WE HAVE A TRADITION in my house. As soon as any one of my kids say the words “I’m scared,” their siblings or I immediately call them on it and say in a way that leaves zero room for negotiation, “And…what do you do when you are scared?”
The answer is always a begrudging “Do it anyways.”
The idea is to acknowledge the fear but to never let it paralyze them. We aren’t saying to never be afraid, we are prioritizing facing the fear and moving through it. Obviously, commonsense plays a part. If the house is burning down around us or it looks like we will be in an impending car crash and fear is expressed, no one is going to give anyone crap for it. If they have a gut feeling that something is just not right about a situation, they know to trust intuition above all else.
What we’ve seen is that the majority of their fears can be overcome if they just face them head on. Life is too short to spend too much of it feeling tense and afraid. Instead of standing on top of a rock for 20 minutes debating whether to make the long leap into the water or not, assessment of the actual risk is encouraged. If there is a clear landing in deep water and a safe way to get back to shore, they have to stop blocking themselves mentally and just jump. Five seconds later fear is replaced by exhilaration and pride in oneself for overcoming the fear. To see this type of ‘go for it’ mentality start to become habit in my daughters as soon as they feel fear creeping in is one of the things I’m most proud of pulling off as their mom.
I’m not saying as a parent it is always easy. As cliche as it sounds, I did force my 8-year-old daughter to get back up on a horse that just threw her off. My chest was tight and I could barely breathe as I watched her turn white and timidly approach the horse. But she did, and seven years later, she’s still getting much joy riding fearlessly and with confidence instead of being inhibited, weighed down by an unnecessary fear of horses for the rest of her life.
Caroline Paul was one of the first women to work at the San Francisco Fire Department, and the most common question she was asked regarding her work was “Aren’t you scared?” Not one time did she hear this question directed to her male colleagues but, as she mentions in a New York Times op-ed, “Apparently, fear is expected of women.”
There is a major difference in how most parents react to girls versus boys when it comes to risk, and while it may be well-meaning, it actually screws up a girls’ development. Many parents think that daughters are more fragile, both physically and emotionally, than sons, and they unfortunately treat them as such.
“Many studies have shown that physical activity — sports, hiking, playing outdoors — is tied to girls’ self-esteem,” Paul observes. “And yet girls are often warned away from doing anything that involves a hint of risk.” One study she highlights found that “parents cautioned their daughters about the dangers of the [playground] fire pole significantly more than they did their sons and were much more likely to assist them. But both moms and dads directed their sons to face their fears, with instruction on how to complete the task on their own.” But, “When a girl learns that the chance of skinning her knee is an acceptable reason not to attempt the fire pole, she learns to avoid activities outside her comfort zone. Soon many situations are considered too scary, when in fact they are simply exhilarating and unknown. Fear becomes a go-to feminine trait, something girls are expected to feel and express at will.”
To counter this tendency to foster girls’ fearfulness, I think it’s a good idea to completely do away with the insidious language of fear (Be careful, honey! Gosh, that’s too scary, why don’t you come down from there?) and instead use the same terms of bravery and resilience that many boys get to grow up hearing (You can do it! Try it, I’ll catch you if you fall!).
I would love to see a world where more girls hold their head high and courageously run toward their fear instead of cowering in a corner wallowing in it, waiting to be saved or to have the fear reinforced by hearing ‘poor baby.” I’m doing what I can, starting with my little warrior princesses.
Let’s embolden girls to practice skills that at first appear difficult or even dangerous, giving them our full support and presence while they face their fear. Let’s nonchalantly slap a Band-Aid on a scraped knee that is certainly not the end of the world and send them right back out to the piece of playground equipment they got it from. Let’s not encourage girls to limit themselves by a coddling, fear-based way of thinking and reacting that some well-meaning adults happen to throw on them early in life.
Firefighter Caroline Paul shares her own experience with handling fear — recognizing it was there but being able to focus on the task at hand anyways. “When I worked as a firefighter, I was often scared. Of course I was. So were the men. But fear wasn’t a reason to quit. I put my fear where it belonged, behind my feelings of focus, confidence and courage. Then I headed, with my crew, into the burning building.”
Parenting goals, right there.