The Problem with Smart Girls (Part One)

The Problem with Smart Girls (Part One)

This weekend Ada finally had the chance to redeem her birthday coupon for a new bike – her first! We would have taken as much time as she needed, but as soon as we rounded the corner of the bike aisle and she saw hot pink and purple streamers, I knew the search was over. On Monday Ada and her Daddy made plans for a “bike date.”

Training wheels were purchased along with the bike, but when Dan sat down on the front sidewalk to put it all together, he realized the wheels weren’t the right size. Ada had a choice: either skip the training wheels and go straight to two-wheeling or put the bike away for another day.

She decided to be brave, and through a progression of jogs up and down the street in front of our house, Dan taught her how to ride that thing in just a few minutes. Yet despite how quickly she learned, she doesn’t think she can start, turn, or stop without Dan right beside her.

Last week Jason Boyett tweeted a link to an article by Heidi Grant Halvorson for the Huffington Post called “The Trouble with Bright Girls.” In it, Halvorson describes the results of her mentor’s research among 5th grade students at the top of their class.

She found that Bright Girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up; the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts rather than give up.

Halvorson’s explanation is that girls tend to “believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.”

Were you a bright girl or do you know one? Does that ring true? It does for me! Halvorson believes this difference between the genders continues through adulthood, and, you guessed it, probably stems from childhood issues.

How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or “such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

I’m making a mental list of things I’ve given up on in my life based on this false assumption about my abilities (one of them being this very post that has seemed “too difficult” to pull together for more than a week now): piano lessons in 5th grade, basketball in high school, cooking after I got married. And what about the things in your future that you’re tempted to dismiss based on your own measurement of your ability to succeed? Here’s my short list for that one: graduate school applications, magazine query letters, getting in shape.

See, if Ada knew herself better, she’d know that she already has the hard part figured out. The starting, stopping, and turning are all dependent on the sense of balance that she already displays. She has the ability, but she’s missing two important keys: 1) trust in herself and her abilities, and 2) discipline to keep practicing until she gets it right. More about that tomorrow . . .

For now, what do you think? Do the results of this study make sense based on your experience?


31 Replies to “The Problem with Smart Girls (Part One)”

  1. Trust in my abilities, and the discipline to keep practicing until I get it right. Man, this is right on the money! Thanks for the reminder, Felicity.

  2. Definitely rings true. Getting a degree, trying fiction outside my comfort zone, COOKING, and it’s funny you mention exercise, because one of the things that always stifles me when it comes to that is, “I’m just not that type of person. I make Little Debbie jokes, and everyone knows that about me.” As if I just can’t change something like that about myself. Also, don’t even get me started on school. I could whip out stuff they’d taught me, no problem. But give me a problem to solve or an invention to design, and I was a mess of stress and tears.

    1. ha ha! I know! I remember always feeling especially hopeless when we started into a new unit in math.

      I love people who study things like this because being able to define the problem helps me see solutions more clearly.

  3. Yup, makes sense. I can totally hear my dad telling me to “figure it out” when I would ask for help and while he was always close by to help guide me over a difficult spot he rarely told me the solution. I think he was trying to help me get past this mentality.
    Thanks for the post, it will be a good pondering thought for the day.

  4. Definitely rings true for me. I was terrified of riding a two-wheeler, actually, though I got there eventually.

    It’s hard to go back to being a beginner – with anything – because I’m afraid of cracking that image of the “good, clever” girl. For me this comes out in yoga, trying new recipes, pitching my writing to other people, even bringing up new ideas at work. Food for thought, definitely.

  5. I was a Bright Girl but that didn’t hold true for me. I was, and am, the type of person that if you tell me I can’t do it or if it’s a challenge I’ll just work until I get it. I think it might be because I have a Mom who had to work her way up in a male dominated profession in the 50’s & 60’s. She set a good example for me, & really taught me good problem solving skills.

  6. I’ve definitely found this to be true. Every time I start something new, all I can think about is how much I don’t know and how it’s different than anything else I’ve done. Then Andrew will tell me I can do it and to have some confidence in myself. If he weren’t pushing me to do things outside of my “confidence-level” then I would never actually do things that are at my “skill-level”.

