Can a Fearful Mom Raise a Fearless Girl?

"Be careful!" "Hold on tightly!" "You're high up, okay?" "Are you scared?" Maybe she hadn't been five minutes ago as she ran towards the carousel, her favorite ride at the mall. She had ridden many times before, with a parent or grandparent standing next to her as was dictated by the safety sign by the ticket booth. But, today, my three-year-old daughter was tall enough to ride on her own. "I want to ride by myself," she'd announced. "The big horse." We paid for the ticket and ushered her in, so proud of our big girl. Then the precautionary litany started.

Suddenly, the ride lost a little bit of its magic. I saw her face stiffen as the horse went up, then down. She whispered in its metal ear and planted a kiss on its mane. "Mommy, I'm scared," she called to me while her face still showed a smile frozen in place. I asked her if she wanted to stop; she said no. I walked beside her till she felt safe again. I can't tell when the switch happened, when she stopped being fearless and settled for being daring, taking the risk despite feeling fearful. Not a bad consolation, except I wonder: Was the fear inherent, a necessary rite of passage from baby to big girl, or inherited, passed on from fearful parent to once-fearless child? 

There will never be another first solo carousel ride, so I guess we'll never know. I do know that, next time, she'll be more inclined to choose the smaller horse, the easier ride, the less dangerous option. She'll back down for the benefit of those of us watching. But who really benefits when a child plays it safe

A friend shared an article from the New York Times that questions whether we are cultivating a culture of fear among girls:
[One study] was published in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology and showed that parents cautioned their daughters about the dangers of the [playground] fire pole significantly more than they did their sons and were much more likely to assist them. But both moms and dads directed their sons to face their fears, with instruction on how to complete the task on their own....We must chuck the insidious language of fear (Be careful! That’s too scary!) and instead use the same terms we offer boys, of bravery and resilience.
The author writes about talking to a mom who felt her son was more capable than her daughter: "I could see on her face that maternal instinct was sparring with feminism, and feminism was losing." Story of my life. 

I thought I would be better at this. In my previous work as the editor of a magazine for tween girls, I used to shake my head at stories of moms warning their daughters not to play volleyball or basketball for fear of their developing breast cancer from getting hit by the ball, or letters from girls who wanted to take swimming lessons in the summer but were discouraged from doing so because they might either drown or get dark (frowned upon in Philippine society). Of course, then, I felt I knew better. But now, as a mom, I can understand the almost irrational fear. If you only knew the improbable scenarios I have running in my head 80% of the time, you'd either laugh at or pity me. I can't help it. My mom is the same way. When she cautions me now, I dismiss her and tease her for being paranoid. And then I turn around and, almost as a reflex, tell my daughter to "watch out." For what, exactly? Oh, you know, life. 

When she was younger, we were more fearless. She climbed the stairs by herself and I stayed close but didn't help. She ran and I didn't ask her to slow down. She did what she felt capable of doing and I cheered her on. 

Then she fell, so many times. She tripped, often. She took on a slide that went too fast and bumped her head. She didn't hold on while swinging and spent the morning in the emergency room with a cut lip. In our eyes, she'd become breakable. So we bandaged her up with cotton gauze and cautionary tales. I worried about the one fall that would be one fall too many

I have a six-month-old son, so perhaps I will practice equal opportunity paranoia. Perhaps I do not discriminate based on gender, but simply debilitate based on common maternal overprotectiveness. Time will tell. But it will not hurt my son, my second child, if even now I start practicing empowerment through language—or, often more appropriately, silence. 

My daughter just came back from a trip to Baguio, where she rode a pink horse named Princess. Her papa had sat behind her and together they brought the horse up to a trot. Lying in bed that night, she told me, "Mommy, when we go to Baguio, I want to gallop. Papa said I couldn't gallop, but I want to, next time. I'll be a big girl. You can ride with me. I'll keep you safe. You don't need to be scared, okay?"  

"You don't need to be scared, Mommy." It's not the first time she's said this to me. They're only friendly spiders, Mom. Look, I defeated all the bad guys with my sword. Turn off the light, I don't need it when I sleep. I'll go on my own; you don't need to come with me. 

With any luck, in spite of me, she's already braver than I am. 

Recommended Reading: "11 Things to Say Instead of 'Be Careful'" (teacher tom)