As professional women, we’re pretty well-acquainted with the fear of failure. For many of us, this phobia dates back to our school days, when a strong competitive drive inspired us to study hard and sit down for exams knowing that we’d taken the steps to prepare. But when our teachers walked around the classroom the next day to hand back the graded tests, we’d feel our stomachs drop with sudden panic. “What if I didn’t get a good grade?!” our inner voices would scream, plunging us deeper and deeper into an abyss of self-doubt.
High-achieving girls learn early on to view failure as a nemesis to be conquered...but what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if ambitious kids could overcome their fear of “messing up” and could instead view failure as a learning experience to be accepted and even embraced? That’s the question posed by the Laurel School, an Ohio-based educational institution seeking to help girls build their resilience. In 2012, the Laurel School launched Adventure Girls, a year-long program with activities and challenges designed around research on how to help young girls put failure in perspective and use it as a learning tool. The Laurel team use adrenaline-promoting exercises like high-wire walks and rope courses to impart these lessons, but the conclusions they’ve drawn from 6 years of Adventure Girls can be easily implemented by any parent who wants to see her daughter strengthen her inner resolve and ward off barriers to success.
According to the Laurel School’s executive director, Lisa Damour, the American culture of excelling at all costs places unfair and unrealistic expectations on children, particularly on girls. “This is the most academically impressive generation of girls we’ve ever seen. By every measure we have, they are excelling. [But] the expectations that they be incredibly giving of themselves, which is what we ask of girls, have persisted alongside these expectations that they will do more in high school than most of us accomplish in college,” Damour claimed in an interview with Quartz. The stress caused by these conditions can reap negative effects on these girls’ mental states, often leading to anxiety and depression.
Damaging as stress can be, it’s often unavoidable. So how does the Laurel School recommend dealing with that in a productive way? They encourage student participants to directly confront stressors and find creative ways to work through the uncertainty. One example of this approach occurred during a game of Capture the Flag; a 3rd grader found herself assigned to a team of older kids, separated from her friends and classmates. The girl asked to be placed on a different team, but the camp leaders chose to leave the team as-is and allow the student to push beyond her average comfort zone. Later on, camp leaders reported that the girl felt proud and energized by her ability to finish the game without her same-age support network. “In the past I think we would’ve been more likely to kind of mediate or reconstruct the teams to alleviate some of that stress. Now, we really welcome it and design things in such a way that it’s there, letting the girls work through it and then talking it through with them afterwards,” camp leader Shannon Lukz explained.
So rather than conditioning your daughters to avoid stressful circumstances, the Laurel School encourages parents to empower their kids to face challenges, to stand up rather than to retreat, and to use her own inner strength to overcome difficult situations.
A 2016 study on stress triggers for adolescent girls revealed that high-achieving adolescents internalize outside pressures from parents and authority figures, leading them to shy away from activities at which they may not excel. “Whatever activities they were engaging in needed to serve as resume builders. This appeared to contribute to some reluctance on the girls’ part to try new activities, such as a different sport, because there was less of a chance of achieving measurable success or take a challenging elective outside of their comfort zone because of the potential for receiving a subpar grade,” the researchers concluded.
To address this issue, the Laurel School team decided to implement a mentorship program, pairing off their pre-adolescent participants with high-schoolers who’d been through the Adventure Girls experience before. Spending time with older girls helped the younger Adventure Girls realize that they’d be able to overcome their personal challenges and find their own paths to success, and the older “mentors” felt a sense of accomplishment and a self-esteem boost from helping their junior counterparts.
Above all else, the Laurel School wants its alumni to evolve into “women who would ask more of the world around them, who would demand to be heard.” This process begins by encouraging the participants to ask questions of their peers, of their parents and other authority figures, and, most importantly, of themselves.
Before leaving for their first camping trip, Adventure Girls are given worksheets with questions like ”What worries you the most about the campout?” and “What can you do to be resilient or conquer some of your worries? (Think about growth-mindset, self-care, relationships, creativity, purpose).” Helping the girls identify what’s troubling them and immediately following up with an action plan nurtured a sense of accomplishment, and the students then felt empowered to carry the lessons they learned at camp into their daily lives. According to these girls’ teachers, the plan works: “[The teachers noticed] an increase in confidence, an increase in self-care, being kind of being assertive in the sense of standing up for themselves—using their voice more in the classroom.”
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