types of mindsets that children have: one that believes you are naturally born smart (called "fixed mindset") or one that believes being smart is something you develop by learning (called "growth mindset").
Dweck says when you explain to your children that “smarts” are not fixed or natural but rather developed, kids understand that everyone can excel and get smarter.
So how can parents help their girls ditch the falsehood that smart is the domain of boys and learn to embrace their own brilliance? Here are some pragmatic tips:
Stop saying “you’re so smart”: When you say "you’re so smart," you are actually saying your child won the genetic lottery and got that smart trait. This continues to convey the faulty idea that smart is a trait rather than something earned with effort.
Emphasis trying, persistence and effort: Focus your comments to your daughters on how great it is to see them be persistent and for sticking with a challenge. Get them to realize that efforts lead to improvements.
For example: “Hey – look at you getting smarter each day! Last week you only knew eight words on your spelling list and this week all your studying has lead you to knowing all 15! Your hard work is paying off!"
Show examples of types of intelligence: Because our children are schooled in an education system that focuses on the three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic), a child can deduce they are not smart if they have issues with reading, writing and arithmetic when they may be incredible artistically or musically.
Many gifted children also have learning disabilities that mask their brilliance. Discuss with your children all the different ways intelligence shows up – not just in grades.
You’re “using your noodle”: Any time your child tries to solve a problem, acknowledge them for “using their noodle."
This helps girls believe that “life is just a series of problems to solve” rather than “I should have the answer.”
Fill your world with female role models: Some girls are drawn to stories about princesses who get rescued by a prince.
Introduce them early on to smart female heroines from stories like The Paper Bag Princess or the characters found in other popular series.
Watch movies like “Hidden Figures” that focus on women’s contributions and talents; pay attention to sex when picking a dentist, doctor or other professional that your child may engage with; and get them to watch this great little documentary on the subject of women leaders in history.
Embrace mistakes: Children fear making mistakes. Many will not put up their hands in class, worried they will have the wrong answer. They think if they are wrong, they are somehow revealing their stupidity.
We need to teach our daughters to embrace mistakes, and to see them as opportunities to learn rather than failures. The most successful people are the ones who can learn from mistakes.