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Building Your Daughter's Confidence

Evaluate Her Evaluations Constructively
Since girls spend so much time in school, they judge their success according to their grades. And so do their parents. That is why report cards often provoke such angst, confusion, and misinterpretation. For sure, no topic arouses more emotion in my focus groups. Wendy, a friendly, outgoing freshman, looks crestfallen as she says: "My mom sees the comments and she's, like, 'That's all great, but where are the grades? Let's cut to the chase.'" The following parental approaches to grades help your daughter to appraise and get the most out of her evaluations:

Be Curious Rather Than Judgmental
Responding disapprovingly to your daughter's report cards cuts off valuable self-scrutiny and discussion. Sally, who nervously winds her hair around her finger, describes her father's reaction: "If I get a not-so-good grade, my dad gets upset and lectures you. It makes me feel really guilty. If I get a C, he gets upset. With a B minus, he's not happy." She hesitates, then adds, "His expectations are too high." "I know what you mean," says her friend Zena. "My mom says to me, 'You got an 88? What was the class average? Shouldn't you do extra credit?' Like an 88 is bad?"

When you remain open-minded and curious, your daughter is less defensive and more apt to learn and grow from the feedback offered by her report cards. As Esther, a freshman, puts it, "When I get a bad grade, my parents don't assume I didn't study or fooled around too much. They ask me if I know why it happened."

Monitor Your Expectations
Don't be quick to judge a grade without its context, including the difficulty of a particular class, the idiosyncrasies of every teacher, the current stresses in your daughter's life, and issues such as grade inflation or chance events. Acknowledge those times when your daughter simply can't try harder. Maybe she is getting over a virus and needs extra sleep. Teens in transition are often too focused on a myriad of changes to maintain their usual enthusiasm for a sport or favorite subject. Insecure girls may need to learn about friendship more than biology. Distracted girls usually have to focus on and resolve their problems before they can invest fully in school. Make sure your expectations are flexible and realistic.

Consider the Basis of Grades
It is important for both you and your daughter to consider how her teachers determine her grades. Does homework count, or are grades based solely upon test and quiz scores? If so, does she typically struggle with certain exam formats more than others?

For example, true/false questions can be confusing to girls who see exceptions and nuances. Fill-in-the-blank items heavily tap memorization and word-retrieval skills, which often tax girls with learning difficulties. Multiple-choice questions are tough for mentally flexible girls who can see shades of gray. Essays require teens to organize larger amounts of information, formulate abstract concepts, and integrate them with supportive facts. Encourage your daughter to ask her teacher or tutor for tips on approaching various test formats most effectively.

Whenever your daughter's grades are partly subjective, they are harder to interpret. For example, if her current English teacher disagrees with what her last teacher taught her about thesis statements, she probably will get lower grades on her papers. Did judgments about her class participation count toward her grade? Was she penalized on a group project grade because of what other students did or didn't do?

A word about effort grades, the judgments about students' motivation and work ethic that often accompany letter and number grades. Although many parents emphasize effort grades, I would suggest caution with this approach. Effort grades are particularly subjective and therefore difficult to gauge. Many times I found my own children's to be more confusing than helpful. For example, how should you interpret a so-so effort mark corresponding to an A or A-plus grade for the subject? Some teachers are philosophically opposed to giving out the maximum effort grade; unless you know this, you might think your daughter isn't trying her best. My advice is not to take effort grades literally; if you have concerns about your daughter's work ethic or habits, ask her teachers directly.

Ask If She Is Satisfied
Parents often wonder, "What should I do if my daughter is doing okay, but I know she is capable of doing better?" This is an excellent question. It all depends on how content she is with her performance. Like many parents, you may find yourself in the unenviable position of being disappointed by report cards or athletic performances that your daughter thinks turned out just fine. But now that you are aware of girls' proficiency in hiding their distress, you won't take her blasé posture at face value.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for motivating your daughter to want to do better. You can't make her care as much as you do. You can't even make her care. Understanding her underlying pressures and how they affect her performance gives you specific avenues to encourage--but not to guarantee--her success.

For example, girls in transition are so busy focusing on new kids, social opportunities, and challenges and distracted girls are so absorbed by problems that both groups relegate grades to the back burner. Zero in on specific problem areas without chastising your daughter for her apparent apathy. If she is feeling undervalued, for example, she might assume a defiant stance about her grades to cover her fear of disappointing her parents and teachers. Giving her tangible, doable ways to succeed will help to turn things around. Most crucial, your support and affirmation encourage her not to label herself a misfit.

Constance, for example, the daughter of two physicians, is okay with getting mediocre grades at a school for academically gifted students. Although she enjoys the small classes and stimulating discussions with her classmates, she does as little homework and test preparation as possible. Her mother fears that she will have few options for college, but she sees that her daughter is not particularly stressed by her grades. In this case, Constance's needs are being met. Her goal is to go to school with smart, interesting classmates; she is satisfied with not acing her tests.

If your daughter is pleased with her report card, encourage her to recognize her accomplishments and reward herself, if only with a mental "Well done!" If she is not, she has received important information. Then it should be up to her to decide whether to change the material she studies, her approach, or how much time she devotes to her work. Annabelle, an eighth grader, says, "I didn't do very well this quarter in French because I had trouble with the big test. So next time, I'll study more. I think I'll read over my notes from class more carefully because I think that's where I messed up."

Help Her to Set Reasonable Goals
Many girls say they feel like failures. But that is because they are judging themselves against overly vague or broad standards. If your daughter is socially insecure, she may want to be popular. But you may help her to focus first on making one true friend. If your daughter is feeling undervalued in the family because she is hopeless at tennis, her sport may be swimming or skiing. And perfectionists, who aim too high, need their parents to lower the bar for them.

The more specific your daughter's goals, the better her chance of tracking her success and feeling accomplished. For example, instead of trying to "do better in school," she should define exactly what she means: finishing her homework every night, writing papers with fewer errors, participating more in class discussions, getting to homeroom on time, or saying hello to people in the halls.

When girls complain of getting "bad" grades and I ask what they were hoping for, I hear of "making honor roll," "getting 100 percent on everything," or "getting straight A's." Whether these goals are realistic depends on your daughter's starting point. It is best to aim for small increments of progress, such as raising a C minus to a C or perhaps a B minus. For this reason, some schools have wisely implemented the BUG roll--an acronym for Bring Up Grades--to recognize students who improve one of their grades without the other grades falling. Struggling students are more apt to feel encouraged if their small achievements are acknowledged with the same respect given to honor students.

More on: Teen Stress

From Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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