The other day my seven-year-old daughter, Pippa, and I rode the flow trail at our local mountain bike park. We’d heard it was smooth and gentle enough for kids and she was desperate to try it, so even though it was her first day on a fat bike, and the sign at the top read “Technical Trail: Advanced Riders Only,” I said yes. Before we started, I coached her on the basics of downhill mountain biking: keep your weight back, your pedals level, and feather the brakes. Then she pushed off, shrieking with glee as she rolled over the first loamy whoop-de-woo.
I rode behind Pippa, watching her handle her bike with confidence, control, and joy. If there’s any sweeter sound than a little girl oohing and ahhing as she banks through turns and up and over dusty berms, I don’t know what it is. Still there were moments when I had to bite my tongue and resist the urge to scream Careful! or Slow Down!, half expecting to come around a corner and find her endo-ed in the dirt. The desire to protect our children from harm is innate and reflexive and, at times, all-consuming. As I like to joke to my husband, mothers’ worry is what keeps the human race alive. But too much can be limiting and, especially for girls, potentially detrimental to their development.
A few days earlier I’d spoken by phone with Caroline Paul, whose op-ed in the New York Times Sunday Review last month, “Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to be Scared?” went viral. Paul is the author of the bestselling new book The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, which is part high-energy how-to guide, part hilarious memoir, and part interactive adventure journal designed to help girls of all ages build confidence, pluck, and bravery by venturing outside.
“I want to gird girls with life lessons of bravery and resilience before puberty, before the real pressures kick in: to be liked at all costs, to look pretty, to be perfect.”
Paul, 52, was one of the first female firefighters in San Francisco in 1989. One of the first things she tells me during a phone call is that most parents, often without realizing it, treat girls differently than boys. “Even the most progressive, open-minded parents caution them more, saying, Be careful. Oh, no you shouldn’t. Or, Watch out!” she says. “There’s a sense that our daughters need more protection than sons, which is ironic, because before age 11, girls are ahead of boys physically and emotionally. My twin sister and I could beat every boy in class until seventh grade. Until then, we were the same as boys. And we break the same as boys.”
It’s never too early—or late—to raise girls to be fearless and adventuresome. “I want to gird girls with life lessons of bravery and resilience before puberty, before the real pressures kick in: to be liked at all costs, to look pretty, to be perfect,” says Paul, whose own madcap childhood escapades included trying to set the Guinness World Record for crawling when she was 13 years old. (The distance to beat was 12 miles; nearly hypothermic, she quit at mile eight.) “Going outdoors gives you confidence and self-esteem to handle the teenage years, and it carries into womanhood, too,” Paul says. “Nature doesn’t care what you look like or if you’re popular or nice. What it cares about is if you’re a good team player.”
The most awesome part of the awesome message of Gutsy Girl? “Bravery is learned,” Paul says. Build it into our girls’ hearts, brains and bodies now and we’ll raise a new generation of badass female forces. Here are ten ways to teach our girls and ourselves.
1. Adjust Your Attitude
My two girls have been game and outgoing from the get-go, but I knew I might be unwittingly sending mixed messages about fearfulness and danger, so I inventoried my recent behavior for signs of gender bias: Would I have encouraged my daughters to hit ski jumps faster and launch higher if they were sons? Doubtful. I have no problem shouting at their ski buddies, who are boys, to slow down if I think they’re out of control (yeah, I’m that mom). If they had Y chromosomes would I let them play unsupervised in the sandy arroyo near our house, collecting iron with little magnets, without checking to make sure they were safe from strangers every ten minutes? Possibly. Take stock of your own prejudices in different scenarios and ask yourself honestly if, now, knowing what you do about girls’ capabilities, you really need to hover so closely while she hauls off across the monkey bars. Would you do the same with your son?
2. Talk About Fear
“Emotions are complicated,” explains Paul, “and as girls, we are acculturated very early to fear. But here’s the thing: the rush of fear feels a lot like excitement. Sometimes they’re just feeling exhilarated when they're faced with a steep hill on their bike. Girls need tools to understand the emotions as they grow up.” We should encourage girls to go outside their comfort zone, Paul says. “When they are scared, say ‘OK, you’re scared. What else are you feeling?’ Then let them name their feelings: excitement, confidence, et cetra. Talk to them about their skill level so they can put fear in its place and go forward. I really think that if you give them guidance, fear won’t stop them.”
