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Perfectionism Is Hurting Our Girls & Their Creativity: Here's How We Break The Cycle

A new study from Lego reveals what holds girls back and how to foster creative confidence.

Growing up, I always knew, deep down in my soul, that I was a child prodigy who just hadn’t found her outlet. Maybe it was chess. Or I was one of those people who’d pick up a flute and immediately play Mozart. Perhaps my ineptitude at sports in general was a red herring for my incredible field hockey prowess. But every time I did try something new, in a cruel-if-not-at-all-shocking twist of fate, I was no better or worse than any other non-prodigy attempting a new skill. There was no “Yer a wizard Harry...” moment. I was not instantly perfect or even especially proficient. So I did what lots of smart, determined, ambitious girls and women do: I gave up on it immediately in embarrassment, convinced myself I was hopeless, and never tried again. It’s a tale as old as time, and, according to a new international study from Lego, it’s one girls are still telling themselves.

The global study was conducted over 36 countries and surveyed more than 61,500 parents and children between the ages of 5 and 12. The results, while sadly not surprising, are nevertheless shocking: A majority of girls (72%) feel intense pressure, the research suggests, to be perfect. Additionally, while most girls start their young lives confident in their creative ability (76%), that declines to below 70% by the time they’re 12. Two-thirds of girls are worried about sharing their creative ideas. Perhaps it’s because, as the study also found, girls roundly believe that adults give boys more recognition for their creative work. In response, the company has produced a short film, More Than Perfect, and 10 Steps to Fostering Creative Confidence, a collaboration with Harvard-trained parenting researcher and bestselling author, Jennifer B. Wallace.

Reading the results of this very large study felt depressing, familiar, and strangely pointed: among the many things I always imagined being good at, but never manifested being actually good at, was making Lego creations. My younger brother’s natural ability taunted me — why would I even attempt building a castle or a helicopter when this much younger kid was already creating worlds without instruction manuals. As an adult, my husband and two children loved building together; I remained at the periphery of their games.

“I have no spatial intelligence,” I’d tell them. “I have no idea how to even begin.”

That self-talk, and the way I heard adults talking around me, might have something to do with this strongly held belief.

“Grownups were raised to say to girls ‘you're beautiful, you're sweet, you're pretty,’” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author who worked with Lego to help understand how the new findings are affecting kids’ creativity. “And to praise the boys for being brave, and genius. And what an impact those little words have on kids at such a young age.”

This is data backed by the study, which also showed that girls were more likely to be described as perfect than boys. All kids love praise. Some adults are similarly moved by a kind word (*clears through uncomfortably*). And when the praise is reserved for something to be maintained — like beauty, temperament, or perfection — rather than a character trait that encourages innovation, exploration, and achievement, it makes sense that some may hesitant to step off that pedestal.

But there’s not much to do on a pedestal. And being there, worrying about not falling, can take a toll on creative pursuits, it seems. Specifically by stagnating them.By the time a girl is seven, her confidence in her creativity begins to decline. I ask Morin why she thinks that’s the age where things begin to go downhill for so many kids.

“I think the thing in that bracket is, kids have been in school for a bit,” she offers. “And little girls also learn about all sorts of amazing people, who historically are often men — male presidents, and male scientists and astronauts — and the more that we're hearing all of those really cool things that men are doing.

“And it's no longer just parents who are saying, ‘You're brilliant’ and ‘you're sweet’ to boys and girls respectively. It's also teachers who are reinforcing it.”

So what’s to be done? 10 Steps to Fostering Creative Confidence highlights everyday things parents and caregivers can do to nurture creativity — and diminish a fear of failure — in their girls. Encourage progress over perfection, praise process rather than end results, build tolerance for frustration and dial down the pressure to “succeed.” Some of this is going to require some unlearning on behalf of well-meaning adults.

But many a woman was grown under the same conditions as our daughters. We fear failure, even low stakes failure. We want perfection immediately and feel inadequate in its absence. So how can we when our girls are going through these challenges? How do we hold back from behaviors — like rushing in to do something for them — that will only perpetuate the cycle? Morin encourages really questioning what we’re feeling in those moments.

“Ask yourself, ‘when I'm seeing my child upset, whether it's a boy or a girl, what gets stirred up within me?’” she says. “‘What's my emotion right now as a parent?’ Am I nervous that I'm going to be judged if my child's doing this? Am I uncomfortable watching my child be uncomfortable? I think questioning that can help us get a little deeper to it and think, ‘it's okay. I don't necessarily have to fix this.’”

It’s not too late to help our girls through the pitfalls that have held us back. And while it might be too late for most of us to be a child prodigy, maybe it’s not too late to try the things we always wanted to be good at.

“How often do we not speak up in a meeting because you think, I don't want my idea to be shut down, or I don't want to look stupid, or I don't want to put myself out there, or I don't want to post something on social media and tell people I'm writing a novel, because then, what if I don't actually do it?” says Morin. “I think it's about taking those small steps. Even as grownups, we can study women who have broken the rules, women who have gotten out there and done new things, women who've been brave. And the more that we study them and realize that, yes, they failed along the way too. It's not just about that last-minute success story that we hear. There was probably 10 or 20 years, or maybe there was novels that they've written that didn't go anywhere, and their struggles.”

An added bonus? Having our children see us try and, yes, struggle, models the kind of behavior that will help them overcome ideas of perfection and creativity as an innate skill rather than something we develop and improve over time.

“I think it really boils down to trying to retrain ourselves by looking for our own models,” she explains, “and then turning around and modeling for our kids the things that we would want them to do.”