How to Raise Girls to Believe they are Brilliant - Pen and Parent
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How to raise girls to believe they are brilliant and reach their full potential is important for any parent. But, what if research showed that girls believe that boys are the smarter gender by age 6? Read about this shocking research and learn how you can raise girls to overcome harmful cultural stereotypes.

How to Raise Girls to Believe they are Brilliant

By Amber Roshay

When I first learned about a new study looking at cultural stereotypes on Sunday Nights with Megyn Kelley I experienced a strong sense of alarm. My daughter and son slept in the other room, and I had the urge to check on them. A friend of mine once asked me what I wanted the most for my children, and I wasn’t sure. But, as my family grew, so did I. Like most parents I realized that I wanted my children to reach their full potential - whatever that full potential may be.


But, what if this potential is being limited? Not only that but what if it's being limited based on gender? New research showed that by age 6 girls are less likely to choose their gender as brilliant.

 In the study by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie, and Andrei Cimpian girls and boys were told a story about a "really, really smart person" with no gender mentioned. Before age 5 both chose their own gender as smart, but after that age, boys still picked males but girls also picked males. So what happens at age 5 or 6 when they enter kindergarten or first grade?

The researchers then asked the children to choose a game to play. One game was for children who were smart, and the other for children who tried hard. The girls shied away from the game for smart kids. Assimilated cultural stereotypes about smartness affect choices that girls make at a very young age.

An earlier study in 2015 revealed that fields more associated with brilliance, such as science and engineering, have fewer women represented. My daughter by age 6 is statistically less likely to go into these fields because she's a girl. For me, this was an aha moment.

The expression children are sponges isn't new. Cultural stereotypes, whether from the media, television, or even parents, play a big part in who our children believe are smart. They assimilate them early in life, setting the foundation for the belief that men are innately talented, while women need to work hard.

More: Books to Boost Girl Power

So, you can imagine why I felt this sense of alarm. But, what if this research has some flaws and perhaps reflecting some gender bias as well. One commenter who read Why Young Girls Don’t Think They are Smart Enough in the New York Times said that after he reviewed the research he concluded among other things things “that girls are much more likely to assume that someone successful in school must be a girl, while boys are gender-neutral about this."  

So, the correct interpretation of the authors' result is that girls of 6 and 7 believe they are just as smart as boys, but nicer and more likely to succeed.” Another critique from Sapna Cheryan at The University of Washington points out that the study concludes that it’s the girls who need to change rather than the boys.  “Do we want a society where each gender thinks they are smarter, or do we want one where boys and girls think the genders are equally smart?” Cheryan asks. “If the latter, then it may be boys’ beliefs that we should try to change.”

The study also focused mostly on white upper-middle class children. One could argue leaving out other racial groups and income levels invalidates the research, due to the limited sampling.

Yet, there is another concern outlined in an article published in The Atlantic about how it’s boys falling deeper behind in school. “Boys in all ethnic groups and social classes are far less likely than their sisters to feel connected to school, to earn good grades, or to have high academic aspirations.” 

Another report published by the nonprofit Save the Children in the United Kingdom states that “boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to have fallen behind by the time they start school.”But if boys are actually falling further behind in school than girls why are there fewer women in fields associated with brilliance such as math and science. Statistically women hold fewer leadership roles in these fields and earn less money.

Does this illustrate that being good at school doesn’t translate into a “brilliant’ field, earning the same as your male counterpart? Girls excel at school, but still don’t see themselves as smart enough or still have too many cultural biases to overcome in math and science for the numbers to be equal.

Even women who do have prestigious careers as scientists report discrimination and bias. Vicki Lundland and Katherine Jones, tenured professors and accomplished scientists at the Salk Institute of Biology in San Diego, California, are suing their employer for “alleg[ed] pervasive, long-standing gender discrimination.”

In an interview with the San Diego Tribune, Katherine Jones explained that if she hadn’t sued, her science, her contributions, would be made extinct. Vicki Lundland explained that she couldn’t remain silent any longer.

I’m reminded of the popular television show The Big Bang Theory. My family settles in almost nightly to catch reruns on KUSI. The two women scientists, as well as the male scientists, on the show are unattractive, nerdy, and socially awkward. Is this kind of representation of being nerdy equaling being smart really attractive for any aspiring scientist?  

We must also consider that it might be unfair to only associate brilliance with certain fields, omitting other fields, such as education, as a place where the non-brilliant people end up, and women in higher numbers. Or the fact that taking care of children and aging parents takes a certain type of brilliance, and we as a culture should value this contribution more. 

