Don't Tell Girls To Be Careful, Teach Them How To Take Risks

by Jerriann Sullivan
Originally Published: 
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A healthy relationship with fear is fine but are we teaching girls to be scared?

If life is a series of calculated risks are we setting girls up for failure by teaching them to be scared instead of brave? Yes.

Research shows that girls are taught to play it safe instead of facing their fears. A study in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology revealed that parents warned their daughters about the dangers of going down a firehouse-type pole much more than they did when their sons attempted the same task. Parents were also more likely to assist their girls, but instead gave their boys instructions on how to do it themselves. “Parents communicate to young children in ways that may promote greater risk taking by boys than girls,” according to the study.

Teaching a girl to doubt herself at such a young age is part of a lifelong pattern that reinforces the idea that women should be scared of certain things that men should feel good tackling head-on. Writer Caroline Paul addresses this concept in her piece for The New York Times, “Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to Be Scared?” Paul was one of the first female firefighters in San Francisco and was constantly asked, “Aren’t you scared?” I was asked this same question every time I told a new acquaintance I worked as a journalist covering breaking news. I tried explaining how police, paramedics, and other first responders are closer to the fire, car crash or shooting than a reporter ever is and how all of those people managed to do their jobs. Still, the most common reply I received from other women was “Oh, I could never do something like that.” What else are we conditioning girls and women to think they can’t do?

While I was a Girl Scout for years, I always had more fun when I went with my brother to his Boy Scouts of America meetings. The boys were taught how to shoot guns, use knives, and tie knots while my girlfriends and I earned another badge for sewing or cooking. All of those skills are valuable, but girls are taught to be scared of the former ones instead of how to handle themselves in potentially risky situations. And as girls become women this mindset sticks and prevents them from saying yes to more opportunities with uncertain outcomes.

Often the path to success, professionally or personally, is the risky one. Highly successful women routinely cite risk when discussing their careers, like Heather Rabbatts, the first female non-executive director of The Football Association. “There’s a great saying, actually, that you only learn when you are at risk, and I’m fascinated by both risk and learning, so that has led me to take jobs that people would think ‘you can’t do that, that’s just impossible.’ No, it won’t be,” Rabbatts told the BBC.

Instead of telling girls to be careful they should be taught how to embrace fear and thrive despite it. Girls will only feel comfortable making courageous choices later in life if they are encouraged to do so as kids.

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