It’s an alarming statistic. Between the ages of 9 and 13, about 30 percent of girls lose confidence. More than half feel the pressure to be perfect. And far too many fear failure. So it’s no surprise that instilling confidence in our daughters can sometimes feel like an insurmountable challenge.
That’s exactly what inspired The New York Times bestselling authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman to write The Confidence Code and The Confidence Code for Girls. The books rely on research and proven methods of behavioral change to reach girls when they need it most–the teen and tween years. Now Kay, Shipman and JillEllyn Riley have joined forces on Living the Confidence Code. Currently number one on The New York Times children’s middle-grade books list, their latest release is designed to inspire our daughters with real-life stories of girls around the world who’ve overcome adversity.
The book showcases stories of real girls who face challenges and struggles and who bounced back from real screw-ups. These girls are “work in progress models,” the authors say, and their journeys are both relatable and inspiring. Shipman, Kay and Riley say young girls need to see the struggle and failure of their role models to help them learn to build confidence. They recently shared their hope for girls to embrace imperfect role models in “Imperfect Girls Make Perfect Role Models,” an essay recently published in The New York Times.
In the book, the authors share stories of girls who started NGOs, led anti-bullying campaigns and pushed for equality in sports, education, and more. The hope is that these stories will help girls take risks, move past self-doubt and learn to see failure as a learning opportunity.
We asked the authors of Living the Confidence Code to share how they found these stories, what kinds of conversations we should be having with our daughters and how girls can embrace the principles of The Confidence Code.
New Jersey Family: In Living the Confidence Code, you share portraits of real girls who have overcome adversity and struggles. What inspired this collection of stories?
Katty: It all started with the readers of our last book. We were truly inspired by the reaction to The Confidence Code for Girls, seeing the way girls dug into the real science in that book, as well as the fun quizzes, top ten lists, challenges, and scenarios — we realized that they were hungry for this kind of message. But we also saw how naturally they gravitated to the stories, which we had sprinkled liberally everywhere, from girl-of-action sections at the end of every chapter to short graphic panels running throughout the book. They literally ate those up, really getting the truths of what we were saying through those narratives.
Research proves that we all learn best through storytelling, inference and understanding being the best tools for true comprehension, and that’s even more true for girls at this age, with their high EQ. So it seemed like the obvious next step for us to take the concepts of the Confidence Code for Girls, sink them into the brains and muscle memory of our readers by highlighting real girls in real-life situations.
NJF: The stories in the book are truly remarkable. How did you discover these girls and their stories?
JillEllyn: From the very beginning, we knew we wanted this book to include girls from all over the world, from as many ethnicities and backgrounds as possible, who were taking risks and tackling challenges that varied in scale from the most challenging facing their generation to the most personal facing each of them. Climate change, Black Lives Matter, gender & LGBT equity, bullying, sports, STEM, authenticity and representation … these are some of the issues we imagined but actually, girls are driven to create positive change in just about every conceivable area.
Also, we didn’t want perfect girls, far from it. We wanted real girls, with messy, gritty, fascinating stories that didn’t always end with classic success. We wanted to make sure that the book wasn’t full of intimidating icons who would overwhelm, but instead living breathing kids who would demonstrate that there are as many ways of being confident as there are girls in the world: they all start with taking that first risk.
But you can’t stick a pin in a map, so we had to become detectives — in some cases, we teamed up with organizations doing incredible work with girls around the world and asked them to help us track kids down, like the Malala Fund, Plan International, and Global Girls Alliance. Through them, we found Mena and Zena Nasiri, on a quest in Minnesota to increase Muslim characters in school and public libraries, and Celia Suceni Azudia Sebastian, determined not to let poverty end her education in Guatemala, and Lin Vo and Lahn Dang, making streets safer for girls in Hanoi.
In other cases, we read about girls using their voices, publicly, like Autumn Peltier testifying at the UN about protecting the water in Canada; Zulaikha Patel protesting discrimination against black girls in South African schools, and Sam Gordon founding a girls football league in Utah. Or we came across others through social media, including disabled trans model Aaron Philip and climate activists from Bali Melati & Isabel Wijsen. We stumbled on anti-bullying advocate Taylor Fuentes on a Girl Scouts website. This generation is passionate, articulate, and motivated — so this process was illuminating, even revelatory, and so much fun. We discovered we could have featured 100 girls, or written 5 more books!
