At Roland Park Country School, it is just as important for our students to be healthy and happy as it is for them to be strong scholars. Our work as educators and parents to provide the best emotional support possible for our girls is never done and we are always learning new approaches to help them thrive.
Last October, Rachel Simmons, an author, educator and girl leadership expert, visited RPCS as our guest speaker for the ninth annual Robinson Health Colloquium. Generously funded by James G. Robinson, a former RPCS trustee and parent of alumna Beth Robinson deVilliers, 1996, the Robinson Health Colloquium encompasses an evening presentation for parents, assemblies for students and specialized information for faculty on a health-related topic of importance to girls and their parents.
Simmons is the author of the New York Times best-selling books Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl and most recently, Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy and Fulfilling Lives. Simmons is also a leadership development specialist at Smith College and the Girls Research Scholar in Residence at the Hewitt School in New York. She has been studying young women for two decades and through her research and these works, Simmons offers a clear understanding of the challenges that parents and educators face when raising and teaching girls.
During her visit, Simmons spoke with the 4th and 5th grade classes about the importance and challenges of friendships. In her honest and relatable talks with the Middle Schools and Upper Schools, she tackled timely issues, including how to navigate social media in positive ways and the collective pressures of the college application process. In her presentation to parents, Simmons shared practical advice to help encourage young women learn to redefine success in healthy ways.
The crux of Simmons’ research is that there is so much pressure on girls today to be perfect, that these expectations come with a price. “Relentless success-seeking keeps girls from taking healthy risks and becoming creative, original learners. It costs girls their courage, curbing their ability to figure out who they are and what really matters to them, exactly at the moment when this developmental task must be undertaken,” Simmons wrote in Enough As She Is. Young women are also more likely to ruminate on their perceived shortcomings and suffer from “imposter phenomenon,” believing they are frauds.
Taking Healthy Risks: Confidence is Built by Doing
According to Simmons, when girls are told to be amazing at everything they do, it makes them instantly and constantly self-critical. They feel like they aren’t enough and become so afraid of failure that they avoid taking healthy risks. In fact, Simmons cited research that found women are less likely to take risks – especially intellectual risks-- than men. This diminishes their confidence and prevents opportunities for finding joy and growth that can anchor them. “The most exhilarated learning occurs when something unexpected happens,” said Simmons.
In her talk to parents, Simmons told them that “the ability to take a risk is like a muscle. You have to decide to do something risky over and over again to strengthen it.” When speaking to the Upper School students the next day, she advised them to break down big risks into smaller, manageable, and less-intimidating tasks. Small steps can equal big change and the confidence girls will gain after accomplishing a lower-risk task will propel them to start taking bigger risks. As Simmons said, “confidence is much more about how we handle our fears than about how good we are concealing them.”
The Upside of Failure
Of course, with risk comes the possibility of failure. But Simmons argued that setbacks can provide wisdom and even upsides. “Please let your children fail when they are at home with you, not once they are off at college, hundreds of miles away,” she told the parent audience. By teaching our children to fail, we are helping them discover how to be resilient, the importance of focusing on the efforts instead of the outcomes, and the lessons that can be learned when things don’t go as planned.
Steps for Cultivating Self-Compassion
Simmons found that the most effective antidote to the toxic self-criticism girls face today is self-compassion. By teaching our girls to be kind to themselves is a powerful tool that can make them happier, more resilient and less stressed. In fact, Simmons said the practice of self-compassion has transformed her own life for the better.
In her talks with the parents and students, Simmons discussed the three steps for cultivating self-compassion: mindfulness, which means acknowledging how you are feeling that moment without judgement; self-kindness, which is talking to yourself the way your nicest friend would if you were going through a hard time; and common humanity, realizing that many people are suffering with similar problems and that we are not alone.
“If I had to boil the gift of self-compassion down to a single sentence, I’d say it helped me and my students understand that, no matter what happens on the other side of a risk we take or setback we experience, we know that we are enough. We know that we are more than our successes or failures,” Simmons wrote in her book.
Practical Advice for Parents
In her evening lecture, Simmons shared several tangible strategies and suggested language for parents to use to support their daughters as they navigate the ups and downs of adolescence. Some of her tips included:
- Nudge your daughter to take risks and try taking small risks together, such as cooking a new recipe.
- Take the time to talk to your girls about social media and ask them what they love about it. Have her show you some videos or online accounts she enjoys.
- If your daughter is experiencing imposter phenomenon, tell her: “Listen, everyone has this voice inside of us that is scared and sometimes gets louder. But that’s not you, it’s just a part of you.” Or more to the point, “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”
- Practice saying aloud the things in life you are grateful for on a daily basis and ask your children to do this too, maybe at the dinner table (even if they roll their eyes at you!).
- Remember that your daughter is still watching and listening to you. Model the behaviors you want her to adopt, such as asking for help, showing self-compassion and engaging in acts of self-care.
- Share examples of personal setbacks you have faced in life and how you have coped with them.
- If your daughter is stressed out, do not tell her she is putting too much pressure on herself. Instead, tell her that it isn’t her fault for feeling this way and let her know that everyone is struggling right now, even if it doesn’t seem like it.
- Show your child empathy. Sit with her suffering and don’t try to fix her problems. Teenagers want this more than anything.
At the end of her talk to the Upper School students, Simmons led a brief guided meditation on self-compassion and then asked five girls to stand and say why they are enough as they are right now. It was a powerful ending to an inspiring discussion and her presentation resulted in a standing ovation. Throughout Simmons’ two-day visit to the RPCS campus, she offered constructive strategies and advice to help guide our girls to be both high-achieving and well – a valuable lesson for any age.