Raising Girls with Courage

My husband just passed along this article, Why Do We Teach Girls It’s Cute to Be Scared? The author challenges us to treat boys and girls the same- to tell them to embrace their fears, take risks, and to learn from those experiences.

This article definitely made me think about my early years. I was klutzy and uncoordinated for a good while- to the point where everyone assumed I would never be an athlete (and there is filmed evidence!). I also was not very focused at times at school- I would be talking, drawing, and writing when I wasn’t supposed to be. What’s interesting, is I remember to this day, the reprimanding that I received from my teachers about what I was doing. And so, from an early age I learned to be a well-behaved, quiet, and obedient little girl at school.

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It is pretty well known that the grade school system in the US works best for girls- and girls tend to outperform boys. Now, this can be attributed to a whole host of factors- perhaps the fact that boys develop maturity later than girls- but MAYBE because of the social/environmental factors of girls being TREATED differently than boys.

You know, the whole “boys will be boys” adage.

I’m definitely not ignoring the fact that boys get reprimanded and punished for their ill-behavior at times. But they are also more often allowed to be rambunctious, jump off of things, be loud, take risks- and our culture tells them to be tough, strong, and courageous.

In contrast, girls should be gentle, nice, polite, sweet, pretty, smart, quiet, well-behaved- you get the picture.

Girls make the perfect students.

The interesting turn in my story is that I ended up pursuing stereotypical “boy” things. I got into sports around 5th grade, and suddenly it became a strong goal of mine to “beat the boys”.

I took pride in the fact that I beat out most of the boys to earn a spot on the 8x50m sprint relay team for track and field day. Running with all boys.

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I went on to play multiple sports and started running varsity cross-country and track in 7th grade. I went into engineering in college and worked as an engineer for 8 years- mostly surrounded by men.

I got into rock climbing, triathlons, and ultimate frisbee- again focused on “keeping up with beating the guys”.  I took pride in checking a guy to the ground during a co-ed soccer game. I reveled in the glory of beating all the guys on my triathlon team.

I trained with men, I raced alongside men, I worked alongside men.

I am woman- hear me roar.

Where did I suddenly get this idea? The desire to keep up with the boys?

I think the answer is the example that my mom set for me. My earliest female influence. She told me stories of when she was a tomboy as a kid- she was the only girl who played football with the boys in the neighborhood. And it was well known that she was the best, and most feared, tackle. She also went on to be a Division I athlete.

I thought that was the coolest thing. I wanted to be just like her. She was my hero.

So I think the takeaway is that kids are watching us. Even when we don’t think they are. Even if you don’t think you’re someone worth watching. Even if you’re not a parent.

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I also recently read a great children’s book called Beautiful by Stacy McAnulty. It has few words, but along with the fun and contrasting pictures it makes a strong commentary on how we talk to and about little girls.

My favorite spread is where the words read, “Beautiful girls have the perfect hair,” but the pictures show girls splashing around in a lake- twigs, leaves, and dirt in their hair, making them a ratted mess.

I visited the author’s website and she had some interesting thoughts to add about the book, “We compliment little girls on their looks and not other strengths. I’ve noticed that I do this often. Meeting a young girl, I might say, “You’re so cute,” or “I love your hair.” However, with a little boy, I might notice a dinosaur shirt and ask, “Do you like dinosaurs?” I need to stop making appearances the first part of the conversation. Compliments are great, but I now try to look deeper.

Wow. I found myself doing this the other day at a family gathering. There was a little girl there with a fun, candy cane dress. It was a stand-out dress to be sure, and everyone took notice. Pretty much everyone’s first words to her when she came in were about her dress. Including mine.

I agree with Stacy McAnulty, these compliments are not inherently bad. Appearances matter. But when it becomes a problem is when these are the first, main, or only, things that we talk with little girls about. It gives them the impression that their worthiness and value is in how they look.

So, unsurprisingly it is both the example that we set with our actions, and also what we talk about, our words, that shape little girls views of themselves.

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What if we were more cognizant of this? What if we encouraged girls to be true to themselves DOING the things that they love? What if we loved them for who they are, and made it known that they are worthy of love and belonging WITHOUT having to do anything? Without having to look or act a certain way?

This could be a huge cultural shift. Yes, we could potentially become stronger, resilient, more empowered women.

But not more like men.

Women who are free to embrace who they truly are with courage.

Yes, that could mean more women athletes, firefighters, scientists, and politicians. But it can also mean women in the arts, writing, and professional cooking.

In my opinion, the goal is not to make women similar to men. Because that is simply trading one cultural ideal for another.

The goal is to be free to be ourselves. Whoever we are. Male or female. And to be celebrated for our individuality.

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