NJF: The stories you share come from Bali to Brazil, South Africa to Seattle and Australia to Afghanistan. Are there any that really stand out for you?
Claire: This is a really hard question for us, because having lived with these 32 girls (2 sets of sisters) for so long, we feel like their mothers by now! And it changes all the time depending on the day, or the mood, that we are each in. But I think Katty might choose the Afghan Robotic Team, because of the physical risks they take to compete from their country. And JillEllyn just can’t choose at all …
For me, 12-year-old Yekeba in Ethiopia stopping her own marriage, a marriage her father was arranging to a 20-year-old deacon from their church, with the support of her whole village, is incredibly moving. She literally had to resist convention, she had to object to something that is not only “normal,” but was seen as advantageous to her whole family. But she did take that risk, emboldened, despite her very real fears, because she was empowered by knowledge from a program for girls like her about the dire costs of child marriage, which then, in turn, fueled her passion to stay in school even more. So she spoke up, she fought back, and she enlisted female allies. And she won — she stopped the marriage and she’s still in school now. So I just love everything about her story, which might be why it sticks with me.
The thread running through all these stories is that each of them, no matter what the particulars of each girl, each fascinating scenario, is what they share: their connections and their universality. There is extraordinary, yet absolutely ordinary power of this generation of girls, which each and every one of these stories show.
NJF: We love that you asked actress and activist Emma Watson and soccer player Rose Lavelle to nominate two girls who are featured in the book. What do you think our daughters can take away from reading about the everyday heroes highlighted by two beloved celebrities?
Katty: We were thrilled that Emma and Rose joined us and were really excited about their ideas. Emma nominated a fellow Brit Amika George and, not surprisingly, Rose nominated fellow soccer player Natalia Pereira, who may seem really different at first glance, but actually, they have a lot in common.
Amika started a campaign while sitting in her bedroom to make period products free–it’s called Free Periods– to any kids who need financial assistance so that nobody misses school because they need those essential supplies.
Nati is a soccer phenom from Santa Catarina, Brazil who became the only girl in a pro-all-boys soccer league at the age of 10. Amika is a college student and Nati is in middle school; Amika was motivated by an article she read and launched her movement online, while Nati was driven to play by her intense physical love of this sport since she was 4 years old and throws her body into every game. Seemingly opposite manifestations of confidence, yes, yet Amika and Nati both attempted these challenges that were risky for them, tackled these challenges in their own unique ways, but in ways that made sense for each of them, in context. We want readers to see that, to realize that there are many ways to grow and build confidence, it’s not one-size-fits-all, or even one size fits YOU, it varies person to person, situation to situation, but there’s always a way to add to your stockpile, you just need to look for it. Reading all these different ways should show girls 30+ different examples, with Amika and Nati being just two.
NJF: Between the ages of 9 and 13, about 30 percent of girls lose confidence. Beyond sharing these amazing stories, what kinds of conversations should we be having with our daughters?
Claire: This is a generation burdened with the twin scourges of perfectionism and anxiety, now exacerbated by 24/7 social media. Building confidence actually helps them overcome all of that, and we have to emphasize the Confidence Code that we’ve been talking about in all our books: Risk More, Think Less, Be Yourself.
Risk More: It sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to let them do. Basically, it means telling our daughters: try try try. And then let them: fail fail fail. It has to happen. They have to fail so they can dust themselves off, rebound, and learn resilience. That’s what builds the confidence that they need.
Think Less: This is where we have to help them shut down those negative voices in their heads, the overthinking, the perfectionist whispers that stop action in its tracks. And action matters. Helping your daughter find a passion can get her out of her head and away from these perfectionist voices. The girls in our book show that finding your passion in activism is not just rewarding, it’s empowering because it’s all in the doing.
