Molly Cavanaugh (mug 2)

Molly Cavanaugh of Channel 94.1 FM’s Big Party Show in Omaha is a mom to two children living in Chicago. She writes weekly for Read more from Molly »

We just completed the family’s first book report.

Well, really, it was my 9-year-old son’s first book report. But let’s be honest — big school projects are a family affair. Am I right?

Declan chose the book and my husband took the lead shepherding him through the process of putting his thoughts and conclusions about what he had read into words. As Declan drug his feet and negotiated his liberation from reading at the kitchen table, his younger sister, Mara, would sigh and wistfully say, “I wish I had to do a book report.”

It was so Mara. Anything and everything Declan does or tries, you can bet Mara is right there with him, giving it her best shot. That includes building Lego sets, practicing multiplication tables or writing a book report. And she’s always looking ahead — whether reading ahead in her school books or playing ahead at her piano lessons.

Turns out, this isn’t uncommon behavior for school-age girls.

I recently read a New York Times article that shed some light on why Mara may be so much more concerned with getting things right while her brother has the “it-all-works-out-in-the-end” approach.

The article looked at why competent girls who put in loads of extra effort still struggle with feeling confident in their abilities, while their male counterparts — who may have put in less effort — feel no less confident about what they can do.

Journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman found that “a shortage of competence is less likely to be an obstacle than a shortage of confidence.”

“Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” they wrote. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.”

This resonated with me as I have watched my daughter start her academic trajectory. The idea of needing things to be “perfect” has already started to sneak its way into her approach to her schoolwork.

Mara seems to be more concerned with “falling behind” than I ever remember her older brother being. She doesn’t seem to need any reminding to do her homework. In fact, she is usually the one reminding you that she’d like to be quizzed on the week’s spelling words.

Declan, on the other hand, has a very laid-back attitude when it comes to school work. He studies, but not without reminding and prodding from us, which can sometimes lead to low-level threats. It’s usually when “limiting screen time” enters the conversation that his full and undivided attention is finally given to the homework at hand.

As their mom, I’ve given their differences a fair amount of thought. In the past, I chalked it up to being second-kid thing, or maybe the fact that the two of them have completely different personalities.

So how can I help her? How can parents help their daughters build confidence and competence in school?

The article had one suggestion: encourage young women to get to know their abilities.

Maybe that means, as parents, we stop “praising inefficient overwork” and help guide our daughters to trust — and feel confident — in their competence.

I don’t know if this will stop the sibling arms race of who does what better in my house, but it might be a good place to start.

Molly Cavanaugh of Channel 94.1 FM’s “Big Party Show” in Omaha is a mom to two children living in Chicago. She writes weekly for

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