'I wish she knew her worth': The alarming struggle of 10-year-old girls

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Paulina Skerman, Principal of Sydney's Santa Sabina College, is doing pre-enrolment interviews with nine-year-olds.

She wants to know her students and what makes them tick, and she has a few standard questions to help her in this endeavour.

One of these is to ask the girls to describe themselves in three words. 'I would say six times out of 10, maybe seven times out of 10, they would say "smart and kind",' Skerman says.

She applauds this self-confidence. Janeen Fricke, principal of Mount Isa School of the Air, has the same experience.

'Sometimes, with 10-year-olds, we take them on camp and I've never seen kids more confident to get up and entertain. They will get up and sing and dance in front of anybody.'

'I am sweet, kind, funny, a good listener, creative and energetic,' one 10-year-old told me. And that delightful self-analysis was mirrored by most of the 500 others canvassed.

Across Australia, from rural and remote communities like Mount Isa to big cities like Melbourne and Sydney, girls' answers were positive. And this was the case irrespective of whether they attended public schools, private schools, co-educational facilities or all-girls' colleges.

Nine times out of 10, when asked directly to describe themselves, the answers were propitious – and playful.

'I am a crazy cat lady.'
'Funny, kind and I never give up.'
'I like helping people in all types of ways, especially if it involves food and cooking.'
'I think I am playful and musical.'
'I love chocolate and I'm kind and a bit funny.'
'I am amazing, nice, kind, funny, awesome and my gift is being annoying.'
'I love animals.'
'I am a funny girl who sometimes gets emotional. I LOVE cooking and I want to be famous.'
'I'm creative, a tomboy and pretty.'

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It's hard to countenance those answers when we hear what they have to say only a year or so later; it's just one of the many emerging contradictions educators, professionals and parents see within this age group.

For, sometime around or after 10, in too many cases that confidence and belief in themselves begins to falter.

For many it unravels slowly, like a winter's night. For others it's with the speed of a friendship bust-up.

One moment they will stand up in class in front of their peers and give their opinion, or hog the karaoke microphone at a family barbecue, and then the next week they won't.

One week they will show that funny and playful side to everyone who will listen, and the next week they will stay quiet, waiting for someone else to take their place on centre-stage.

Self-confidence is so important at 10, as girls begin to make decisions independently – about others and about themselves.

This is the time, experts say, when they need to be able to draw on that childhood confidence, and in an unsporting irony it is also often the time when it suddenly wavers.

So what happens that undermines the self-esteem of our girls and mutes that delightful self-confidence Paulina Skerman hears at pre-enrolment interviews?

Janeen Fricke in Mount Isa says the sphere of influence changes: away from family and other trusting adults, to peers. 'I think once they get to that age group, the audience is often their peers, and probably their peers shoot them down a bit more than what an adult crew would,'she says.

More than 2330 kilometres away, in a different state and a different school setting, Paulina Skerman mirrors that view. 'I think they pull back and they start to compare themselves a little bit more with the outside world.'

Hugh van Cuylenburg, author of The Resilience Project, says the judgement of others can be vicious. 'Early on we don't feel the judgement of others on us.

We don't judge five-year-olds for singing and dancing at a party but then we do judge someone a little bit older. We start to look at them a little bit differently,' he says.

At the age of 10, and 11 and 12, self-consciousness sets in and it's about 'not wanting to stand out too much'.

'You don't want to be seen too much because you're already a bit insecure about the changes taking place,' he says.

This is the time when our girls hear what their peers say and take it as a verdict. They see how those in their class act. They listen to the messages delivered on television.

They hear the words of songs they previously simply sang out loud to. And they see others like them, on social media feeds – who are really nothing like them – and feel demoralised. The comparison rarely lifts them, and the judgement they then make of themselves is often brutal.
This is something most parents spot quickly.

One daughter, on the trip home from school, asked her mother why they didn't live in a house like her new BFF. She was embarrassed, she told her mother.

Those comparisons – on parental jobs, style of home and how the family spends its leisure time – were common. But more concerning, perhaps, was the verdict girls delivered on themselves.

'I'm just not very interesting,' one ten-year-old says. Or, 'I'm too shy to join in.'

Parents are concerned. 'I wish she knew her worth and knows that she is loved for who she is and doesn't need to be perfect,' one mother says.

Another says, 'My main concern is probably her self-criticism and when she says negative things about herself or worries too much about the opinions of others.'

And a third: 'She cares too much about what others think and changes who she is to fit in and be liked.' And so it goes on.

Many teachers, inside classrooms, science labs and out on the sporting field, nominate dwindling confidence levels as the significant challenge they see facing 10-year-old girls.

They see this self-judgement raise its head in class teamwork, in their shrinking passion to try out for sport, in who they choose as friends, and in their frenzied attempts to fit in. They see them lose a little bit of themselves in order to be a little bit more like someone else.

'I wish they could find their own identity among their peers,' one Year 5 teacher says.

And while friendship and social media and body image are repeatedly raised as key challenges by teachers of ten-year-olds, 'self-esteem' and 'self-confidence' are constant themes.

And what do teachers believe is the reason why their students' self-belief can so quickly fall off a cliff?

Managing expectations of parents and peers; navigating an online world where feeds are brimming with what they believe they are not; and a newfound determination to look outside their families, outside themselves, at how others see them.

This is an edited extract from 'Ten-ager - What your daughter needs you to know about the transition from child to teen', by Madonna King (out now with Hachette).

Introducing Ten-ager, my new book which is now available to pre-order. Why do girl at the age of 9 and 10 and 11 find...

Posted by Madonna King Media on  Monday, 26 October 2020
Madonna King is one of Australia's most accomplished journalists and bestselling parenting authors.