I can remember exactly what I was doing when I decided I wasn’t any good at math.
I was a self-assured sixth-grader in Mrs. Ashpole’s pre-algebra class — an advanced class because I’d always been bright with numbers. That year I bought my first real purse at Lamonts in Tacoma. The bag was small, made of navy-blue leather with brown leather trim, probably a knock-off of some luxury brand I’d never heard of, and I cherished it dearly.
At school, the purse sat in a place of highest honor — the left-front corner of my desk — and I stared at it for entire class periods, day-dreaming about the Bonne Bell lip glosses and gobs of babysitting money that would surely fill it one day. (Sadly, about all that little purse was destined to hold were gum wrappers and an asthma inhaler.)
I thought up endless excuses to open and close the purse throughout the school day. When the teacher explained simple equations to the class, I stared at the purse. I didn’t catch what she was saying, then I didn’t understand, then I didn’t want to look like an idiot by asking a silly question, so I opened the purse and pretended to look inside for something important.
When the teacher asked the class a question, I stared at the purse. When my classmates raised their hands to answer, I avoided the teacher’s gaze and stared at the purse as if my life depended on memorizing every last blue stitch. I dreaded giving the wrong answer. It hurt my stomach to think about being wrong.
Please don’t call on me. Please don’t call on me.
And just like that, my confidence in math class flew out the window, never to be seen again.
I can’t blame the purse. It just happened to be there at the very moment I began doubting myself, and so it has become tangled up in my memory with math anxiety and the dawning realization that maybe I wasn’t bright with numbers after all.
As it turns out, my confidence cratered at the same age it does for many, many other girls.
For their book, “The Confidence Code for Girls,” journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay teamed up with a polling firm to investigate why girls’ confidence drops so dramatically at puberty, and what parents can do about it.
The findings: Between the ages of 8 and 14, girls’ confidence levels fall by 30 percent. More than half of teen girls feel pressure to be perfect. Three in four teen girls worry about failing. Between ages 12 and 13, the percentage of girls who say they’re not allowed to fail increases by 150 percent.
This is when girls become less willing to take risks, the authors suggest. They grow reluctant to speak up in class, to try out for a sport or make new friends. “Overthinking, people-pleasing and perfectionism typically kick in, effectively grinding her confidence to a halt,” Kay and Shipman write.
Boys also experience self-doubt during puberty, of course, but girls’ confidence takes an especially brutal nosedive.
Kay and Shipman write that parents can nurture their daughters’ confidence by letting them know that failure is normal and healthy, and by nudging girls out of their comfort zones.
All of this is on my mind today because of another book I was recently introduced to. At my daughters’ Girl Scout meeting last week, the kids sat in a circle and listened to one of the moms read “Raise Your Hand,” an adorable children’s book written by sixth-grader (and proud Girl Scout) Alice Paul Tapper.
In it, Alice writes about how she and her friends “noticed that the boys were raising their hands more than the girls” in class.
“I want to raise my hand, but sometimes it’s too scary,” confesses one of Alice’s friends. “If I don’t get the answer right, people might laugh at me.”
But eventually Alice and her friends learn to be brave and raise their hands more often, because even if “the answer is wrong, it’s not the end of the world.” (This book would make a terrific present from any parent or grandparent.)
If I could zap back in time and talk to myself in the sixth grade, I’d tell that child to leave the purse at home and raise her hand at school. I’d tell her she doesn’t always have to know the correct answer. She just has to keep asking questions.
Kelli Scott’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.