Our precious little girls. We want so badly to keep them safe and keep them from getting hurt. How can such a natural instinct on our part really be detrimental to their self-esteem?
Such is the claim of Caroline Paul who recently wrote an editorial for the New York Times titled: “It’s Not Cute To Be Scared.” Caroline, a former firefighter and author of the new book The Gutsy Girl, Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, talked about how insulted she felt when, referring to her experience as a firefighter, she would get the question “Aren’t you scared?” Well yes, she admits, but the insult comes from the fact that her male counterparts were not asked the same question. Somehow the implication was that, because she is a woman, fear made it perfectly acceptable for her to not pursue a physically demanding and dangerous profession, yet men are expected to “power through” the same fear. Reading about her experience, I completely understand her contempt.
I’m ashamed to admit, however, that I would have probably asked her the same question. Unfortunately, I am not alone. Citing a study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, “parents are ‘four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful.’” There are numerous studies and books written that validate the theory that by over-protecting our girls, we are doing them a great disservice. These studies inextricably link increased self-esteem in tween/teen girls to taking physical risks as young girls. It’s in facing their fear and overcoming not just the fear, but also the possible negative consequences of the physical risk, that girls build confidence.
Joan Deak, Ph.D., and author of Girls Will Be Girls says, “Girls who avoid risks have poorer self-esteem than girls who can and do face challenges.” She challenges parents to encourage their daughters to go outside of their comfort zone and start by conquering smaller challenges. Even girls who are not inclined to sports activities benefit from some sort of physical activity that allows them to learn the capabilities of their bodies. The knowledge of their physical competence builds their self-confidence.
My daughter is not a “sporty” girl. She is more of a dance and performing arts kind of girl. When she was 9 she decided she wanted to be a figure skater. Although this is relatively late for a skater to start training I saw no reason why she couldn’t take some lessons and give it a try. She was extremely cautious but she did progress to more difficult skills. Despite her caution, during one lesson she face planted on the ice and split her chin wide open. Thankfully, no broken teeth and no concussion but we did wind up in the emergency room to stitch up her chin. Now, and again I am ashamed to admit this, I was more than willing to call her skating career over. To her credit, she was back on the ice for the next week’s lesson. Although she did not pursue a career in skating, she did learn a very important lesson from the experience. We have had more trips to the emergency room as a result of her various activities but the visits felt more like part of the process of participating and less like a game-ender. As I watch her now pursue leadership positions and be an outspoken advocate for causes that are important to her, I realize that her skating injury has given her a valuable gift, a gift that helped shape who she is today, and not just a faint scar that she still shows off proudly.
The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure by Caroline Paul (Available March 1, 2016)
Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident, Courageous Daughters by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance GirlPower, Health and Leadership by Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D. and Lisa Sjostrom