Little Miss Perfect and Failing to Fail: Building resilience in our girls and young women

Have you ever heard of a school that would deliberately make its students fail an exam? Sounds crazy, sure, but in the U.K. a leading private girls’ school does exactly this. The reasoning behind this is to teach the girls that it’s acceptable to not be Little Miss Perfect. As reported in the Daily Mail, the chief executive of the school stated that they wanted girls to realize that “being perfect is the enemy of learning.”

Pressure to be perfect

But why is this needed? The answer is that we live in a hyper-competitive society, and there is unrelenting pressure on girls to be perfect. Perfectionism is a concept largely defined as striving for unreachable standards whilst demonstrating harsh self-criticism. If you have girls or young women in your life, you will probably know exactly what this means. You will have heard their negative self-talk or the way they scold themselves for not being pretty or clever or thin enough. It’s heartbreaking stuff but oh, so familiar.

A study by Curran and Hill (2019) in the Psychological Bulletin found that the perfectionism trend is increasing with each generation. Given that it is associated with negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, this is an unwelcome development. Perfectionism and the associated fear of failure prevent girls from evolving and leaves them ill-equipped for a life full of barriers and hurdles. Writing in The Guardian, Professor Athene Donald of Cambridge University suggests that our culture does not expect girls to take risks or push themselves to find out their limits. Instead, it focuses on girls playing it safe. But doing so doesn’t give girls the opportunity to explore and experiment, and having done so, realize they are capable of more than they thought. As girls don’t encounter failure by taking risks and pushing boundaries, failure becomes something frightening that must be avoided. In young minds the way to avoid this is simple: be perfect.

Greater significance for girls

Perfectionism elevates the idea of failure into something wholly destructive. Failure occurs for everyone in every walk of life and can be a learning experience. But for young girls, it takes on greater significance. According to TIME magazine, girls find failure harder than boys because they interpret it as a sign that they “lack ability,” rather than failure just being a setback that can be corrected.

This is especially true if the failure is in a male-dominated area, such as STEM subjects, and bleeds into the so-called “stereotype threat.” Here, girls lean into the stereotype that females are poor at math or science, and so their failure is evidence of this, rather than it being seen as a temporary learning issue. Girls are then further alienated from these academic fields and careers.

However, there are ways we can help girls overcome this fear of failure and desire for perfectionism. We can help them build the character traits needed to overcome these challenges. Resilience is key and, happily, resilience can be learned.

Building resilience

The American Psychological Association offers 10 ideas for building resilience in children and teens. These include general ideas, such as empowering children by helping them help others. Another idea is to help them accept change. But it offers two key points that are especially pertinent to perfectionism, and these are:

  1. Nurture a positive self-view
  2. Look for opportunities for self-discovery

In the first case, the APA advises caregivers to help children remember when they’ve overcome challenges successfully before. They suggest encouraging children to see that past experiences show they have the strength to handle future (or current) ones. In addition, helping children to build a sense of trust in their ability to solve problems and make appropriate decisions is recommended.

In the second case, the APA advice is to connect the challenges they are facing with the concept of self-discovery for the young person. In this, the caregiver can help the girl understand that tough times can teach her about herself. It could help her see how resourceful, creative, and strong she is.

This connects back to the comments made by Professor Donald and how girls need to push their limits to learn about their capabilities. The APA refers to the old saying about tough times helping a child find out “what am I made of.” We must encourage our girls to discover what they are made of by pushing their limits, taking risks, and understanding failure is a learning experience, not an identity. We must help them understand that they don’t need to be perfect, just resilient. Resilience is key and our girls need to know this.

The Impact of Dream It, Be It Program

Let’s build our girls up high! Our Dream It, Be It program helps equip girls with resilience. Over 98,000 girls have participated in the program since 2015. It gives girls the tools they need to achieve their education and career goals, empowering them to break cycles of poverty, violence, and abuse. The curriculum-based program is tailored to helping girls identify their personal values, create achievable goals, turn failures into successes, balance stress and put their dreams into action.

Fiona Ruth is a copywriter who is passionate about the power of words and the power of women. She believes that empowering every generation is important. Lately, she’s been experimenting with the latest artificial intelligence art programs. Fiona likes to create portraits of people as though they were painted by great artists. She is pictured in a Van Gogh style here!