Teaching Girls How to Succeed

Read CEO Lidia Soto-Harmon’s essay for the Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.

How do we help girls build a life of success?

Growing up in Latin America, I witnessed firsthand the struggles of families and children who were less fortunate, and it had a huge impact on me. At age 12, I recognized that many girls my age had no hope for their future. It made me feel a great sense of gratitude for my own good fortune but also a sense of responsibility: Much is required from those to whom much is given.

As I think of the young girls I serve today through the Girl Scouts in the greater Washington region, I think about what it will take to get them on a path to becoming women who are powerful, not powerless. I’ve learned that there is a proven formula to setting girls up for success: Help them build confidence and self-esteem and encourage a sense of belonging. That might sound simple, but it requires deliberate action.

Building self-esteem and confidence in girls is essential for their lifelong success. Today, many girls in the United States are experiencing a crisis of confidence. It may seem counter-intuitive, but at Girl Scouts, we have learned that to build confidence, we must provide girls with experiences that make them responsible for creating well-being in others. When girls perform a service, they gain a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Many of our activities give girls opportunities to volunteer. At our community outreach camps, Girl Scouts serve lunch to girls from at-risk communities who are often less fortunate. This experience is empowering, and the Girl Scouts learn at a young age that even the simplest task—such as making peanut butter sandwiches—can elevate their self-esteem.

Girls also need to belong. They need to know that they are not alone. Many girls struggle in unsupported environments and can really benefit when caring adults listen and spend time with them. We need to urge successful women to become mentors for young girls, sharing their expertise and acknowledging that they were also unsure and afraid, but they developed into powerful and accomplished leaders. After hosting our leadership conference called Encuentro de Chicas Latinas in Washington, D.C., a teen girl approached me. She shared that she had always thought she could only do “small” things such as cleaning houses. But after meeting so many professional Latina women, she now believes she can go to college, have a career, be a leader, and help her community. Our young people need to know that our focus on them is genuine and constant.

We also need to realize that confidence-building doesn’t just happen in the classroom or at home. It can also occur in out-of-the-ordinary situations that offer action with purpose. Schools should collaborate with youth-serving organizations, houses of worship, and other community-focused organizations to make opportunities for service available. We know that girls want the opportunity to be leaders and share in the planning, decision-making, and action that can make a difference in their communities. When students learn in a classroom about how their actions impact our environment, they gain knowledge. But when a girl equipped with that knowledge organizes a recycling program in her community, she demonstrates confidence.

When I was growing up, my father used an expression that impacted my sense of self: “Pa’ lante, y pa’ lante, pa’ tras ni para coger inpulso”—which means “Go forward, don’t look back, not even to gain momentum.” We must propel girls forward, because they are our untapped talent. We know that no matter how smart she is, a girl who doesn’t have the self-esteem to raise her hand in class will likely not run for office one day. A gifted girl who lacks the confidence to pursue her interests in math and science will never find a cure for cancer.

I once took a group of girls to Atlanta to participate in a Girls’ World Forum, where they met amazing girls from all over the world. On the way back to Washington, I mentioned to one girl how exciting it had been to be part of an international conference. She looked at me and said, “Ms. Lidia, you don’t understand. I got on a plane! I never thought I would have a chance to do that in my whole life, and now I think I can do anything!”

While this essay focuses on individual responsibility, we cannot ignore society’s responsibility to adapt to the needs of today’s girls and women. We must provide girls with safe and supportive environments that allow them to reach their full potential. When we add in caring and committed adults as mentors, we have a recipe for success for everyone—because when girls succeed, so does our society.

This essay was written exclusively for The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, in partnership with the Center for American Progress.