This finding has been challenged by other experts, such as Laura K. Bachrach, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, who feel that the research is flawed. But for girls who do mature earlier, there's often a price to pay. "This 'developmental compression' results in unprecedented stress levels because the girls are too young emotionally to deal with issues that used to come during the teen years," says Dr. Roban.
Girls 8 and older are also reporting that supposedly outdated notions about girls are alive and kicking, says Nicholson. "They've told us that they're expected to stay quiet and not be strong, that nontraditional careers for girls are frowned on, that the most important thing for girls is to be pretty and thin, and that smart girls aren't popular," she says of Girls Inc.'s most recent Harris survey. When asked whether girls and boys have the same abilities and strengths, only 47% of the girls among the 2,028 third- to twelfth-graders surveyed responded yes. Just 29% of boys thought girls equal.
The Keys to Confidence
"When I grow up, I'm going to be president," declares Nelle Anderson, 8, of Minneapolis. While Nelle may not achieve that particular goal, her parents, Kristi and Scott, are trying to guarantee that all her options are open, providing Nelle and sister Charlotte, 5, with a wide variety of toys and offering plenty of conversation about female role models.
Child development experts emphasize that parents need to take extra steps to let girls learn firsthand about a range of activities so that their self-confidence remains intact as they grow older. "The biggest influence on what children will do is what the people most important to them do and show them," says Sara Wilford, director of the Early Childhood Center at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY.
In addition, girls who interact more with their fathers -- whether it's through cooking or checking carburetors -- get an extra boost of self-confidence. "Since fathers are powerful in families and society, what they think about their daughter and communicate to her is very influential," says Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. Among the women Dr. Rimm interviewed for her book Jane Win: How 1,000 Girls Became Successful Women, more than 25% named their father as their main role model in girlhood. "Fathers can begin to instill self-esteem in daughters from the start by not treating them like little princesses and instead pointing out how they are strong, smart, and hardworking," she says.