Puberty and Self Esteem
There is no disputing the progress made by girls in school, especially in subjects related to math and science. The National Center for Educational Statistics compiled figures on the Condition of Kindergartners Skills at the time girls and boys entered kindergarten in Fall 1998. Girls were more likely than boys to achieve higher proficiency levels in recognizing letters and word sounds and had a slight advantage in recognizing basic numbers and shapes. The National Assessment of Educational Progress published, in 1999 Trends in Academic Progress, a long-term study that examines trends in reading, mathematics, and science for nine, 13 and 17 year olds. Females scored higher in reading scores than males in every age group. And the gender gap that had previous existed for mathematics was no longer found in every age group. In science, males scored higher than females for ages 13 and 17, but the gap had narrowed. So academically, girls are doing not just okay—they are doing outstanding.
Recently at a dinner party, the woman next to me asked about my work. When I told her about this article, she commented that when her daughter started middle school, she changed. Before she approached all challenges and activities with such vigor, but suddenly she was more concerned with whether her friends liked her and if she fit in. Her daughter became quiet and removed. She emerged from this period as a strong adolescent with a dry, sarcastic sense of humor and slightly cynical outlook on life. Her mother proudly shared her daughter's achievements socially and in sports and academics but also felt that there was a loss. She doesn't have the same naive excitement about life that she did as a young girl.
There is considerable research what happens when girls hit puberty, that ultra turbulent time in development, typically around 11 or12 years but can start even earlier. The reports are mixed but in general it looks like there is a dip in self-esteem when girls enter adolescence. Many factors are involved including chemical changes happening in their bodies, an awareness of body image and influences from a "thin is in" culture. Eating disorders are more prevalent amongst girls, starting at this young age. Adolescent girls feel pressured about acting certain ways, being accepted by peers, sex, and contemporary views on what it means to be a woman.
When recalling her daughter's experience before adolescence, at age eight, Pat Talbert, a mother of two in Oakland, CA, remembers her saying one day, out of the blue, "I never knew I was gonna be a person. It's kinda strange." Later when asked about that statement she said "I feel like I was born yesterday." Her daughter's sentiments perfectly sum up the realization that occurs for children on the eve of adolescence—they were just little kids and now before their eyes, they are changing into young women and men.