Shelley and I are at the pool watching our toddler girls play in the shallow water.  My two-year-old scrambles quickly up the stairs to the small water slide and whooshes to the bottom laughing.  Shelley’s daughter climbs the steps more slowly.  She reaches the top only to turn around and request we help her climb back down.  She repeats the process three more times.  Each time we reassure here, “It’s okay.  You can slide when you are ready.  Good try!”

Finally, on her fourth trip up the stairs she sits carefully at the top of the slide.  She pauses, gulps, and pushes off taking the quick rushing trip down and splashes into the pool below.

“I did it!” she squeals, delighted with herself.

“You were so brave!” we compliment her.  “How do you feel? Was it fun?”

She smiles and repeats, “I was so brave!”  Then she rushes back up the steps to repeat her watery descent another 107 times.

She accepted the challenge and overcame her fear.

Does your daughter jump head first into new challenges, or is she more likely to hang back when presented a new situation?  When your daughter struggles to learn something new, is she persistent until she succeeds?  Does she instead opt to return to a task in which she’s already developed proficiency?  All our children have unique strengths and personalities.  Some girls are more comfortable than others with making mistakes and persisting through difficulties.  We know individuals willing to accept challenges and persevere are more likely to be successful in the workforce.

Are there ways we can encourage our more hesitant daughters to step out of their comfort zones and try new things?

Don’t Over Caution

I struggle with this.  I don’t want to see my daughter get hurt and caution her to be careful way too many times in a day.  Katie Arnold, author of Raising Rippers: 10 Ways to Raise Brave Girls, reviewed Caroline Paul’s book, The Gutsy Girl:  Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure.  Paul cautioned that even well-meaning parents too often caution girls more excessively than boys.  Many parents have a sense that girls are more delicate or in need of protection than boys and that can have an impact on girls.  Paul adds that we need to instill a sense of bravery in girls before they hit puberty and girls become more susceptible to perfectionism and peer pressure.

While I tell my daughter to be careful way too often, it’s only a third as often as I would if I didn’t focus on changing my patterns.  I try to let her take calculated risks without interference.  And I try to be specific with feedback when she is in a precarious situation.  Here are some ways to get our children to think without saying, “Be careful.”  Her legs may end up bruised and knees sometimes skinned, but I love watching her tackle new tasks with headstrong abandon.

Dream Big

Margie Warrell wrote in How to Raise Brave Girls we should encourage girls to dream big.  She notes that many girls begin to reduce their goals to minimize the risk of failure or rejection.  This is one big way girls lose their sense of bravery.  We should work to inspire girls to stretch their limits.  She explains women tend to be more successful in school, but men are more successful in the workplace – they are more likely to negotiate their salaries, promote themselves, and pursue more advanced roles.

“All of these things require risk in some way — risk of rejection, criticism, looking foolish, falling short or outright failure. Which is why giving your daughter a gentle push outside her comfort zone can sometimes be the most loving thing you can do for her…” Warrell

I used to teach ballet classes to little girls and at the end of class we would do tumbling.  I remember one little girl who had the strength and coordination to do a cartwheel but was struggling to be brave enough to attempt it on her own.  Her mom opened the door and lovingly but firmly demanded her daughter attempt the cartwheel.  “You get over there and do that cartwheel right now,” she said.  “I know you can do it so just do it!”  And she did.  Her mother didn’t want her fear of failure to be an excuse not to try.

Mistakes are Good!

A sense of perfectionism limits girls.  It’s important to teach girls that taking risks and making mistakes are an important part of the growing process.  Talk to your daughters about times you made mistakes and grew from them.  Point out tenacity in the stories of others.  And, perhaps more importantly, don’t praise her for her perfection – praise her for her persistence.  Instead of complimenting her on a completing a task that came easy for her, pay attention to times when she is struggling and point out her resolve.  When my daughter complains she can’t do something, I learned from Katie Schrodt to say, “You can’t do it yet!” and then remind her that when we struggle we don’t give up and instead we practice, practice, practice!

I, like so many women out there, am a people pleaser.  There are many times I limit myself to avoid disappointing other people.  I don’t want my daughter to suffer the same fate, so I try to limit how often I make compliments about me — what I like or what I think about what she’s doing.  This one comes hard for me.  My instinct is compliment her profusely about everything. Instead of immediately telling her the painting she completed is beautiful, I ask her how she feels about it.  “Are you so proud of your painting?”  Instead of passing judgment, I point out the decisions she made.  “You must’ve really been feeling fiery today, because you used a lot of red, yellow, and orange.”  I want her to find value in the work she has done because she feels good about it – it’s not about me and what I think.

Model Bravery

This is the hardest and perhaps most important recommendation for raising brave girls.  We have to model bravery.  We need to take risks.  We need to make mistakes and model persistence.  There are opportunities to do this in front of our daughters.  My most recent birthday, I decided to take a helicopter ride.  I’m terrified of heights and have a moderate fear of flying, but I always wanted to do it.  So I did…and my daughter was there to watch.

The view of the Chicago skyline from my helicopter ride

We can also model bravery by just talking to our daughters about what we are doing at work.  Maybe you need to have a difficult conversation with your boss or you want to apply for a new position.  Talk to your daughters about it.  Let them see you be brave. And if you fail, talk to them about that, too.

Taking risks can make our lives more fulfilling and open opportunities professionally and personally.  One of the greatest gifts we can give our daughters is teaching them to find their brave.  Without it, they will too often be left wondering, “What if?”  As Pablo Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Exploring further

“To raise brave girls, encourage adventure,” Caroline Paul’s TED Talk.

The Gutsy Girl:  Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, by Caroline Paul (affiliate link — that means, if you decide to purchase this book On Raising Daughters will get a small commission to help support our website)


About Joanna Durham-Barnes

Joanna Durham-Barnes is mom to a fierce and feisty 2-year-old and stepmom to a strong and sassy young millennial. Joanna is a former elementary school teacher and college professor. She earned her master’s degree in International Education Policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction from Indiana University. She focused her career on issues of social justice in teacher education before becoming a stay-at-home mom (who never stays at home). When not spending way too much time on social media, Joanna loves to spend time with her family, travel, read, and watch live theater.

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