I am certainly not the expert on raising girls; yet, as the CEO of Girl Scouts of Gateway Council I have a vested interest in the nearly ten thousand girls participating in Girl Scouts within our Council. And, I believe 100% in the power of the Girl Scout Leadership Experience. We are building girls of courage, confidence and character and I hope you will partner with us to continue the efforts outside of your girls’ Girl Scout experience. If we are going to positively impact and develop girls of courage may I suggest you implement the following?
1. Develop Relationships with Girls
Relationships connect girls. When they feel connected to the adults in their life, they are more resilient and courageous. Through the Girl Scout Research Institute (GRSI) we know, younger girls in particular are likely to look up to their Girl Scout leaders. Therefore, they are likely to look up to you. Make your interactions with girls count by Building personal connections with the girls. Ask them how school is going or what they’re listening to, reading, or watching. Use girls’ names when acknowledging their ideas. When girls feel comfortable and connected in a group, they are more likely to take healthy risks and try new things.
2. Be Conscious of the Way You and They Talk
Girls learn early that too much confidence can get them ostracized, and you often hear the proof in the way they communicate. Many girls start sentences with apologies (“I’m not sure this is right, but…”) or girls turn powerful sentences into questions (“Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader?”). Some cock their heads play with their hair or cover their mouths while speaking, using phrases like “kind of” and “sort of” to weaken their convictions. These phrases can become habits and hinder a girl’s ability to speak in a direct manner later on.
Notice how you communicate with girls and avoid hedging or softening your opinions with disclaimers or apologies. Be conscious of how your girls speak as well. If you observe a girl falling into one of these communication pitfalls, be courageous and privately point it out and explain how it undermines the point she’s making. Try standing in front of a mirror with a girl (works really well if you have a daughter). Say three things positive about yourself – one being “I am pretty.” Ask your daughter to do the same.
The confidence gap starts young: Between elementary school and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’.
3. Teach Girls to Respect Their Feelings
Girls learn early on that being liked and avoiding conflict—even when they’re upset—can win social status and rewards. Many girls are told to “get over” their feelings or to stop being “so sensitive.” A girl’s ability to recognize and respect her feelings, and to speak up about them, is a vital ingredient to developing healthy personal authority and confidence.
Teach your girls to respect themselves by letting them know it’s okay to feel whatever it is they feel. They may not like all their feelings, but they’re an important part of who they are; just as we have to take care of our bodies, we also have to take care of our feelings. Show them by example: avoid denying, second-guessing, or questioning their feelings with phrases like “It’s not a big deal” or “Don’t overreact.” When they’re ready to share with others, be realistic with them about the challenges of speaking up in a world that still expects girls to be nice above all. Sometimes we have to speak up just to show we believe we should be heard, even if the result isn’t what we hoped for.
4. Teach Girls to Handle Conflict
Girls learn from watching the ways women communicate and resolve conflict. As girls navigate challenges, they look to their leaders for cues on how to handle difficult relationships. The power of our example can be both exciting and intimidating.
Avoid indirect communication like gossip or texting as a way to resolve your own conflicts. Instead, model direct and honest communication with your peers and the girls. Remember, your daughter, niece or granddaughter is watching and learning. Explain to girls that conflict is an inevitable part of relationships and teamwork—it’s the way we handle it that matters. And remind them that it is about uplifting and supporting one another, not bringing others down.
5. Avoid Language That Holds Girls Back
Sometimes the words we use, even unintentionally, can make it harder for girls to take risks or try something new. For example, calling a girl “bossy”— a word we rarely use for boys—sends the message that girls should not speak up. Girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them seem “bossy”. These words can silence a girl during her most formative years.
