When my girlfriends and I share stories about our first jobs, we shake our heads at our meekness. Susan recalls her boss at a company in Paris. “She would fly off the handle at the smallest things, screaming, ‘Vous êtes nul!’ — ‘You are nothing!’ ” Susan would retreat to the bathroom to cry. “I was a good student and had never had an experience where I felt like I was failing all the time,” she says. “I didn’t have the confidence to fix it or leave.”
My friend Shari felt that paralysis when she was working at a magazine in New York. She forgot to fax her editorial director a document, and he asked to talk after a staff meeting. “He waited until everyone left, then locked the door and told me he was deeply disappointed in me,” she says. “All I could think about was wanting to unlock the door.” She didn’t know how to handle his overreaction, explaining that it felt complicated to stick up for herself when she knew she had made a mistake.
Susan and Shari wish they had learned to self-advocate and respond to feedback before they started working, when the stakes were much lower. They want their own teen daughters to have an easier time, but they are unsure how to impart such complex lessons. If anything, it seems as though their middle school daughters have suddenly become more apprehensive about taking risks or making waves.
As a school counselor and the mother of a 13-year-old girl, I regularly consider these questions. Here are seven 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.
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.”
Parents can encourage girls to get in the habit of connecting with mentors they respect, whether they are teachers, coaches or supervisors 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.
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.
“When I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow, people would ask me how I ended up there, and I would feel kind of embarrassed and say I didn’t know,” Shipman recalls. She went on to cover the White House, a transition that terrified her. “It would have been a useful and powerful message to say to myself, ‘Look at what I accomplished in Moscow,’ rather than believing I just fell into it.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
If parents want girls to dream big, they need to underscore the importance of a support network, whether it’s family, peers or future colleagues.
No one can be successful at everything, and parents can encourage girls to stay optimistic and to believe in their intrinsic value even when they stumble. If they don’t experience failure, girls may never discover their inner strength and resolve. It’s exhilarating when they realize they can triumph after a string of setbacks.
At every step of the way, parents can ask girls questions to help them formulate a plan. What do they hope to accomplish? What fills them with passion? Whether they follow a choreographed path or take unexpected detours, their journey will be smoother if they feel confident in the driver’s seat.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at the Sheridan School in the District and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.