More is Better — and Other Achievement Myths for Today’s Stressed-Out Girls

1. Encourage her to “Just try your hardest.” This catchphrase is confusing and unhelpful to many girls. (What does it actually mean?) Even if she tries her best, your daughter still may not be able to accomplish everything. Everyone has limitations, and chance factors out of her control can affect her achievement. Girls who pursue goals that are vague or unrealistic often become exhausted and discouraged. It is better to guide your daughter to aim for specific, tangible, and doable goals—for example, finishing her homework every night, proofreading her papers, getting to class on time, or rereading texts before tests.

2. When it comes to achievement, sooner is better. Girls today are feeling pressured to be precocious—to master skills and find their talents as quickly as possible. But the push to be advanced or to become specialized too soon can backfire. Students who are placed in accelerated classes before they are ready often become overwhelmed and may struggle later because of gaps in their skills. Girls who at an early age make intense commitments to activities such as violin or dance often lose interest or burn out. When they feel forced to continue and go through the motions, successes become empty and girls lose touch with their inner selves, setting the stage for depression, eating disorders, and cutting.

3. Eliminating distractions is key. When girls are struggling academically and seem unmotivated, parents who are desperate to get them back on track often threaten to take away their telephone and IM-ing privileges. But during middle and high school, girls feel successful—and okay about themselves—only when they feel good about their relationships. Severing their social ties often provokes anxiety, resentment, and preoccupations that are equally if not more distracting. Try modifying online or phone time (“everything in moderation”) or asking her to earn extra privileges by demonstrating responsible study habits.

4. Mistakes and failures should be avoided. It is hard to see daughters stumble or fail, especially when the stakes for achievement are so high. But girls who are allowed to make mistakes are given the gift of learning opportunities that are usually far more powerful than any parental pep talks or “lectures.” Girls get to figure out where they went wrong—and why—as well as what they can do differently next time. Also, they are inoculated against life’s inevitable disappointments. So instead of trying to prevent your daughter’s injudicious decisions or stepping in to rescue her from their consequences, let her experience her share of normal—and invaluable—missteps and setbacks.

5. Good grades insure success. Actually, grades and scores don’t tell the whole story. (For example, many of the highest achievers admit to cheating.) Better indicators of your daughter’s success may be her attitude toward learning, curiosity, and improvement in the quality of her work. Plus, research shows that an emphasis on inner qualities rather than external emblems of success leads to higher self-esteem, less conflict with their teachers, and better grades. So tell your daughter what you love about her, such as her kindness, honesty, sense of humor, and fairness. Bottom line: To find out how she is doing, ask about what she is learning in school instead of what grades she gets on her tests.

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