Are we raising our girls to be afraid?

The playground fire pole can teach us a lot about how we condition fear in children, especially girls. In her article in the New York Times, former firefighter and author Caroline Paul, discusses a study from the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology that “showed 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.” It’s just one fire pole but it’s significant.

Whether girls choose to play firefighter or ride a two-wheeler, it seems that we are protecting them more when they do so. In fact, Paul goes on to discuss another study from the Journal of Paediatric Psychology, which 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 emergency room for a minor injury.

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.

It’s important to think of the big picture, as Caroline Paul does. 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. The playground fire pole is a great opportunity to translate our language of fear into a language of bravery and resiliency.

Below are some ideas about how to encourage confidence in your children when faced with challenging tasks. With some encouragement and instruction, girls can be firefighters on the playground, too.

Fear-based language Confidence-based language
“Be careful!” “Focus on what you’re doing. You got this!”
“That’s too hard/too tough for you.” “Keep going. Good for you. 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 okay. We all fall down. It’s important to get back up and try again. How are you going to do it differently this time?”

This table has been adapted from “Building Confidence,” a section in the booklet Building Resilience in Young Children [PDF] from Best Start.

2 responses to “Are we raising our girls to be afraid?

  1. Girl power! Great article Jaime! Our language does matter in raising resilient children.

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field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_hidden" ><div class='admin-hidden-markup'><i class='gform-icon gform-icon--hidden'></i><span>Hidden</span></div><label class='gfield_label' for='input_10_4' >Age When Submitted</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_4' id='input_10_4' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></div><div id="field_10_5" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_hidden" ><div class='admin-hidden-markup'><i class='gform-icon gform-icon--hidden'></i><span>Hidden</span></div><label class='gfield_label' for='input_10_5' >1st Birthday</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_5' id='input_10_5' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></div><div id="field_10_6" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_hidden" ><div class='admin-hidden-markup'><i 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