Clever Girl - 6 Ways To Teach Young Girls to Believe They’re Brilliant

15 February 2017


Back in the 1970’s, when I was raising my preschool daughter as a single mom, there were so many times that I felt the need to defend us against the “broken family” image. According to society, we were both considered very at risk. In preschool, dire and scary things were often expected for and said out loud to my 2-year-old daughter-- “Oh you poor dear child, you won’t have anyone to help you with this (typically-masculine task like manual labor or making money here)!” I wanted her teachers to challenge her, not feel sorry for her. To compensate for this, I dedicated myself to being a Super Mom who did everything expected and more, so she wouldn’t be looked down on because she was from a single-parent family. This was my way of saving her from being discriminated against because of my life decisions.

Today, while our single-parent families are much more accepted, it seems that our young girls are at risk from a different danger. A new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reports that 6-year old girls are less likely than boys to think that members of their own gender can be brilliant. It found that girls are  more likely than boys to shy away from activities requiring “exceptional intelligence.”   

Something happens to our girls after kindergarten. The interesting thing is that 5-year-old girls didn’t see themselves as less smart than boys. The difference starts at age 6, the traditional age that primary school begins. The study states that it’s unclear which of the multitude of our current social influences are causing this shift. But it is interesting that it occurs at the age when formal schooling usually begins in the U.S.  

As a developmentalist, educator, and great-grandmother, I am truly alarmed by this research and wonder what can be done to reverse this trend. Since we know that 5-year-old girls still think of themselves as brilliant, whatever the kindergarten experience is providing young girls needs to be continued. Exploration, creative thinking, play-based learning are all basics of the preschool curriculum that could be emphasized in the first grade and beyond. But this suggestion may be totally impossible in many test-controlled school systems today.  

So, to be more practical, here are six simple things you as parents and caregivers can do to help your young daughters hold onto their confidence in their mental abilities in their preschool years and beyond-- and to become the smart, capable, problem-solving contributors that we all will no doubt need to meet our world’s challenges.


  • Emphasize divergent thinking in as many ways and as often as you can. For example, when reading a familiar story, ask your child to come up with a different ending.  At lunchtime, challenge your daughter to come up with different ingredients for a snack. Work together on a new system to use for cleaning up the toys. Try sorting by shapes today and colors tomorrow. The point is to think outside the box, to come up with new and different answers and approaches.
  • Challenge your preschooler to try things that are a bit harder. When talking about drawing shapes, introduce new ones like parallelogram, trapezoid, and rhombus. In education, we call this scaffolding, or building up from familiar things to new and more difficult concepts. Always start with the familiar, like square and rectangle as a basis, then go on to more intriguing and difficult shapes.  
  • Use big and diverse words often throughout your day. This offers challenges to your child’s brain development. It’s fun, too, to learn that Fluffy is not just a fat cat, but a pudgy feline as well. When that big brother is acting up, he can be not just uncontrollable, but obstreperous. Young children love learning new words, so make this a regular and engaging practice.
  • Praise your child’s attempts at new, more difficult things. Use words that concentrate positively on their process, not judging it. For example, “I see how hard you tried to put the puzzle together” instead of “good job.” “Good job” is a value judgement of performance. It’s important for your child to continue exploring without being concerned about how you judge her efforts. In this way your child grows confidence and ability to judge-- to value and continue!-- her own work.  
  • Keep things creative by introducing a wide variety of “super” toys. These are toys that can be used in many ways and boost your preschooler’s creativity. They can be as simple as a large cardboard box, crayons, a supply of playdough, and blocks. There is no one way to use super toys, since your child’s creativity makes them anything she desires.
  • Be on the lookout for children’s books, music and media that have strong, female role models. Include books that show women in many important roles, too. Look out for more Dora’s and less Rapunzels. Claire loved (and still loves) the music and videos from Free To Be You And Me, by Marlo Thomas. Another great source for girl-focused books is the American Library Association's book reviews and their Children’s Literature Booklist.


Now that you’re aware of this trend and ways to fight it, tell your friends and family-- and let’s start helping our young girls develop and protect their self-image as smart and capable right now!

Which of the suggestions listed above did you find new or surprising?  Do you have any more suggestions to add to the list? Please do!