What if I do it wrong?
What will other people think of me?
What if I look stupid?
These are the thoughts that race through too many girls’ minds when they imagine taking a risk.
What does it mean to take a risk?
We think it’s when you try something new or unfamiliar, where there’s a possibility of failure. Risk taking is often seen as a negative, even dangerous behavior in children, especially teens. At Girls Leadership, we think positive risk taking – challenging yourself in ways that help you grow — is a muscle girls need to flex early and often.
Positive risk taking is the essence of a dynamic learning experience – when we feel free to explore and try new things, to go where our mind wants to take us, we get the exhilarating rush of what Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed, calls “real and original success.” When a girl leaves her comfort zone, she feels the thrill of realizing she’s more capable than she thought. The horizon of her potential opens up.
When a girl doesn’t take risks, it usually means her choices are being influenced by something other than her own curiosity and desire. Maybe it’s her friends’ opinions, or her parents’ dreams, or the rules of success being imposed by her culture or community. Or there may be an actual lack of safety in her home or school environment. In this kind of learning she plays it safe – she chooses the options where she knows she’ll succeed. She raises her hand only when she knows she’ll have the right answer. She takes the classes where she knows she’ll get an A. She goes along with what her friends want her to do, no matter what she really wants.
A significant body of research has shown that women and girls approach risk differently than men and boys – often with more anxiety and caution.* That’s partly because of the way girls are socialized by parents and teachers: even as babies, parents are more protective of girls and more willing to let boys be physically adventurous. By preschool, there is evidence that girls are told to be quiet more frequently than boys. As they grow up, girls learn from culture, adults and peers that a “good girl” is well-behaved, liked by others and follows the rules.
When girls think they are valued according to how well-liked they are, they become self-conscious about risk. They wonder, “If I say this, what will other people think of me?” “If I do this, will someone be mad at me?” If they don’t succeed at the risks they take, they may perceive failing as a letting someone down or, worse, damaging a relationship with someone (such as a teacher or coach). The risk taking girl thus bears a double burden: she faces not only the challenge of accomplishing the task at hand, but of having to worry about how she is perceived, and her relationships, in the process.
What is the recipe for that mix of skills and character strengths that inspires a girl to stand up, to speak up, to step forward and take a chance? At Girls Leadership, we’re determined to find out.
Here are three ways you can help your girl take more positive risks:
Set Small Goals: Girls often have high expectations of themselves, but big goals don’t always equal big success. In fact, when you push yourself to make a single big leap, you’re more likely to avoid trying it – then feel guilty and self-critical later on (anyone still keeping those New Year’s Resolutions?) [cough cough]
Instead, try breaking down a big goal she has into smaller, more easily accomplished steps. For example:
Big goal: Telling a friend how she feels
Smaller goal #1: Writing a letter to the friend to get her thoughts down on paper (but not sending the letter)
Smaller goal #2: Practicing saying how she feels with a parent or other trusted adult
Practice: Many girls think either you’re born brave, or not. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more you do anything in life, the better you get at it – and this is especially true when it comes to risk taking. Sure, talent and innate gifts will take you far, but practice confers expertise, too (think of the now famous finding popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that 10,000 hours of practice makes you a true expert at any skill.) The more risks girls take, the more skillful they’ll get at managing their anxiety – and when risks pay off, girls get excited to challenge themselves, knowing the rewards that lie on the other end. When risk doesn’t go the way they wanted, girls also learn to practice self-compassion. They get information to help them either try again, or head in a new direction.
Purpose and Passion: When you really love to do something, you’ll face down most anything to make it happen. Finding a passion, or a sense of purpose about a cause or goal, offers natural fuel to girls to overcome their fears. Encourage your daughter to take risks on behalf of the issues, experiences and activities where she feels the deepest sense of commitment.
And if she doesn’t have a passion? Then start with the healthy risk. One of her actions – sports, dance, coding, service, cooking, writing, performing – will energize her. When you see that energy and excitement follow an activity, reflect that back to her—that energy reveals that this is her passion! Every girl deserves that discovery.
Jia Jiang TEDX Talk on Rejection Therapy
How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
* For example, see Alison L. Booth and Patrick Nolen, GENDER DIFFERENCES IN RISK BEHAVIOUR: DOES NURTURE MATTER? The Economic Journal, 122 (February), F56–F78. 2012,