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Winning Ways

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What makes some little girls grow up to be winning women? Competition, travel and spending time alone, just to name three factors, says child psychologist Sylvia Rimm. While researching her current bestseller, See Jane Win: The Rimm Report on How 1,000 Girls Became Successful Women, Rimm, 64, director of the Family Achievement Clinic at Metro-Health Medical Center in Cleveland and a contributing correspondent for NBC’s Today show, concluded that the seeds of success are sown early. She and her two case-in-point coauthors—daughters Sara Rimm-Kaufman, 30, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, and Ilonna Rimm, 41, a pediatric oncology researcher in Boston—interviewed women in professions from medicine to media “who considered themselves successful in their careers and reasonably happy in their family lives,” Rimm says. “We looked at their pasts to see how they were motivated to achieve.”

The daughter of Russian immigrants who ran a grocery store in Perth Amboy, N.J., Rimm says she was raised to believe “that learning was the path up.” The University of Wisconsin at Madison graduate, whose husband, Alfred, 65, is an epidemiologist, in turn encouraged her own children to achieve (sons David, 40, and Eric, 35, are college professors). “My parents always told me I could do it,” recalls daughter Sara. At her Cleveland home, Sylvia Rimm talked to correspondent Barbara Sandler about how other girls can do it too.

What childhood experiences foster success for girls?

The most important factor for any girl is having parents who have high expectations for her. Other key factors include being involved in activities, which teaches girls to define themselves by their interests and not by their looks, and traveling, which gives them a sense of adventure and independence. And when we asked the women in our study to name their most positive childhood experience, winning in competition was the most frequent answer. These women were exhilarated and motivated by competing.

What finding was most surprising?

We expected these girls to be assertive and aggressive like boys, and they weren’t. That flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Instead, many of them were goody-goodies—good students who achieved success through hard work. They learned to be assertive later in life.

Were they socially successful as kids?

Actually, many of them were socially ill at ease. That was a surprise too, and in view of all the hype about emotional intelligence being a key to success, it was important. But these girls did positive things with their problems—feeling left out spurred many of them to develop a skill or interest, which often led to finding friends. The fact that they didn’t fit in as kids didn’t mean that as they matured they wouldn’t.

Did birth order play a role in success?

Yes. Almost half of our group were firstborns, which is considerably more than would be expected. The firstborn gets more attention, more opportunity for responsibility and leadership. But birth order is never a limitation if parents are sensitive to it. And in some careers, like psychology, there were more women who were youngest, perhaps because youngest children are more attuned to relationships in their environment.

Are extracurricular activities important? How?

The women we studied tended to have lots of lessons and activities, but more than half also emphasized that they spent a lot of time alone. They learned to value time reading, writing and creating away from peers. If parents overfill their daughters’ time, girls don’t learn to keep themselves interested and busy.

What about television?

Women who went into media grew up watching more television than other successful women we studied. But overall, very few of our subjects watched more than two hours a night. I would discourage letting girls watch too much television. They see female characters as role models—and many tend to be airheads and sex objects.

Why was travel so important?

Traveling as a family provides opportunities for adventure and family bonding; independent travel builds self-confidence. For example, one of the women we interviewed, Rabbi Miriam Kane, developed a sense of spiritualism from travels with her family—she observed her father’s awe and admiration of nature and Mount Rushmore. In high school, she traveled with a group of peers to Israel, which provided her an even deeper link to Judaism—and to her future career.

How hard should parents push their daughters?

They need to be coaches, not judges. A judge seems to always see what the girl does wrong and look for a way to punish her. A coach can set limits and criticize, but the girl wants to meet the coach’s expectations because she senses the coach believes in her. She knows they’re on the same team.

Whose influence on a girl is more important: her mother’s or father’s?

Most of our subjects said their primary role model was their mother. So mothers need to be careful what messages they send—if mom is always busy worrying about her looks, daughters can think that’s all there is to women. Dads were main role models for 25 percent of the women. However, they are also very important in terms of communicating what women’s roles should be.

How should girls be introduced to competition?

Parents should encourage them to enter music contests, science fairs, debates. One of our subjects told us selling Girl Scout cookies was a formative experience for her; she challenged herself to sell the most every year. What parents shouldn’t do is protect girls from losing. Dads and some moms often let their daughters win all the time, even at board games like Candy Land. That teaches girls perfectionism. Unless they can win, they don’t play—and that’s been a problem for women.

What should schools do to help girls?

Schools have to be increasingly conscious of expecting that girls will play sports, take on leadership opportunities, chair science groups, do math. Girls still get the message that they can’t do math, and that has to change. Schools also need to provide lots of different arenas of competition so that every girl can find someplace where she enjoys competing.

Are schools accomplishing this?

Actually, there is such a movement in our schools to take away competition that I am seriously worried harm will come to our children. Competition and cooperation coexist; they are not opposites. It’s critical to teach girls how to compete, how to be resilient, and when they lose not to feel like losers.