So what is true? Are girls taught that they aren’t brilliant? Should we be more concerned about boys not doing as well in school?  

In the end, the statistics show that women are underrepresented in certain fields, hold fewer leadership roles, and earn less money. I’m not saying we shouldn't be concerned about boys. I’m a mother of a young son who I want to succeed as much as I want my daughter to be successful.  For some reason, if you take the stance of wanting to help one gender, you’re automatically discounting the other. This same pervasive attitude seems to include race and class too. We can’t take on the attitude of boys versus girls. Every child matters and helping them reach their potential is important.

But, if we focus on girls, what can we do?

Expose children to female role models

The first time I remember being conscious of learning about women role models, other than Betsy Ross, was in a college class called Women in American History. For the first time, I learned about empowered women, such as Margaret Sanger,  who were making a difference in the lives of many. I was able to see myself as important. Not only women who made groundbreaking contributions like physicist Marie Curie, but everyday women who cook, clean, and nurture.

Young girls need to learn about outstanding women who have changed the course of history, rather than believing this is just for men. Not only that, they need to see their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers as making valuable contributions to the family and to society. Valuing "women's work" is important.

Encourage girls to be risk-takers

As a parent to both a boy and a girl, I’ve noticed that I seem to chalk up my son’s adventurous nature as part of his gender and my daughter’s quiet nature as part of hers. But perhaps my assimilated belief about gender is coming through in my parenting.

I've learned that parents typically tell their daughters to be more careful. Protecting girls but encouraging boys to take risks is more common. So, we need to encourage our daughters to take more healthy risks at a very young age. Healthy risk-taking helps children learn about leadership and gain confidence in their abilities.

Change how we educate our children

I've been an English as a Second Language teacher for ten years. Learning that children might assimilate which gender is considered more brilliant by age 6 has changed the way I teach. I'm more conscious of balancing who I call on in class. I've added more readings on talented women in society. And I shy away less from discussions about gender equality.

I've also made an effort not to let the men in the classroom dominate the discussion. I've noticed that the women in the class allow the men to speak first, even if the men's language ability is much lower than theirs. According to Deborah Tannen, a well-known linguist and teacher, the conversational styles of men and women differ. In group settings, women tend to allow everyone to speak and men tend to speak for longer periods of time, giving the impression that women don’t have much to say.

But educating our children doesn’t start with teachers in the classroom;  it begins at home. The awareness that babies and toddlers are already soaking in cultural stereotypes about brilliance makes it even more important for parents to fight this limiting mindset at the very beginning.

Create a powerful mindset

Brilliance doesn't happen overnight. Sure, children are born with innate potential in different areas, but real success comes from hard work and perseverance. Amelia Earhart didn't fly around the world the minute she jumped on a plane. Albert Einstein didn't stumble upon The Theory of Relativity in an afternoon. Being good at something takes time and effort.

Repeatedly telling your child that he or she is smart will help them believe it, but what if they fail or don’t succeed right away? Both genders need to learn that brilliance comes from grit, not gender, and certainly not immediately.

Provide reading material with strong role models

Most parents encourage their children to read, but what if their reading could be more strategic. In an effort to battle cultural stereotypes and help create a powerful mindset, I asked my friends and family to give me a list of great books for girls to read. I'm lining my bookshelf now so that my daughter begins to read about courageous women in all disciplines and learns about perseverance early. Some books I’ve included are: Global Baby Girls and Rebel Girls.

Avoid words like genius, gifted, brilliant

As a teacher and writer, I know how powerful language is, but I had no idea how calling someone a genius affect girls. If you tell anecdotes about how naturally gifted someone is, rather than describing their hard work, girls will start to believe that smartness is inherent. Try not to comfort your daughters by saying things like," It's okay, not everyone is a math person," or "You have so many other talents, it's all right that math isn't one of them." Using language like this limits their potential.

Distribute household chores equally

Even though more women are in the workforce than ever before, working moms take on more of the household chores and child rearing tasks. One study suggests that when there is a more egalitarian approach to family responsibilities, girls have more interest in less stereotypical occupations.

Girls need to see their fathers washing dishes or organizing play dates to encourage them to break the bonds of gender roles at home and work.The problem of girls not believing their gender is inherently smart is heartbreaking. Fighting cultural stereotypes to help our daughters reach their full potential is a must; otherwise, we are telling our girls that no matter what they want to be when they grow up, if it takes smarts, it's not for them.

What do you think? How can we raise girls to believe they are brilliant? Leave a comment below.

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