Let me preface this post clarifying that I am not a mother. I do not have children. I don’t even think I want children. However, I do have extended experience with being raised, and those experiences provide the backbone to this post.
I recently watched a TEDtalk with Caroline Paul, author of The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure. Caroline talks about the life-changing moment when she realized that people not only expect women to be weak, they naturally deem women as cowardly. She then attributes this perception to how we, as women, are raised versus how men are parented.
She references a study involving a playground fire pole and the findings resonated with me – researchers found that little girls who wanted to play on the fire pole were more likely to be cautioned and assisted by parents, while little boys were encouraged and offered guidance to play on the pole sans help.
“It says girls should be fearful,” Caroline responds to the findings, “… And boys should be gutsy.”
Caroline points out that the irony is girls are often stronger than boys pre-puberty, and more mature, and yet “adults act as if girls are more fragile and more in need of help and they can’t handle as much.”
Girls grow up thinking they are delicate, helpless, and incapable, and these girls grow into women with a similar outlook.
I didn’t watch this TEDtalk searching for an answer – I merely stumbled upon it on Facebook and clicked out of curiosity – and yet, I found one. It was a lightbulb moment as I found myself strongly identifying with the situations Caroline explored.
I, too, was raised to be cautious, even scared, of the world around me.
Although I was told I could do anything I wanted to do or be anything I wanted to be, these motivational tidbits were always accompanied with a warning label.
Growing up, I was told horror stories about trampolines, skiing accidents, strange men in women’s backseats, homicidal hitchhikers, mysterious diseases, and infectious mosquitoes. It sent a blaring message: The world is scary and you should be scared of everything!!!
My rebellion against “being fearful” took shape in a variety of ways; in high school, I experimented with drinking and drugs to exercise my bravery. I attempted to go to all the typical high school parties, but my protective mom’s methods of keeping tabs on me prevented me from leaving the house on weekend nights – it’s worth nothing that my brother, however, was at all of these parties. Because of these restrictions, I went overboard with my newfound freedom in college. I despised the idea of being vulnerable, dependent, or cowardly, but I defied in unhealthy ways, mostly because I didn’t know of any other way.
It wasn’t until I was around 24 that I found a more nourishing outlet – the outdoors. I had somewhat of a “Yoda” to guide me into the world of hiking, backpacking, skiing, and touring. I never imagined I could do these things, let alone love it.
I discovered an ultimate gratification in being gutsy, and the outdoors had endless opportunities be as such.
I yearned for that knot in my stomach, I was hooked on gaining new experiences, and I savored the moments I got to look fear in the face… So I backpacked solo, I skied steep chutes, and I got elevated on rock faces.
And yet I was, and continue to be cautioned. I still get daily texts “checking in,” and if I’m out of service on the slopes, I am ambushed by a dozen phone calls and texts. I am told to be careful, even while on the twenty foot walk from my car to my job. I am asked “Who are you with?” as if I’m not competent enough to be hiking on my own. As a child, this level of concern can be life-altering, but as an aware adult, I am able to endure the worry without letting it influence what I want to do.
Don’t get the wrong idea, I am grateful for my mom and her acute doting.
Like Caroline, I don’t fault her – or any parent who cautions their daughter to an extreme degree.
Our parents are similarly a byproduct of their own parents as well as our society, which encourage this behavior. Our parents are conditioned to believe we, as girls, need to be protected and cared for… So they do just that. For generations, society has cultivated the idea of girls, and women, being “fragile, helpless, incapable” in countless ways. Little girls are given Barbies to dress up and books about princesses being saved by their prince charming. Teenage girls are subjected to advertisements sexualizing a woman’s body and taught that their looks are most important. Women are paid less than men in the same positions and are minorities in industries centered on science, technology, and mechanics. Just to name a few.
But we can break the vicious cycle. And you don’t have to be a mother to do so.
Support and encourage your girlfriends too. Tell them they rock. Ask if they want to try something new with you. Be their “Yoda” in an activity you’re a pro at. Do shit that scares you. Don’t dismiss fears – understand them and address them accordingly. Be open and communicate. Be decisive. Don’t doubt yourself, or other women – because doubting ourselves because of our gender is ingrained in many of us, don’t succumb to it. Don’t put other women down. Be constructive with your criticism. Help one another to be strong, powerful, capable, and self-sufficient. Go a step further and mentor a younger girl by volunteering with organizations like SheJumps and Girl Scouts.
Sure, some of us may have been raised to be fearful, but you’re never too old to start being brave.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Other helpful resources on raising gutsy girls:
The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, by Caroline Paul.
10 Ways to Raise Brave Girls, by Katie Arnold for Outside Magazine.
Raising a Powerful Girl via PBS.org.
SheJumps Get the Girls Out events.