(CNN) — When my first daughter was born nine years ago, I created a short lullaby, which ends with me singing, “How did I get so lucky to have such a beautiful little girl?”
As that little girl has gotten older, I’ve tweaked the song, incorporating a range of adjectives in place of “beautiful.”
It’s become a bit of a game: How many empowering words can I come up with every time I sing the song? Daring, adventurous, brave, curious, passionate, compassionate, funny, determined, spirited, worldly, outgoing, inquisitive, and the list goes on.
I knew the words we used for and around our girls were important, but I’m not sure I realized just how important until I attended a recent summit focusing on what can be done to raise our girls’ confidence — confidence that we have learned dramatically plummets during puberty.
The summit was sponsored by Always, the maker of sanitary pads, which is hoping to capitalize on the viral success of the #LikeAGirl video it unveiled last year, which has been viewed a staggering 90 million times worldwide.
The brand — through a newly released video, a school curriculum and a partnership with TED, the organization behind the widely popular talks about big ideas — hopes to not just raise awareness about how confidence declines during puberty for girls but to put the focus on what can be done to encourage and educate our girls to believe they can do anything.
“We all have a great role to play in this and to really make girls feel unstoppable,” said Michele Baeten, global associate brand director for Always.
In the new video, which has been seen more than 4.4 million times in just two days, girls are asked how often they’ve been told that they couldn’t do something because of their gender.
“All the time. It’s a constant,” says one girl. Another says, “People think that girls are supposed to be all happy and ‘la-dee-da.’ ”
Then, the director, award-winning documentarian Lauren Greenfield, asks them to write on large white boxes some of the limitations they’ve heard because they are girls.
They write everything from “Girls should be perfect” to “Girls aren’t strong” to “Can’t be a sports broadcaster.”
We hear from older girls, who have gone through puberty, about how what they heard led them to start holding back and not try things.
“I quit trumpet; I quit basketball; I quit wrestling,” one girl says.
Smashing the limitations
And then comes the moment that makes me want to cheer every time I watch the video. Greenfield asks the girls what they want to do with the boxes they’ve written on, and we see girls kicking and smashing them, knocking them over and, in one case, standing tall on top of a box with a big X over the words “Can’t be brave.”
“The boxes the girls wrote on … took on this unexpected emotional meaning,” said Greenfield, who interviewed more than 100 girls of various ages and backgrounds for the project (and who happens to be a friend of my husband’s and mine).
“There was a kind of tangible power and exhilaration when the girls became aware of that thing that limited them. … For a moment, they glimpsed a world without boxes and saw how liberating and empowering it could be for them and their future,” said the critically acclaimed director and photographer whose work includes the book “Girl Culture” on body image and documentaries including “THIN,” about eating disorders, and “The Queen of Versailles,” about a billionaire and his family before and after the economic crash.
“Imagine if we blew up all those boxes and smashed all those ridiculous limitations, we could think of puberty as a time where instead of losing all of our confidence, we gather it,” said 18-year-old “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams, who hosted the summit and is working with Always to spread its newest message.
The numbers back up what the girls demonstrated in the video: Eighty-nine percent of girls ages 16 to 24 said there is pressure for girls to conform to the way a girl is supposed to feel and act, according to a national survey of 1,800 people, sponsored by Always.
Seventy-nine percent of girls who believe that society puts girls in boxes think that if society stopped pressuring girls, they would be more confident, the survey found.
“One of the insights I took from this process was that the compliments we so frequently and often unconsciously bestow on girls can actually have a negative effect and even become a source of pain and disempowerment,” said Greenfield.
“While counterintuitive, compliments, especially the ones related to physical appearance like ‘you’re so cute; you’re adorable,’ were perceived as limiting and oppressive, making girls feel that the expectations on them were focused on their appearance and not on their abilities or what was inside.”
Confidence ‘not something you’re born with’
Rachel Simmons, co-founder of the national nonprofit Girls Leadership, which focuses on girls in grades K-12, said the confidence drop is easily seen in the classroom.