3. Practice Bravery
As Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, “Do something every day that scares you.” Give equal or greater air time to bravery. “Bravery is an emotion that’s unfamiliar for girls. It’s considered the purview of boys and men,” says Paul. “No one questions a mother’s courage to protect her kids, but it’s so odd that we don’t attribute bravery to women otherwise. At a young age, if girls learn to value bravery like boys do, they’re going to be so good at it.” Paul suggests encouraging your girl to practice five acts of “microbravery” each week, like picking up that icky spider on the kitchen counter. And when your daughter does something gutsy, name that too. Repeat after me: “that was brave!”
4. Break It Down
If your girl has a goal that intimidates her—like climbing a tree when she’s scared of heights—show her how to break it down into smaller steps. “A lot of girls are focused on perfection,” says Paul. “It’s that all or nothing thing. But you don’t have to be perfect.” If you get to the top of a steep hill on your bikes and your daughter balks, stop for a moment to ask her, “What do you think we should do about this?” Break it down into shorter, more approachable chunks and pretty soon she’ll be flying down the hill from top to bottom in one go. “Feeling scared is good,” says Paul. “After all, the bravest person is the one who feels afraid and does it anyway.”
5. Find Role Models
“I actually grew up very shy and kind of a scaredy cat,” Paul says. “I read a lot. Which is where I got a lot of my role models. Most of them were men, like explorer Ned Gillette.” Ditch the princess phase by pointing your girls to books with strong female characters, so they can identify their own role models. The pages of Gutsy Girl are filled Girl Heroes, including teen rock climber Brooke Raboutou and round-the-world explorer Nellie Bly. Says Paul, “I rarely talk about them being the best women. They are the best in the world.”
6. Give Them a Long Leash
When Paul was 13, she read a story about building a milk carton boat in National Geographic—and then spent months making her own. She never would have collected enough cartons if she was bouncing from piano lessons to soccer to gymnastics every day after school, like so many schoolchildren these days. “You have to give kids free time to dream up and do their own adventures,” she says. This starts with letting them out the door on their own, an increasingly controversial parenting move of late. “I don’t think we’re protecting kids when don’t let them go outside on their own. We’re simply putting a bubble on them until they rebel. And then when they do, they have very little of the expertise we should have been giving them. It’s about giving them the right information so they can make good decisions.”
7. But Not So Long…
As a child and young adult growing up with her twin sister in rural Connecticut, Paul was constantly hatching crazy new adventures. Sometimes a little too crazy. Once she got sucked into a thunderhead while paragliding in Brazil; another time she nearly lost a partner in a crevasse on Denali.“I learned that being reckless is not being an adventurer,” she says. “It’s being stupid. Being an adventurer is all about assessing risk and understanding your own comfort zone.” Teach your girls to be aware of the inherent risks in their sports, clear-eyed about their own skills, and humble in the face of natural forces greater than themselves. Then you can back off and really let them rip.
8. Stick It Out
To be truly gutsy, girls don’t have to be the best. They just have be determined. “I’m not being coy when I say that I’m not that highly skilled,” says Paul. “But what my sister and I are is super dogged. We have a belief if you are motivated enough, you can actually do it. Girls often think you’re born with a talent or you’re not, and if you’re not, you better not try it. But that was never something we thought.” Instead, they got savvy and came up with two guiding strategies in life: “One, find a niche where nobody else is,”—case in point, Paul’s brief stint on the U.S.A. National Luge Team—“and two, be determined.”
9. Failing Is Cool, Too
Paul bailed on her world record crawling attempt, but it’s still the raddest, most inspiring story in her book. Not because she and a friend dragged themselves for eight miles along her high school track while the boys’ lacrosse team jogged by (“To say that we were embarrassed does not come close to describing the mortification we felt.”) But because at age 13, she came up with the hair-brained idea and was intrepid enough to try. “Failure is having a resurgence,” Paul says. “It’s inevitable and a way of moving forward.” She writes, “Anne and I had failed but we had also dreamed big, which is much better than dreaming small and succeeding. Setting a world record is magnificent. But you know what? Failing to set one is pretty impressive, too.”
10. Let the Boys in on It, Too
Finally, don’t discriminate. “Boys should read this book, too,” says Paul. “They’ll like it because it’s about adventure. And they need to see that girls are kick-ass.”