Constructive criticism is a vital part of learning and growing, but the way it’s delivered can make the difference between motivating and shaming a girl. Take care to avoid references to gender in any of your feedback, and avoid using words that disproportionately label or stereotype girls or other groups. Girls use language that reinforces gender stereotypes, too (“Girls aren’t good at math.” “All girls care about are makeup and clothes.”). When they do, steer the conversation toward a teachable moment for your group: explain what a stereotype is, how it limits us, and what evidence exists to challenge it. For example, ask your girls to give you an example of someone who defies the stereotype (“Who here knows a girl who’s good at math?” “Do you know girls who care about school more than how they look?”).
6. Encourage Girls to Speak Up
Girls are taught to avoid risk and failure… to be nice.
We know that research shows that women often underestimate their abilities, while men often overestimate theirs. In the same vein, girls often fear being wrong.
After you ask a question, pause for a few moments, even if it’s awkward, to give girls more time to contribute. Help girls find their voice by starting discussions that don’t require factual responses. Ask the girls in your troop to adopt and hold a position or wrestle with an idea together. Start your question with “There’s no right answer,” and remind the girls that discussion leads to important questions and insights.
7. Foster Effective Collaboration
Research shows that girls learn best in single-gender environment. Working together encourages girls to feel powerful and allows them to flex their collaboration and team-building muscles.
Lay the groundwork for effective collaboration. Help girls establish guidelines for their team like taking turns talking, building on one another’s ideas, and listening actively without interruption. Then encourage the group to check in on what’s going well and what isn’t. Mix up the teams so that the same girls are not always working together—that way they all gain experience in working with a range of personalities and styles. Promoting cooperation and team building is key to a successful experience. Have you heard about the mom who got on the camp bus and cornered off eight seats for her daughter and her friends? A girl not included in the “clique” asked the mom if she could take a seat and the mother said no – the seats were saved. What did the girl hear – you aren’t good enough, this is a special group. Also, that mom ruined one of the most significant learning opportunities of a camping experience – making new friends.
8. Get Media Literate—Together
What girls read and watch often sends the wrong messages. Children’s books are almost twice as likely to feature a male hero as a heroine, and male characters outnumber female characters by almost three to one in family films. Even more discouraging, female characters are almost four times as likely to be shown in sexy attire.
Take the time to talk to girls about what they’re reading and watching and why they like it. Pick a movie or television show and ask: What kinds of messages about girls and women does it send? How are girls and women portrayed, and what do they do and talk about? How are girls’ and women’s relationships portrayed? Are the relationships built on trust and caring? Have a discussion, not a lecture. Weigh in on your concerns, but remember that they’ll take you more seriously when you can all enjoy—and criticize—media together.
9. Let Them Solve Problems on Their Own
Resilience, the ability to overcome obstacles, is a cornerstone of confidence. When adults step in to solve problems, girls don’t develop the coping skills they need to handle difficult situations on their own.
When a girl shares a problem, pause and ask, “What do you want to do about it?” If she says, “I don’t know,” push her gently to consider strategies she might use to deal with the situation, and then ask her about the possible outcomes. Let her decide what she wants to do (within reason). Even if you disagree with her, give her the chance to own her decision and learn a lesson if it doesn’t work out the way she wants. Your confidence in her ability to solve problems on her own will build hers.
10. Encourage Girls to Step Outside Their Comfort Zones
We feel braver when we prove to ourselves that we can leave our comfort zones, overcome barriers, and master challenging tasks. Many girls struggle to take risks because they worry about failing or disappointing others.
Encourage your girls to try new things. Push girls just slightly beyond their comfort zones and have them try out new activities together. Being courageous is rarely about dramatic moments: it’s a skill acquired, little by little, over time. Let the girls know they don’t have to be perfect the first time they try something. They just have to try.
Let’s partner to create a fundamental shift for girls. I encourage you to implement just three of the suggested steps shared above, after all – we certainly can impact the future of our girls’ futures by being proactive today. At Gateway Council, we are dedicated to making sure all girls have the opportunity to become Girl Scouts, regardless of their financial situation. If you would like to help us build the next generation of leaders, consider a donation, volunteering, or getting a girl you know to join Girl Scouts.