Raising Gutsy Girls

Last month, I took my daughter to the The Thinkery, Austin’s amazing children’s museum. She was toddling around in the area for kids under 3 and scaling a mountain of giant beanbags when she knocked over a younger child. I apologized profusely, but the child’s mom set him on his feet and announced, “It’s okay. He’s a boy.” I was taken aback. Why should the child’s gender have anything to do with how quickly he recovered from a fall? Would it be different if it had been my little girl who took the tumble? Would other parents look at me askance if I didn’t immediately scoop her up and comfort her? As a mother to a young daughter and a lifelong feminist, the interaction really got me thinking about societal expectations for how we raise girls and the implications that has for their lives.

Anecdotes like this one aren’t the only evidence. A study out of the University of Iowa found that parents were four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful. The problem with that is it discourages girls from engaging in physical challenges that will help them develop important new skills. It also sends them the message that they are more fragile than boys, resulting in the risk-averse trait we so often see in young girls. When they become young women, this behavior can manifest itself in demurring from leadership positions and submissiveness in relationships. I find these outcomes unacceptable. Here are some strategies for raising “gutsy” girls:

1)Encourage risk-taking: Embolden young girls to take on sports, outdoor adventures, and other physical activities often relegated to the dominion of boys. Teach them how to light a fire, climb a tree, or use a pocketknife…all of which will build confidence and responsibility. It always drove me nuts that the Boy Scouts were learning super cool survival skills while we Girl Scouts were stuck making gingerbread houses and slinging cookies. Of course, I’m promoting adventurousness as opposed recklessness (after all, there’s a reason it’s so expensive to insure teenage boy drivers). Plenty of supervision and specific instructions are the order of the day. That being said…

2)Let them fail: If you haven’t read Carol Dweck’s Mindset, you’re going to want to check it out. In her research, she determined that there are two ways in which individuals view intelligence. Those with a fixed mindset see it as an inborn trait, while those with a growth mindset believe it can be developed over time. Children who develop a growth mindset work hard, value effort, bounce back from setbacks, and tackle challenges with aplomb. They recognize that failure is part of learning. While this is important for all children, it is especially vital for girls who have been conditioned to fear to develop resilience. For my one year-old daughter, this means that I let her climb on play structures for older kids, figure out how to navigate through small spaces on her own, and fall…a lot (of course I pick her up if she’s really hurt, but she gets big kudos for picking herself up and dusting herself off.)

3)Model: Young girls need to see the important women in their lives acting boldly and living fearlessly (I’m looking at you moms, caregivers, and teachers). I’m working hard myself to walk the talk. I used to be quite squeamish around all things creepy-crawly. I wanted to show my students that there’s nothing cute about squealing over a bug, so I took a life science class for educators one summer. I cared for a crayfish who would become a class pet, dissected a clam, and held a moon snail at the beach. Squeamishness: cured. When I had my students dissect a squid that year, I took a cue from a wonderful teacher friend of mine and instructed them to say “interesting” any time they felt tempted to say “gross.” In the adventure department…well, I’ve always been more of an “indoorsy” person. As a volunteer in Honduras, I challenged myself by hiking under a waterfall, jumping out of a tree into a cove, and taking care of a tarantula when a visitor saw it and exclaimed, “We need a man!” I even hiked Ramsey Canyon with my daughter in a Baby Bjorn. I’ve promised myself to immerse myself yet again in my sport of choice, which requires great strength, flexibility, and feats of derring-do (and if you want to talk about pole dance and feminism, I’d love to bend your ear for a tic.)

4)Books: Caroline Paul, original Gutsy Girl and inspiration/namesake for this post, was one of the first female firefighters on the San Francisco force. She’s authored an amazing book entitled The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure. It’s part memoir of her own escapades from climbing Denali to thermal flying and part instruction book, peppered with delightful illustrations identifying animal tracks and teaching knot-tying to name a few. I highly recommend it for tweens. (Christmas present for nieces? Check.) For younger readers, I like Allie’s Basketball Dream by Barbara E. Barber, Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, JoJo’s Flying Sidekick by Brian Pinkney, and Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History…and Our Future! by Kate Schatz.

5)Role models: Lately I’ve been binging The History Channel’s Vikings on Hulu, and my favorite character is Lagertha. She’s a badass shield maiden who does what she wants…and she’s based on a real person! I’m not suggesting that you sit your child down for a viewing of gratuitous violence and sex scenes; I merely want to point out that models of heroic women are present in history and popular culture if we know where to look. Need a refresher? Follow Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and A Mighty Girl on Facebook. They’ve recently highlighted figures in women’s history like Jane Goodall and Bessie Coleman, as well as modern-day heroes like National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, Japanese mountain climber Junko Tabei and young inventor Olivia Hallsey. In the fictional realm, we have characters like Katniss, Hermione, and my favorite…Buffy!

6)Language: We need to be careful not to overuse the language of fear with our girls. Do you say “that’s too scary for you” or “aren’t you afraid?” That kind of talk promotes an expectation of fear. Do you use “like a girl” to mean something derogatory (or do you let it slide when you hear other children say it)? For a new take on that phrase, take a look at this powerful ad from Always: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJQBjWYDTs. I think it’s especially important in classrooms and in homes where girls have brothers that adults are careful to speak to children the same way regardless of gender. Think about it: do you ever hear someone tell a girl, “You’re the woman of the house now. Take care of your mother”? At the tumbling gym, a little boy told me that he would be my daughter’s protector. While I thought it was a sweet gesture, I’m trying to be very intentional in the language I use with her so she knows that being a girl doesn’t equate to needing protection. I’ve had to catch myself from saying “that’s not for little girls” when my daughter goes after something she can’t have. If I say it to her in Spanish, it’s the difference of one letter to say “children” instead. A small change with potentially great benefits.

I’ll never forget the day in my twenties when I discovered that my mother had a paralyzing fear of escalators. Every time she stepped on one when my sister and I were young, she swallowed that fear in the hopes of not passing it on to us. It’s in that spirit that I write this. Even if we were fearful, timid, and risk averse as young girls, it doesn’t mean our daughters, granddaughters, and nieces have to be. So I’d like to propose a toast to Generation Gutsy Girl: may your fires burn brightly, may your pocketknives be sharp, and may your dreams be limitless.