Teaching Girls To Be Brave

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We teach girls to be fearful and fragile rather than bold because we have not relinquished the archetype of the passive, empathetic woman.

Women are socially conditioned from birth to find purpose in caretaking–which is fancy talk for living through the actions of others, i.e. men. They are taught to nurture creators, not create themselves.

Changing the status quo means changing what we expect of young women. It means expecting action.

The social conditioning of girls as passive and fragile starts distressingly early. In her brilliant and groundbreaking book, “Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference” (2011), Dr. Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of biologically essential gender traits and illustrates how men and women “learn” to fit their assigned roles. This learning begins before birth, as parents arrive loaded with socially half-baked notions of what it will mean for them to have a boy versus a girl.

According to Fine, sons are coveted for their inevitable agency and athleticism, while girls are generally desired for their ability to play dress-up and their empathy or, as Fine puts it, “the remembering of birthdays.”

Fine reports that there is no significant linguistic pattern among expectant parents who don’t know the sex of the fetus, but the parents who do know tend to speak along gendered lines. Boys are described with active language like “vigorous” and “strong,” while girls are depicted as “not violent, not excessively energetic [and] not terribly active.” Even before birth, girls are molded as staid and passive. They are the proverbial women “behind every great man,” but are themselves not great.

These prenatal assumptions of gender performance continue into girlhood, when girls are parented with profoundly different expectations than their brothers and male peers–with particular regard to terms of physical vitality.

In a study published last year in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, parents were asked to recall conversations they had with their children following trips to the emergency room (trips resulting from risky behavior on the part of the children). According to researcher Elizabeth O’Neal, the parents engaged four different explanation types: telling them not to engage in the same behavior again, warning them to be more careful in the future, providing an alternative strategy, and explaining why the behavior was dangerous in the first place.

Parents employed strategy two, encouraging future caution, by itself far more often with girls than with boys, who generally received some combination of the other three strategies.

“Parents just encourage boys to take more risks than they do girls,” O’Neal tells BTR.

While encouraging caution is not an inherently bad parenting decision, risk-taking is necessary for development; O’Neal warns that by telling girls to be more careful, the parents might discourage them from trying out some of those more challenging physical activities necessary for skill development.

This gender disparity is further exemplified by the fact that, according to O’Neal, the parents were much more likely to discuss “causal connections” with boys than with girls. This means that a parent is more likely to explain to a boy where and why his latest tree-climbing stunt went wrong, whereas girls are more often simply told not to do it because it’s dangerous. The boy now has a chance to try again and perfect his tree climbing technique, gaining a new skill and confidence, while the girl has only one more activity she is unable (or feels she is unable) to perform.

The solution to learned female passivity and timidity is to present girls with opportunities to learn, lead, create, and participate in the trying and failing method of innovation that boys are taught from birth. A perfect example of such an antidote is Unleashed.

Unleashed is a social justice program aimed at middle school girls and designed by clinical psychologist Dr. Stacey Radin. Her purpose is to “cultivate power in girls while their identity is still forming.”

Over the course of 12 weeks, the participating girls develop the tools and skills necessary for social organizing, campaigning, and activism–specifically, activism for animal welfare. According to Radin, when asked what issue they care most about, 87 percent of middle school girls said animal rights.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Stacy Radin)

“It has to be a cause that is ‘larger than herself,’” says Radin, and animal welfare was what the girls chose. “Larger than herself” does not mean Radin aims to continue the pattern of making girls into passive caretakers. Rather, she helps girls become active participants in a world that is larger than any one person.

Animal welfare, while important, is only the vehicle through which Unleashed serves its larger function of helping girls find their boldness and their agency. They learn skills and develop the tools necessary to be creators, organizers, and leaders.

It’s also about making them into the risk-takers that nobody questions boys can be. Part of that, Radin tells BTR, includes making the girls “confident enough to fail.” Part of being a creator is possessing the confidence to know that you can always fail and start again.

For both the adults and the participating youth, Unleashed is only for those who identify as female.

“I get pushed back all the time,” Radin tells BTR on the subject of excluding men. People want to know how Radin justifies excluding boys and the male perspective. The point, however, isn’t excluding the male perspective; the point is cultivating female agency, and limiting the program to females is nothing but logical.

When asked how she responds to the often-unconscious gender biases of parents, Radin advocates honest and open dialogue: She mentions conversations with women who regard themselves as “strong, empowered moms” for not letting their daughters play with Barbie. But Radin believes it’s less about the specific activities girls engage in and more about how they interact with their peers and with adults.

What are your blind spots? What’s the language we’re using? Are we using language differently? These are all questions Radin asks of parents. The goal is getting adults to understand how implicit social conditioning (like gendered language and stereotypes) affects the development of their daughters.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Stacy Radin)

When speaking to the girls in the program, Radin starts by telling them that she founded Unleashed because she believes that “girls have the power to make a difference,” a statement which she says always surprises many of the girls. It’s not just lip service girl power, however. In fact, while getting her book “Brave Girls” published, she refused outright to let it be published with the suggested title of “Girl Power.”

“I cannot be the author of a book called ‘Girl Power,’” she told them. Rather than employing tired phrases like “girl power” (or worse, “grrl power”) in the name of female empowerment, Radin and Unleashed use actions and agency.

It’s not just about singing “you go girl!” It’s about giving girls tools to make themselves into something and make something from themselves.