Give Girls Courage

Give Girls Courage

I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free.” In the words of Rosa Parks, “all I was doing was trying to get home from work.” In actual fact, she did infinitely more. She became an overnight figurehead for the civil rights movement in the United States.

On December 1st 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African-American seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on the Montgomery City bus. This isolated act and a single reply – ‘no, I’m not’ – ignited a boycott which continued for 381 days until the city repealed its law enforcing racial segregation on public buses. Rosa’s fearless rejection of racial segregation led to her being known as ‘the first lady of civil rights’. The date that she was arrested will forever be known as Rosa Parks Day.

This act required three qualities: finding confidence in herself, moving outside her comfort zone and demonstrating resilience. These are the attributes of courage. Courage involves the presence of fear.

In my view, in our society today there are many who believe that women cannot be courageous. Why is courage not expected of women? I believe the answer to this stems from anxious parents. If you were to sit on a sunny afternoon watching your child play on the swings you would observe plenty of other parents with their own children. Regularly I have noted anxious language from parents directed towards their daughters such as, “Be careful”, “Watch out” or “No!” This does not make them bad parents but I suggest that parents are more likely to caution their daughters than their sons.

In a study by The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology around the use of play equipment, researchers “showed that parents cautioned their daughters about the dangers of the fire pole significantly more than they did their sons and were much more likely to assist them.” Parents of boys encouraged them to play on the fire pole despite the risks involved. They would also offer guidance on how the boys should use the equipment on their own. This seemingly trivial use of apparatus is in fact significant. Whether girls choose to play climb walls or ride a bicycle, it seems that we are protecting them more when they do so. In another study from The Journal of Paediatric Psychology, it was found that parents are “four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful” after either had experienced a trip to the A and E Department of the local hospital.

So what message does this send boys and girls as they are growing up? It suggests that girls need help due to their fragility and that boys should master difficult tasks independently. It suggests that girls should have fear and boys should be courageous.

Ironically young girls and boys are very similar physically. Girls can even be stronger and more mature until puberty, yet as adults we act as if girls are more fragile and in need of our support. This message is absorbed by children and pervades them as they grow and develop. Then, as we become parents, we pass that thinking on and so the cycle continues.

The problem comes when fear is the primary reaction that we teach in girls for times when they are outside their comfort zones. We need to teach all children, especially girls, to be courageous. We must not raise our children to be timid or helpless but this begins when we caution them against physical risk. The fear we learn and the opportunities we do not experience stay with us and manifest in our hesitation to speak out, our desire to be liked and our lack of confidence in decision-making. So how do we become courageous? It can be learned.

The answer lies in our response and support for children in adventurous play. Adventurous play is good for children and especially important for female self-esteem. Our cautionary tales come with the best of intentions, but discouraging girls from physical challenges could be undermining their skills and their confidence. If we caution and condition fear into girls at a young age, this fear will manifest as “deference and timid decision making” later in life. Here are some examples of how we can alter our language to support the building of courage:

Fear-based language

Confidence-based language

“Be careful!”

“Focus on what you’re doing. You are going to be ok”

“That’s too hard/too tough for you.”

“Keep going. Well done. You kept trying and you did it!”

“You’re going to get hurt!”

“You’ve got your safety equipment on, now you’re ready to play!”

“Remember what happened last time?”

“That’s ok. We all fall down. It’s important to get back up and try again. How are you going to do it differently this time?”

We must avoid stereotyping children in our expectations, in our language and in our ambitions for them. In them we must build courage so that, despite fear, they have the confidence to take on challenges, new opportunities, and continue to develop themselves as an individual.


Robert Upton