      1. I totally 110% agree with this, and see it manifest in my relationship with a smart boy, who also motivates me! thank god for those good men!

  7. That completely makes sense! Promise is always frustrated with new things and wants to quit. Now I know how to handle these situations. Although I wouldn’t say it is just the smart ones, haha! I myself have this issue and far from the brightest 🙂

  8. Oh my gosh!!! This is SO TRUE!!! Jenelle was always in the gifted classes in her school, but if ever faced with something that didn’t come easily to her (piano lessons, etc.) she would immediately give up. She was so used to everything coming so easily that if she actually had to try, she assumed she couldn’t do it! I’m definitely going to have her read this post!

  9. This makes me want to think more about how I praise Nola! I never liked doing things that I couldn’t do well right off. If it didn’t come naturally to me right away, I assumed I wasn’t good at it. Hence, I never did sports because they were harder for me. So fascinating…

  10. Look at all of the smart girls coming out of the woodwork! 🙂

    It is fascinating. I really think it should change some things about the way we raise our girls and also help us see the implications for ourselves. I remember Cheri (my mother-in-law) telling me about a study that compared the performance of students in classrooms where the teachers used different language. In one room they told the students they were “smart”. In the other room they told the students they were “hard workers”. Given problems with the same level of difficulty, the “hard workers” consistently performed better than the “smart” students. Language matters!

  11. Never thought of myself as a “bright” or “smart” girl, but your description of these girls fits my life also. Things I’ve started and quit because I didn’t think I could really accomplish them are numerous. But not only in my younger years, I still feel that way. Even as a store manager, I thought I could do it, but now get second thoughts. But instead of giving up these days, I look for resources to keep me going in the right direction. Hope that doesn’t mean I’m becoming in “UNbright” girl! LOL

  12. WOW, I am literally dumbfounded. This is EXACTLY how I react to things. Piano, painting, math and science …ok, so I don’t have the actual desire to learn all things but thanks for the reminder that I CAN if I set my mind to it.

    Also, I think it is probably a higher percentage of girls that feel this way, but one of my sons is this way too so personality may also be a factor.

    1. Yes, I think there is some cross-pollinating of this idea for girls and the personality of perfectionists in general.

  13. Yep! Agree with this for sure. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve spoken to one of my piano students (interesting how often piano has been mentioned in these comments…) 🙂 or their mothers about the student’s frustration with lessons. It’s the exact same conversation over and over again: “Here’s the problem – your daughter/son is really smart! So when they started lessons, they didn’t have to practice at all and were still whizzing through all the songs! Now that things are more challenging and they have to work for it, their confidence is low and they feel like they have to give up. But the work they put into this now will only make them that much more amazing later BECAUSE OF their natural gifting. We’ve just got to encourage them to practice and not give up.” I’m glad you posted this. Words are important and understanding natural pitfalls will help us avoid them with our children. Awesome as usual, Felicity!

    1. Perfect advice for piano students! I wish you’d been my piano teacher. You can bet my poor daughter doesn’t have a chance of quitting! 🙂

  14. So many great comments! I think it has another factor that you just started hitting at the end…it has a lot to do with parents and their roll. Not letting the kids quit or give up. THAT takes work! Something our generation doesn’t quite “get.” Listening to the child whine and yet making them stick with it. That’s hard work! I see it a lot with band and piano too. Its hard to watch the potential die away because the parent didn’t realize that it was a phase and eventually they get over the hump and excel beyond what anyone could have dreamed! My mom wouldn’t let me quit. I wanted to in high school and hated practicing. After a scholarship that paid my way to college I understood! And…I hope she never quits! She is a jewel!

  15. I needed this like I cannot even tell you. This is Madison. I have been frustrated for years about how I have so much confidence in her and I know she can learn anything, and yet when the time comes she freaks out and shuts down or has a meltdown instead of having that confidence for herself! Thank you so much for writing this!

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