Author Caroline Paul describes her new book, The Gutsy Girl, as “Lean In for middle-grade girls.” Out now from Bloomsbury, it’s a call for girls not to be afraid of doing scary things. “Being scared,” Paul writes in the first chapter, “was a terrible feeling, like sinking in quicksand.” But from there it’s filled with Paul’s own tales of bravery — climbing mountains, flying planes — and peppered with tips for young girls to begin their own adventures, like how to make a figure-eight knot or build a boat out of egg cartons.
Paul is the author of a novel (East, Wind, Rain), a memoir of her life as a firefighter (the aptly titled Fighting Fire), and Lost Cat (which tells the story of the time she and her partner, illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, lost their cat). She recently took some time to talk about her book and how she grew up a gutsy girl.
You recently wrote a piece for the New York Times called “Why Do We Teach Girls It’s Cute to Be Scared?” — why do you think it struck a nerve?
I think that maybe parents are realizing that they do see the difference between their boys and their girls. And I think women are realizing that they do feel fear a lot — so if they can trace it back to their childhood, they can do something with their girls.
In the essay that makes the case for the book you’ve written, you refer to multiple studies and also anecdotal evidence, personal stories about the ways we ingrain this in kids. How do we begin to not do that?
The most important thing is to really look at our true assessments of girls and our true assessment of boys. Because I really think it stems from believing that they’re more fragile, both emotionally and physically, than boys, even though the childhood developmental science says that girls are actually either equals or ahead of boys in a lot of those areas.
So it just doesn’t make sense that we coddle our girls like we do. It’s this weird vicious circle where as adults we see women being fearful because we’ve been taught that, so we assume there’s something inherent. But in fact, bravery is not a gendered trait. It makes so much sense when a mother will pick up a Volkswagen off of her child or charge a lion to protect her kid — nobody questions that. They know women are brave in that arena. But for some reason, we think they’re not otherwise, which of course is untrue.
In the article you mention that parents are four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be careful. What do you think it’s rooted in?
Well, first of all, I’m not telling parents not to guide their kids to a better decision next time, I’m just saying that this willy-nilly “be careful” is not a guide. All it does is instill fear. And I think it comes from that basic pre-judgment that girls are less able and more fragile and they need more help than boys. And then that continues. And like I said in the beginning, if we look at that closely, we see how untrue it is because again developmentally they’re the same until puberty. I remember that my twin and I used to be able to beat all boys in arm-wrestling until the seventh grade, and then eighth grade was a little bit of a shocker. But we were in so many ways as able as boys and yet we’re not treated that way.
It does sort of get to a basic problem, which is that the world is more dangerous for women than it is for men because men are horrible predators (joke!). You’re talking about trying to fix the way that girls are raised to become women.
I’m saying that we’re not protecting them by constantly telling them how fearful they should be in the face of this world; I’m not arguing that this world is not dangerous or that you can’t get hurt when you fall off of a skateboard. And certainly that you have to be super-careful when you travel alone as a woman. All I’m saying is that the tools of bravery and resilience that we offer boys are the best way to protect a girl and we’re not doing that. These attributes of deference and timidity and sort of feigning fear or asking for help because “Oh it’s too much for me” — those worked really well back when we didn’t have legal rights … but we needed to appease because we were second-class and nothing was on our side. It doesn’t work anymore. Now we’re simply raising them to falter in a workplace and feel terrible about themselves.
So what you’re talking about is emotional and physical … a conceptual picture of women as emotionally and physically inferior. Because that’s what you’re getting at: not just that they’re weaker, but they’re raised as if they are inferior.
Well, yeah. I mean when you help a girl on a piece of playground equipment and you’re not helping the boy the inference there is that somehow they need someone else to help them, that they can’t do it on their own.
Do you feel like this is a feminist book for young girls?
Well, some people are afraid of the word! So it’s fair to ask.
No, for sure! It’s just reclaiming bravery and confidence and resilience and leadership as qualities that are feminine, that girls should be learning. And I think that we have to start really young. A friend of mine a while ago had a daughter and lamented to me that she was a super-scaredy cat. And I at the time was a firefighter and a pilot and they said, “You know, she looks up to you, could you talk to her, could you spend an afternoon with her?” And what I noticed that made me take note of her … I thought I was going to see in the ensuing days her being super-wimpy. What I saw instead was the parents were super-anxious.
What age range would you say the book is for?
I wrote it specifically for 7- to 11-year-olds, for puberty, when they still want to be loud, laugh really loud, speak up when they want, still like to have fun and play without a lot of the self-consciousness that happens when puberty starts to hit.
Your background has clearly informed how you turned out and how you have decided that this is a better way than how many girls are raised. How did you come to believe that this is the best way to live?
Well, I have an identical twin so in some ways I’m like a science lab. And she is also super-brave and super-gutsy, but she’s not an outdoors person. So there’s many ways to apply resilience. My sister has gone more into athletics and also politics, and she’s an incredible environmentalist and an incredible person. When Prop 8 was trying to pass she stood alone on the corner of the busiest intersection in L.A. with a sign that said “Straight against Hate.” The reason I use outdoor adventure is because I think it’s such a perfect little training ground for kids.
This interview has been condensed and edited.