Be Yourself: The best place to find confidence: inside your best, most authentic self. There’s a lot of pressure from all sides, including 24/7 social media, to be an inauthentic version of yourself. Or to be what other people want you to be. And since girls are people pleasers–as are women often–we can end up not being quite clear on who we are. Help your daughter think about what brings her joy. What she is drawn to. Let her know she can’t be everything, but she should be herself. Many of the stories in Living the Confidence Code focus on authenticity, celebrating those girls who didn’t fit into so-called conventional expectations, like Aaron, Jamie, Taylor, Angelina, Ciara-Beth, and others, to remind readers that they have allies, they can find allies, and your most authentic self is ultimately where confidence lives.
NJF: In your recent New York Times essay, you write that imperfect girls make perfect role models. How can we as parents of daughters drive this point home?
Katty: The first thing we can do is allow ourselves to be imperfect. We have to model imperfection ourselves. Talk about our own struggles, and how we’ve learned from them. Share our own failures and deconstruct our successes, not make them seem too glossy. If our daughters only see our best selves, hear our coolest stories, our most practiced anecdotes, then they aren’t going to realize that everyone screws up, everyone fails, everyone builds that confidence stockpile, one painful brick at a time. We are the first-line role-models–even when they take great pains to deny it.
JillEllyn: And then, when we point to others, it’s critically important to show the struggle of her story, otherwise it’s way too easy for a girl to get overwhelmed and feel like she can’t ever measure up to someone like Malala, for instance. Or a story that seems as though the “success” just all came naturally.
As we mentioned, that’s why we picked the girls in the book and dissected pieces of their stories, to try to show the steps, the actions of how they recovered when they messed up, or how they changed course when something went hopelessly wrong, rather always following a straight trajectory of accomplishment and success. Indeed our focus is not on achievement, but on values, choices, message, and journey.
So next time an amazing, inspiring woman pops up on TV, talk about how she got there, the details of her story, and not just her shiny accomplishments. Amanda Gorman overcame a speech impediment; Serena Williams loses to younger athletes yet keeps competing — there are countless others in any field. Dig into it to show your daughters that nobody’s journey is smooth and easy, everyone’s is sweaty and bumpy and full of ugly lumpy purple bruises.
NJF: How have your daughters helped shape this book and its predecessors?
Claire: I’ve learned so much about parenting from our research. I’ve seen that my tendency to helicopter parent robs my daughter of her opportunities to risk and fail. When I swoop in to help, I only reinforce her sense that she should be perfect and cautious. But she’s also shaped our work because I can observe the differences I see between my son and daughter, and what they worry about and the way they react. She brings the subject to life, literally. I have watched her grow more cautious and worried about the way people might react to her. And then I’ve seen how taking risks, while fraught, can empower her. Most importantly, Della has taught me a lot about authenticity, and the power girls have for caring and taking on challenges outside of themselves, and the depth they have to care about and want to change the world. It’s why I knew instinctively this book would work, and that we’d find plenty of teen girls doing cool things.
Katty: I have two daughters, and they are quite different personalities. The older one, Maya, was more of a people pleaser and I think I encouraged that by putting too much responsibility on her shoulders. She was happy to help out at home and I’d praise her for doing so, telling her what a “good girl” she was. By the time my second daughter, Poppy, hit puberty, we’d already done a lot of research on confidence and girls, so I banned the “good girl” phrase and actively discouraged her from being a perfectionist. Poppy still suffers from confidence lapses when things go wrong at school, for example. But in a way it’s no bad thing that things do go wrong sometimes, it means she isn’t staying up all night studying in order to be perfect!
NJF: Social media can be such a source of stress but also a source of what is good and right in the world. How can our daughters be a part of the Living the Confidence Code Instagram campaign?
Claire: Our Instagram Reels partnership “A Day In Your Confident Life” is running through Women’s History Month, but actually can be joined any time.
We know social media can seem overwhelming and focused on the superficial. But this campaign allows girls to share positive confidence tips and hacks and ideally see that confidence is cool and powerful.
Confidence has to be built, even stockpiled, and everyone might do it a little differently. This campaign asks girls and women to show their confident journey: how do you buoy your confidence during the day? By belting out your favorite song, taking a few deep breaths before diving into that difficult task, or sprinting around the block? Or holding onto a favorite object to help stay calm, like an inspiring post-it note or lucky crystal?
Whatever it is – the #confidencecode community wants to see it. Share on Instagram reels today.