Caroline Paul: How Can We Instill Bravery In Girls?

Apr 6, 2018

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Turning Kids Into Grown-Ups.

About Caroline Paul's TED Talk

Writer and former firefighter Caroline Paul argues that in order to raise confident girls, parents must encourage them to take risks and have the same kinds of adventures boys do.

About Caroline Paul

Before starting her career as a writer, Caroline Paul was part of San Francisco Fire Department's search and rescue team for almost 14 years. She was one of the first women hired by the department. Paul has also competed on the U.S. National Luge Team in trials for the Olympics.

She's the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction. Her latest book is The Gutsy Girl, Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure. She studied journalism and documentary film at Stanford University.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about Turning Kids Into Grown-ups.

So Caroline, how did you get to the studio today?

CAROLINE PAUL: I got on my one-wheel, which is sort of a gyroscopic, electric skateboard, and I skateboarded here.

RAZ: I've seen these things. It looks like a piece of wood on a, like, a very heavy-duty tire.

PAUL: A go-kart wheel.

RAZ: Like a go-kart wheel. Yeah.

PAUL: Yeah.

RAZ: And you just stand on - it's like a platform. You just stand on that and, like, it just goes?

PAUL: (Laughter). Yeah.

RAZ: Wow.

PAUL: Kind of. That's the way it feels.

RAZ: This is Caroline Paul.

PAUL: (Laughter) I think it's a little bit of a shocker 'cause people see from far away - look, there's a 16-year-old dude coming at me. And then they're like, oops...

RAZ: That's a grown woman.

PAUL: ...It's my mom. What?

RAZ: So Caroline used to be a firefighter in San Francisco, and she also wrote a book, called, "The Gutsy Girl," which encourages girls to take risks, to have adventures and to be, well, gutsy. Because Caroline says all of those things can help girls build confidence and bravery and a sense of independence.

PAUL: From a very, very young age, girls are told that it's not their inner resources that are important, it's their outer resources.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POPULAR")

KRISTIN CHENOWETH: (Singing) Everything that really counts to be popular.

PAUL: So the messages are you have to be pretty...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEAN GIRLS")

LINDSAY LOHAN: (As Cady) Thank you.

RACHEL MCADAMS: (As Regina) So you agree?

PAUL: ...You have to be nice...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEAN GIRLS")

MCADAMS: (As Regina) You think you're really pretty?

PAUL: ...And you have to be perfect.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And give you...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) A princess.

PAUL: And those really kick in at puberty. They have studies that show a female's confidence peaks at 9 years old.

RAZ: Wow.

PAUL: Yeah.

RAZ: That's crazy.

PAUL: Like, the metric of confidence I'm a little unclear on, but what I'm guessing is - because I certainly feel more confident as a human as I'm older, but on some measurements, I see what they're saying. It's confidence to be loud, to get dirty, to have fun, to not care what other people think. And I think under those metrics, yes, we want a 9-year-old girl's mind.

RAZ: Yeah.

PAUL: Meanwhile, boys, we encourage them to play sports...

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Think about getting yourself a bow and arrow.

PAUL: ...And be brave...

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We'll be heroes.

PAUL: ...Take risks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SANDLOT")

KAREN ALLEN: (As character) Get into trouble, for crying out loud.

PAUL: They've now been learning to hone their inner resources. And so we're behind as girls, and then as women when we go into the workplace and into our relationships because we haven't been taught that we can rely on our inner resources like boys can. So this is why I really believe that we need to start teaching girls how to push outside their comfort zone, and what you need to do that is bravery. And bravery is not considered a feminine trait in our culture, and that's too bad. It's considered a very masculine trait. But, in fact, it's a trait that all kids need.

RAZ: Yeah. When did you first become conscious of this idea that, you know, girls were expected to, I don't know, behave a certain way and boys were allowed to behave other ways?

