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A New Vocabulary For Your Daughters: Three ways we can instill confidence, resilience, and grit

Guest contributed by Dr. Priscilla G. Sands

Reaching a position of leadership, no matter your industry, requires hard work, perseverance, and resilience. How can it be made easier for the next generation to reach their potential? Perhaps we can start by simply by being mindful of the words we use.

As we prepare the young women in our lives for their future, we need to assemble a new "guidebook" to help them in their quest towards lives of purpose and meaning. We know this depends in large part on one's internal grit and determination, and we all need to allow young women to self-advocate and to set their own goals while at the same time provide authentic mentorship.

As the Head of School at Marlborough School, an all-girls middle and high school, we believe in a community that is free from the barriers and biases that can hold many women back. I am so proud of our graduates, women who break molds and shatter stereotypes while leaving a positive and lasting impact on the world around them.

After spending nearly three decades in education, most of them in girls' schools, I am often asked for my advice on raising confident, competent young women.

Here are three key suggestions for talking to the young woman in our lives:

1. DON'T tell her she's smart. This is hollow statement that she will come to doubt when she faces adversity or challenge. It is a sure way for her to bump her head on the glass ceiling. Not only will she not believe you, she won't be motivated to strive for more.

I know this seems counter-intuitive, particularly for high achievers, but for just that reason they may give up when faced with a difficult problem, rather than struggle through it and wrestle with new ideas and concepts. Being wrong is also part of being smart. So instead of simply stating what you see as a fact, but which is likely to be viewed with skepticism or indifference on the part of the young woman, I suggest an alternative.

DO tell her that you love the way she approaches challenging problems. Encourage her to stay with it and praise her willingness to keep working. She will develop a thirst and appetite for the puzzle and the question rather than simply the answer. Share examples of times when you struggled but ultimately succeeded in meeting a goal. Remind her that many of the greatest accomplishments take time and diligence to achieve as well as significant failure along the way.

2. DON'T refer to her or other women or girls as bossy. Too often girls are given the message that women in charge are disliked, which discourages their pursuit of leadership opportunities. The most successful women were often told they were bossy along the way. In fact, rid your vocabulary of all gender-loaded words.

DO empower her to take on leadership opportunities where she can and use her voice to also empower others. Women reaching out to other women is a powerful chain of empowerment.

Look for opportunities to ask her advice or opinion. Discuss the process you use for leading, being candid with the way you balance the feedback of the team and the objectives of the project.

3. DON'T tell her she's a math person...or a language person...There is no such thing and that's a fact. This kind of language is limiting. It suggests that a woman is only one thing, that she can't be good at both math and linguistics and soccer and painting. As a result, she may be hesitant to explore new avenues. In this century she should not be locking into an academic or intellectual binary, but should be nimble and engaged in many fields and ways of thinking.

DO help her learn that abilities are developed through commitment and hard work, two building blocks for accomplishment. Nothing happens if you don't try. Risk being vulnerable yourself and learn something new together. Take a poetry class, learn a new language, or learn to code. You can share the process of learning (complete with your frustrations) and have the opportunity to demonstrate your own strategies for perseverance. This provides an opportunity to make memories and give both of you the chance to try something new, and have fun doing so.

Finally, though not really a "do" or "don't," I think the most important thing we can do for the young women in our lives is actively listen to them and demonstrate that they matter, they are valued, and they are respected.


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