If I Were a Parent: Boys vs Girls_00010412.jpg
If I Were a Parent: Boys vs. Girls
01:40 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The authors of the bestseller "The Confidence Code" write a version for tween and teen girls

Survey: Between the ages of 8 and 14, girls' confidence drops by 30%

CNN  — 

If there’s one quality I want my girls to have more than any other, it is confidence.

I’ve seen how important it is in the workplace and in life: Confident people get what they want. They take risks. They are not afraid of failure.

Growing up as a perfectionist, somewhat fearful of both failure and success, I wish I had the confidence in my teens and early 20s that I have now.

For all these reasons, I was thrilled when one of my daughters, during the first grade, had to name five words to describe herself. Confident was on her list. I thought then and still think now, “What can I do to make sure she feels that way when she is a teenager?”

Journalist, author and speaker Claire Shipman has some answers. In 2014, she and her co-author, Katty Kay, anchor of BBC World News America, published “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know.” The book resonated deeply with women and quickly became a bestseller.

Katty Kay, left, and Claire Shipman are co-authors of "The Confidence Code for Girls."

As Shipman and Kay traveled the country to speak about the book, one of the most common questions they would get was from parents, women and men, who were concerned about their daughters.

” ‘What about my daughter? I see this in my daughter,’ ” Shipman said they would say. “It was just this huge focus on young women and girls. ‘What can I be doing with my girls, because I already see she’s not this. She’s experiencing that.’ ”

Shipman, who spent a decade at CNN as a White House and international correspondent in the 1990s, said she and Kay did some research and found that there were plenty of books on the topic for parents but not as many specifically written for girls. So they decided to write one for girls in middle school, although it is applicable for girls up through high school, Shipman says.

In “The Confidence Code for Girls: Taking Risks, Messing Up, Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self,” Shipman and Kay use graphic novel illustrations, quizzes, checklists and real stories from girls to try to make the topic accessible and relatable.

They also commissioned an online poll, which backs up what other research has shown.

Between the ages of 8 and 14, girls’ confidence drops by 30%, according to the survey of nearly 1,400 8- to 18-year-olds and their parents and guardians. The survey also found that three out of four teen girls worry about failing,

“We were surprised at how quickly, how deep that drop is,” Shipman said. “And especially because right until age 8, there’s really no difference in confidence levels.”

So how do we stop this troubling trend?

I asked Shipman, a mom of two, for some advice – advice she said she’s using with her 13-year-old daughter, with good results.

1. Help her get outside her comfort zone and take risks.

One of the most important things we can do as parents of daughters, Shipman said, is to help them get “comfortable being uncomfortable.” Shipman said she and Kay feel that if they do nothing else in this book but get girls to walk away and understand that it’s cool to take risks, they will have succeeded.

As for how to do that, a parent can talk to their daughter about how they approach a risk and some of the ways they can support themselves. “It’s kind of counterintuitive, but just telling yourself ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be afraid of this’ or ‘there’s nothing scary about it’ or ‘fake it until you make it,’ that doesn’t actually help. Risks can be scary,” Shipman said.

So encourage your daughter and tell her, “Yes, it’s normal to feel afraid. This is a little frightening, but tell yourself ‘I’m just going to do it afraid. I’m just going to do it anyway,’ ” Shipman said.

2. Have her keep a list of risks.

Having your daughter keep a list of the risks she has taken and how she worked through them can be a reminder of what she is capable of, Shipman said. The same holds true for failures: Listing their failures and how they tackled them can be incredibly empowering.

Also, have them keep a list of some stock phrases that they can tell themselves when they are in a bit of a frightening situation, such as “I’ve done something like this before. I can do it. I’ve got it.”

3. Remind her of ‘failure fixes.’

Our girls need to know that failure will undoubtedly happen and that it’s not something they can avoid. But knowing how to deal with it can help. “We all need a cheat sheet to failure,” Shipman and Kay write.

They offer a list of 10 “failure fixes” such as “change the channel.” Encourage your daughter to do anything that helps her get in a better place, whether that is reading a book, watching TV, listening to music or cuddling with a family pet. This will help distract her from what’s happened and help her stop thinking about it over and over again.

Another fix is putting it in perspective. Shipman talks about an idea she and Kay heard from a middle school counselor, which she called a “virtual hot air balloon ride.” Help your daughter envision herself up in the sky with the clouds and looking down at the situation that happened. “First, that lets her kind of literally put it in perspective, like, ‘Wow, look, other things are going on,’ and then see it from a different angle and talk about it that way.”

Trying to keep a sense of humor is also key. Of course, this is not easy when your daughter is melting down after what she considers the biggest failure of her life. But try to help her see that it could be much worse. “Thoughts like ‘at least I didn’t forget to put on pants and go to school naked after our roof caved in’ … can remind you that it really could be worse!” they write.

4. Role model failure and struggle.

One of the more surprising results (at least to me) from the poll Shipman and Kay commissioned is that fathers seem to be better at recognizing a lack of confidence in their daughters than mothers: They were found to be 26% more likely to accurately estimate their child’s confidence than moms were.

How could that be? Aren’t mothers supposed to be the more intuitive parents? But as Shipman did her research, she found that mothers perhaps don’t see their daughters’ behavior as unusual.

“Perfectionism or worry about this or that, or sort of reticence to raise your hand, that’s recognizable to us,” Shipman said. “Even if instinctively we know it’s wrong, it doesn’t seem odd, because we’ve probably experienced it. We may still do it, whereas I think fathers, who do have incredibly high expectations for their daughters, would be (saying) ‘What is going on with my 9-year-old? Why was she this way a year ago, and now she’s thinking she can’t do anything?’ They find it genuinely strange.”

The takeaway is how influential role modeling can be for our kids. Let them see us, especially mothers, dealing with failure and struggle and taking risks.

“If we’re going on, ‘I’m so worried about this. I have to get it right,’ it doesn’t help them,” Shipman said. She’s tried to take this advice even more with her teenage daughter and “lift the veil a little bit.”

When she’s upset about something, for instance, such as having to rewrite a few chapters for a book, she lets her daughter see how she’s feeling and then raises the question whether she’s overreacting and figures out how she’s going to deal with it – all in front of her daughter.

5. Remind her she doesn’t have a problem.

With all the talk about girls and confidence, it’s important to make it clear to our girls that it’s not like they have a problem that needs to be fixed, Shipman said. Girls are the way they are for a host of reasons, including nature (brain biology) and nurture (society’s different expectations for girls and boys.) They also often have a higher level of emotional intelligence.

Join the conversation

  • See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

    “It’s not like we want to churn out a bunch of girls who operate like boys,” Shipman said. “I think it would be wonderful for young women to understand much earlier on, essentially, the world doesn’t operate like school.”

    Helping girls understand at young ages what skills will be important later in life is key, including the ability to advocate for themselves and not worry about being people pleasers, Shipman said.

    “Girls, even when they speak up in class or whatever it is, they want to please people, so I feel like the next hurdle is for girls to understand that they will not always please people. People won’t always like them,” Shipman said. “And when they speak up, some people will like what they say, and others won’t, and how do they develop that armor so that they say ‘but that’s OK, because I’m me.’ ”