“What you see is you see girls going from being loud and silly and dorking out and singing the soundtrack to ‘Frozen’ … to standing with their arms crossed to kind of pretzeling their bodies,” said Simmons, author of the New York Times bestseller “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.”
“They go from saying what they think in class to raising their hands and saying, ‘I’m not sure if this is right, but’ ” — something many adult women also say, she said.
During puberty, girls lose exposure to the skills and experiences that increase confidence, but that doesn’t have to be the case, said Simmons, who’s also the mother of a 3-year-old girl. We can teach our girls how to be confident, she said.
“One of the coolest things that I’ve learned is that confidence is not something you’re born with,” said Simmons. “We think about confidence as this magical thing, either you have it or you don’t, but the reality, as research is increasingly showing us, is very different. Confident is something we can all become by learning and practicing a set of skills, and … skills are like muscles. The more we flex them, the stronger that they become.”
Simmons has partnered with other researchers and Always to create a teaching curriculum that will be used in schools, with the goal of reaching 20 million girls in 65 countries.
“These are research-based, cutting-edge lessons for parents, educators and girls,” she said, calling it the “biggest confidence education program” she has ever seen.
“It’s going to give girls the building blocks of confidence, helping them take positive risks, go out of their comfort zone, raise their hand and speak up and discover their true potential.”
What we say, as parents, ‘really matters’
To truly create change, the adults in girls’ lives need to be educated too, said Simmons, who is also author of “The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence.”
Parents need to ban “fat talk” around their girls, she said. “We’ll say, ‘I ate too much. I shouldn’t have that piece of chocolate’ or ‘I went to the gym, and I was good today, so I can have that piece of chocolate.’ ”
How we talk “really, really matters” when our kids are thinking about how to think about their own world, she said.
Parents should also not be afraid to embarrass their daughters by speaking up and asserting themselves, she said. “My mom was really skillful at embarrassing me all the time by speaking up in front of me. She would constantly assert herself, and I would want to hide, but I think that that set a great example, too.”
How we praise our girls is also extremely important, said psychologist Carissa Romero, who has worked with Simmons on the new teaching curriculum Always will provide to schools around the world.
“It might seem that you will help girls become more confident if you call them pretty, if we tell them they’re smart, if we tell them they’re a natural at something. That can actually undermine their confidence,” said Romero, co-founder and director of Stanford University’s Project for Education Research That Scales, or PERTS.
Romero talked about a research study involving fifth-graders who were given a set of problems to work on and then were all praised for doing a good job. Some of the students were praised for their intelligence, while others were praised for their effort.
Then the students were given a set of more difficult problems to work on and were told they didn’t do so well. The students who were given intelligence praise earlier were much more demoralized by the setback, while the students who were given “effort praise” remained resilient and may even have learned something from the setback, she said.
“When you praise kids for being smart when they succeed, when they struggle later, they think ‘if my past success made me smart, my current struggle makes me dumb,’ ” she said. “But when you praise children for the process, when you help them understand that their actions lead to their success, when they face a setback later, they’ll realize that there are actions they can take to overcome that setback.”
And “effort praise,” which helps build confidence, is something boys get more often than girls, she said.
In a study she was directly involved in, she and her fellow researchers found that parents of children as young as 1 to 3 years old gave “process praise” more to little boys than little girls.
“So girls are less likely to get the type of praise that helps them remain resilient in the face of a challenge,” she said.
But we can change that.
We can start truly thinking about praising effort, not the end result, both for girls and for boys.
We can start listening to our girls and find out exactly what they’re hearing and correct the “untruths,” said Greenfield, the director.
We can tackle the “tyranny of cute” that Greenfield said she heard from the girls she interviewed and be “vigilant and conscious about the kinds of affirmations we are giving our girls and, in a sense, that those affirmations are really teaching them what matters,” she said.
And we can be role models ourselves.
We don’t want our daughters to hear us say, “I’m not sure if this is right, but … ”
We want them to hear, “Here’s what I think … ”