Feeling like you are a person of worth—having good self-esteem—is essential for all of us, but especially for girls. Having high self-esteem gives girls the confidence they need to be joyful, which in turn helps them feel powerful enough to want to change the world.
Very young girls often have a high valuation of themselves that declines over time. In our work at SuperCamp (a summer program founded by the author), we find that elementary-school-age girls have good self-esteem; they do not have difficulty identifying and naming the things they are good at and things they like about themselves. They are unabashed. Without shame and often with much pride, they quickly and easily respond to probing questions about themselves. “I am a really good speller.” “I can run faster than everyone in my class.” “I am really smart.” “Every time I get a good grade, I dance around my room.” They enjoy and celebrate themselves consistently.
As girls move from elementary to middle school and further into puberty, their positive self-evaluations decline; their self-esteem decreases. They become more self-critical and more aware and cautious of the ways they are perceived. They are concerned about being seen as too self-congratulatory, so they wait for others to congratulate them. The internal power they had when they were young begins to wane as external evaluations begin to have more value.
This process continues as they age; by the time they get to high school, girls have to be reminded that it is OK to feel good about their own skills and talents. Though the self-confidence of tween and early teen girls plunges, they continue to outperform boys academically. Consequently, many people mistake their success for confidence.