PAUL: Well, honestly, I mean I became super conscious as an adult because when I was a firefighter, I noticed that people were always surprised when I told them what I did for a living. And I guess they'd never seen a female firefighter, mostly. And I was the 15th woman in a department of 1,500 men. So when I arrived, you know, the men were unsure whether women could do the job, and I understood why. Because if you remember in 1972, Title IX passed, and that was the first time that girls were given equal access to sports, which created a whole new generation of girls that were sort of outdoorsy and more physical. And the men that I worked with, their peers were not like that. So I was part of that first generation of more physical girls. So when I became a firefighter, I knew I could do the job physically, but there were certainly a lot of doubts about it because that wasn't the thing that girls were supposed to do.

RAZ: Caroline Paul picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PAUL: Even though I was a 5'10", 150-pound collegiate rower, I knew I still had to prove my strength and fitness. So one day a call came in for a fire. And, sure enough, when my engine crew pulled up, there was black smoke billowing from a building off an alleyway. And I was with a big guy, named Skip, and he was on the nozzle and I was right behind. And it was a typical sort of fire. It was smoky. It was hot. And, all of a sudden, there was an explosion. And Skip and I were blown backwards, my mask was knocked sideways and there was this moment of confusion. And then I pick myself up, I grope for the nozzle. And I did what a firefighter was supposed to do - I lunge forward, opened up the water and I tackled the fire myself. The explosion had been caused by a water heater so nobody was hurt, and ultimately it was not a big deal. But later, Skip came up to me and said, nice job, Caroline, in this surprised sort of voice.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: And I was confused because the fire hadn't been difficult, physically. So why was he looking at me with something like astonishment? And then it became clear. Skip (ph), who was, by the way, a really nice guy and an excellent firefighter, not only thought that women could not be strong, he thought that they could not be brave, either. And he wasn't the only one. Friends, acquaintances and strangers - men and women - throughout my career asked me over and over, Caroline, all that fire, all that danger, aren't you scared? Honestly, I never heard a male firefighter asked this. And I became curious. Why wasn't bravery expected of women?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAUL: I mean, in some ways, yeah, of course, I was scared. I mean, I run into burning buildings. But that's not what we want - I want to talk about. Why are we fixated on the fact that women are always going to be scared? And I noticed that that would often be a good enough excuse not to do things. And it began to occur to me that we are not taking initiative because we're using fear as a reason not to do things. So I looked even further back. And I watched friends of mine as they spoke to their girls. And I heard a lot, especially when they were outdoors, this cautioning tone of please don't do that. Be careful. No. Watch out. And I realized that that has an effect of making girls anxious about what they're doing and risk averse.

RAZ: Yeah. But why? I mean, yeah, I see even among my friends, fathers and mothers, who are sort of very open-minded in their approach to raising kids. But they're like, oh, wait, no, don't. Be careful. You know, like, right?

PAUL: We have a belief. It's this weird idea that somehow girls are more fragile and less capable. And so we're protecting them if we stop them from trying something. I mean, they did a study on emergency room visits - minor emergency room visits on kids. And they showed that after an emergency room visit, girls were four times more likely than boys to be warned against doing that activity again. We are confined to a certain role that isn't helping us at all.

And as parents, I think it's our duty to open our girls' lives up. And I really believe that the - one of the first things is you have to stop cautioning her. And you have to start instilling a paradigm of bravery instead of a paradigm of fear. And that doesn't mean that your girl has to go do risky things. I don't want to injure your kids at all. I just want your girls to push out of their comfort zone. And yeah, will they get injured? Maybe, maybe. But will it stop them from getting hurt in much bigger ways later? Yes. Because the things you learn when you skin your knee are so important. And they help you when you're a woman trying to lean in, get better pay parity, you know, get respect in your relationship. This all traces back to when you're a little girl.

RAZ: Caroline Paul. She's the author of the book "The Gutsy Girl: Escapades For Your Life Of Epic Adventure." You can see her full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.