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The important connection between risk-taking and confidence in girls


Claire Shipman and Katty Kay were often asked the same question when they spoke about their best-selling book, “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know.” No matter where they were or what group they were in front of, they were invariably asked: “How can we help our daughters?”

And so, it was natural for them to decide to not only write a book about girls, but also for them. “The Confidence Code for Girls” features cartoon illustrations, quizzes and many stories of girls who overcame obstacles and became more confident.

Want to raise an empowered girl? Then let her be funny.

We spoke to Shipman, a mother to a 16-year-old boy and a daughter who is about to turn 13, about what she and Kay found while researching the book, and what they hope girls (and, yes, boys) gain from it.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

What was the impetus for this book?

CS: The “Confidence Code” we did for women did really well, and there was some research about when this confidence gap opened. It seems to start at puberty. We found as we were going out speaking, this issue of “what about our daughters” was really resonating. 

Why write it for girls instead of parents?

CS: There are great parenting books out there. We were just intrigued with the idea of reaching the kids and trying to change their behavior and make it easier for them to change some habits. What we realized from our adult book is habit change is entirely possible with basic cognitive behavioral therapy. We worked with amazing therapists and experts to make this book, using quizzes, lists and stories. 

Focus on the middle school years if you want to raise an empowered woman

What do you hope the big takeaway will be?

CS: That failure is okay. Risk, failing, moving on is a part of achievement and success and part of happiness in life. Hopefully stemming from that, they get a greater sense of self. The other depressing thing is perfectionism. It keeps girls from forming their own identities. They feel like they have to be everything for everyone. Even though this book is for girls, implementing all of this will depend on parents, but also educators. I’m hoping kids will learn the lesson about failure and resilience. It’s just as important as all the academic stuff they can cram into their heads.

Girls’ confidence drops between ages 8 and 14. Why?

CS: Not surprisingly, it’s a mix of nature and nurture. It does seem that girls’ and boys’ brains develop a little differently. Girls, especially at puberty, start to really have much higher emotional intelligence than boys. They did before, but this is the time they double down. It leads girls to be more cautious, and boys don’t have that. Boys get a big boost of testosterone, stuff that encourages risk-taking. You build confidence by taking risks and struggling and failing and eventually mastering something. You need to be taking action to build confidence. But the system we’ve all set up is one that creates this army of young girl perfectionists. From preschool through college, it’s all about sitting still, coloring within the lines, doing more than expected, trying to please teacher. So they don’t take risks, fail, mess up. There’s this whole conversation about boys struggling academically. But that means in the real world they know what to do. They’re learning lessons about taking risks, so they’re more ready to try something. We were really struck by this idea of how is this happening with young women. They are outperforming boys academically. Then they enter the work world, and their confidence plummets. They’re just not learning it’s okay to take risks and fail.

Is this book also applicable to boys?

CS: Nobody loves to fail. Risks can feel scary. What we’re talking about conversely is that boys are naturally doing this stuff, so it’s good to reinforce to boys, “You failed. What did you learn from it?” I talk about this with men a lot, too. They say, “I get nervous, too, or assume I will fail.” But they have those thoughts and worry, but they still act. Women often don’t.

How has this changed your own parenting?

CS: This research allowed me to have this other soundtrack that failing is going to be a good experience for my kids. How do I help them move on and build some resilience from it? You can’t have your child moving from success to success to success. They’re not going to grow. Don’t put your kids in boxes, saying, “Let’s just have them do what they’re good at.”

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