Brave Girls, Brave Women.
As a mom of two boys, I rarely think about what obstacles they may face in their future, because they are boys. It seems to be a given that boys can pretty much pursue whatever dreams they aspire to. My 4-year-old son has a shirt that says, “You Can Be Anything” and I truly believe that for him. I am now four months pregnant with a baby girl, and I want more than anything in the world for her to be able to wear that shirt too, and believe what it says.
Despite the all of the women’s rights victories over the century, why is it that we still face inequalities in athletics, employment, and leadership in our country? Women are routinely paid less than men for doing the same work in most professions. Which is crazy. A woman who is equally trained, qualified, and educated will be paid less than a man, 20 % less, according to a recent study done by the American Association of University Women. I blame hundreds of years of antiquated societal norms. But maybe it also has to do with how we raise our children and our expectations of girls versus boys.
Do we praise boys for being “strong” and “brave” more than girls? Do we praise girls for being “well behaved” and encourage perfection over taking risks? Are we perpetuating antiquated gender roles without even knowing it? As a physician, I know many of my female friends in healthcare who, when accepting a new job, feel “badly” for negotiating for a higher pay or better benefits. Whereas my male friends seem to do this without hesitation or consequence. Why does this happen?
On the bright side, we are very lucky in our country to have the rights that we do, especially compared to women in other developing countries. Things are much better than they used to be. We can vote. We have careers. We have access to birth control. We can marry who we want. We aren’t barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen unless we WANT to be. Women can now pursue infantry and special operations roles in the military. And women beat men in many sports these days! The tides are shifting. But maybe not fast enough. Having a baby girl on the way has made me stop and think about how I parent, and how I will parent – if differently at all-a girl versus a boy.
I am currently reading a fantastic book called “Up-A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure”. Patricia Herr writes a compilation of her backpacking expeditions that she does with her 5-year-old daughter, as they tackle climbing all of NH’s highest peaks. It’s inspiring what they are able to accomplish and what lessons come out of their adventures and mishaps. Most notable is her parenting style. She gives her daughter the reins to chase the dream of bagging all the 4,000 foot peaks in NH, with safety parameters and guidance of course. She makes an effort to celebrate her daughter’s bravery and not just her “summits,” and emphasizes the life skills that come from toughing it out in nature’s elements. She is teaching her daughter by letting her lead the way, showing her that even though she is small, she is not weak. You can be small and still do big things.
This book has made me appreciate my childhood, which was mostly spent outside in the woods. There is nothing like coming home covered in pricker bush bites and dirt, after playing hard all day with the neighborhood kids, building forts, skipping rocks, climbing trees, and jumping in ponds. These outdoor experiences planted a deep-rooted seed in me, so now as an adult I just need to be outside. If I am stuck inside for more than a day, I feel like my soul is withering away. My husband is the same way. We are avid trail runners and need to be in the woods, with our trail shoes, our touring skis, our bikes, or just hauling our little monkeys around. Sweating in nature is our reset button. And I already see it with my boys; when the frustration and cabin fever build all we really need to do is bundle up and go outside, and life is good again. The plastic toys just don’t cut it.
It’s really true, kids who grow up outside continue to play outside as adults. We’ve made it a goal as parents is to expose our kids to nature as much as possible, and hope they will cherish it, as we do.
There is something liberating about being covered in sweat and mud and not caring about your looks. Toughing it out on a mountain bike or hiking a steep terrain builds confidence and resilience. When you have this confidence you are more equipped to combat the social pressures of Instagram and other media to look and be “perfect.” This is especially important for girls as they become young women, as the pressures of adolescence intensify.
Watching the 2018 Winter Olympics and seeing the US women dominate their events has me thinking more and more about brave women and role models. Role models are key. Brave, courageous role models. In our technology driven world where we are inundated with images of what it means to be beautiful and successful, we need to combat these pressures with real people who have pushed themselves and accomplished their goals-not because they look perfect, but because they put their blood, sweat and tears into what they love, and kick butt at what they are doing. They take risks. And fail sometimes. But they keep at it. These are brave women.
It seems girls should be praised for being risk takers and for being brave just like boys. On par with being praised for good behavior, being kind, and working hard. If a young girl can conquer something she is afraid of, she will be empowered. The more she experiences what it feels like to overcome fear, as a young woman she will be more confident in who she is and what she can do. The natural world is the perfect classroom for mastering this skill of bravery for any child. When you push yourself beyond what you think can do, you start to trust yourself, your body and your mind. You can push a little bit beyond your comfort zone each time. The more one practices courage as child, the easier it will be to utilize as an adult.
Nature teaches us that we have to be self reliant and resilient. Anything can happen no matter how well you are prepared. Toughing it out, trusting your gut, and improvising are skills that can be applied to other life experiences where you may face unexpected challenges. The more a person knows herself and what she is made of, the easier it is to blaze her own path.
There is a fascinating TED talk by Reshma Saujani- Founder and CEO of @GirlsWhoCode. She discusses a “bravery deficit” in our society. She talks about how as a country we basically are losing out because we are not raising our girls to take risks; we are raising them to be perfect. Instead we should be raising them to be brave, negotiate, and jump in head first. It is this deficit which is causing women to be underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, top senior executive positions, in Congress, and in other leadership positions. We are all missing out on the talents of these brilliant women. It’s a detriment to our economy and society as a whole. To combat this deficit, she speaks about how important it is to encourage girls to explore, seek adventure, and take risks, so they grow up to be women who do the same.
When I think about the moments in my life where I have had to be brave, most of them are related to some sort of athletic feat. My first 50-mile race, my first night solo trail run, delivering my first child (an endurance event for sure!). My son asked me the other day, “Mom what does brave mean?” when he skied down a steep trail and we applauded him. I said, it means doing something even though you are scared. It made me think about how important it is to keep doing things we are scared of, throughout life. The more we can do things that we are scared of, and encourage our kids to do so, the less daunting the steepest terrains of life seem.
Maybe this is the MOST important thing we can do as parents, whether parents of boys or girls. Teach them to take risks, as well as take them ourselves. And not be afraid of failure.
Dr. Sarah Logan, MD is a full time mom and part-time family doctor in Vermont with experience in both Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine. She loves working with people of all ages, but her true passion is working with kids! She has 2 little guys (ages 1 and 3) at home, who keep her on her toes.