The Roots of Confidence: Why One Math Test Can Make All the Difference

Tammy Heermann Article

Last week, I was once again with a group of the most senior female leaders in a firm and was asked to address the topic of confidence.

Confidence is an elusive word that has such deep underpinnings, yet we’re told to just be or have more of it. But it doesn’t work that way. Understanding where an individual’s confidence comes from and how she can build it in herself is a complex issue that often requires a lot of self-reflection. The topic of female confidence was brought to the forefront in the book The Confidence Code.  Katty Kay and Claire Shipman share study after study, and story after story, of how and why women struggle with this issue of confidence. If you haven’t read it, pick it up. It’s fascinating…and a bit scary.

By the time I get to working with women, they are advanced in their career – some at the top of their game. Yet this issue of confidence continues to be a challenge. Our conversations center on self-limiting beliefs that started and have been engrained since childhood. We discuss where we do feel confident and why; where we don’t and why. Most importantly, we discuss how we can find and translate our power to these situations when we feel unsure. This kind of reflective work can be very exhausting for individuals, but this week I was also reminded that we have the opportunity to change this cycle early on. What if we could see and seize these moments in girls in their formative years?

This week, my 8 year old daughter had a math test - her least favorite subject.  As we were all getting our coats on to rush out the door, I asked how she was feeling about the test that morning. She promptly launched into a huff, “I hate math. I’m not good at it and I know I’m going to fail.” Her hands went up into the air, her face fell and her voice rose a few octaves. She was a veritable physical and emotional mess in the making. Now my daughter hasn’t failed anything to date, so I knew her fear of failing this test was unlikely to happen. However, her reaction made me remember with dread the studies I had read about girls going into math tests thinking they were terrible, and then doing worse than those who were told and thought they were good at it.  So I took a deep breath and stopped zipping up my coat. This was one of those important moments.

I took my daughter’s hand and said, let’s chat for a minute. I started with, “Did you know that studies have shown that when girls go into math tests thinking they’ll fail, they actually do worse?” To which she responded with an eye roll and sigh.  My husband gave the supportive, “Hey, listen to mom, she knows about this stuff.” I continued to explain that it was important for her to feel confident that she had prepared herself and that she could do well. We talked about the practice tests she already successfully completed.  I told her I didn’t expect that she had to love math like she did other subjects, but that I wanted her to believe she could do well with the right effort. I ended by explaining that studies have shown that girls did better on tests when they believed in themselves.  “Weird”, she said.  “Could you try that today?” I asked.

A couple days later my daughter came to me and said, “Hey mom, I felt confident with my math test and I think I answered almost all the questions right, but the girl that sits next to me was complaining and said, ‘I don’t know how to do this, I hate math, I’m going to fail.’” “What did you say to her?” I asked. “I told her she should believe in herself.”

Can you imagine a world if we raised our children to not only believe in themselves, but to also help others to believe in themselves too? Imagine the lasting positive impact we could make by ensuring that confidence is taught and reinforced from the earliest days of our daughters’ lives. I’d love to hear stories of how you’re helping to shape a new reality in the future generation of females.

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