I always wondered about Little Miss Muffet, happily eating her curds and whey when a spider scared her. Away from her food. And her tuffet. And her joy. LAME. I always loved spiders. My mom taught science so we always had interesting pets growing up, most notably tarantulas, thanks to neighbors who recognized the Woolf family's love of spiders and regularly called my mother when a tarantula revealed itself.
I caught Harry (the tarantula) on the elementary school playground and, holding him in my hands, took great pride in scaring all of my friends. I was a freak for thinking it was OK to hold such a poisonous monster, except I was raised to know it as harmless and therefore felt no fear.
This may have nothing to do with the following op-ed that came out last week in the New York Times, warning parents to let their daughters get dirty and injured and live as dangerously as our boys do. I use spiders as an example because boys aren't allowed to be afraid of insects, for the same reason girls are often expected to be. Which is a problem.
"When girls become women, this fear manifests as deference and timid decision making. We try to counter this conditioning by urging ourselves to 'lean in.' Books on female empowerment proliferate on our shelves. I admire what these writers are trying to do—but they come far too late.
"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. We need to embolden girls to master skills that at first appear difficult, even dangerous. And it's not cute when a 10-year-old girl screeches, 'I'm too scared.'"
The thing about being too late is huge. There are BOOKS upon BOOKS about women's empowerment but when it comes to empowering our young daughters, be them toddlers or teens, we seem to fall perilously short.
I totally get that there are two kinds of phobias: the kind you are born with without any explanation and the kind you are taught to embrace, and assumed to take on, dictated by family, friends, culture. I am severely claustrophobic and cannot do confined spaces or large crowds in small rooms. Nobody in their right mind could convince me to sleep on a train bunk or happily chill on a subway that has inexplicably stopped. And there are PLENTY of people who are petrified of spiders and heights and all kinds of things that CANNOT and SHOULDN'T be challenged.
However, there are far more "fears" like the ones Caroline Paul discusses in her piece, fears that girls are TAUGHT as opposed to born with. And on the flip side, fears that boys aren't ALLOWED to possess. She writes:
"I spoke recently to a friend who admitted that she cautioned her daughter much more than her son. 'But she's very klutzy,' the mom explained. I wondered, wasn't there a way even a klutzy child could take risks? My friend agreed there might be, but only halfheartedly, and I could see on her face that maternal instinct was sparring with feminism, and feminism was losing.
"I had been a klutzy child, too. I was also shy, and scared of many things: big kids, whatever might be under my bed at night, school. But I pored over National Geographic and 'Harriet the Spy.' I knew all about Sir Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table, who wandered the countryside swearing oaths of bravery and honor. None of these characters talked about fear. They talked about courage, exploration and exciting deeds."
"Safety first" is a dangerous proposition because, truth be told, EVERYTHING is dangerous. ESPECIALLY fences. And walls. And the glass we urge our children to look through as a safer alternative to experiencing the world outside.
One the reasons I find it IMPERATIVE to talk about rape culture is that it INHIBITS so much of what we're willing to ALLOW our daughters to do and experience.
But what happens when we tell our girls to "be careful" and warn them away from the same opportunities allotted and afforded boys? What do we sacrifice by keeping them caged? By holding them back from adventure? By shielding them from what is potentially dangerous? Even painful?
I had a really difficult conversation with my mother last week. I had just sent her my last GGC post and spent hours on the phone trying to explain to her that what happened to me wasn't her fault. The truth is, the hardest part of publishing that post was KNOWING that she would blame herself for what had happened to me. Which is the last thing I would EVER EVER want—EVER.
Because the truth is, I DID grow up with a lot of freedom. So did my sister and brother. And I wouldn't trade ANY OF THAT for ANYTHING. You can lock up your daughters all you want—you cannot protect them from the inevitable, from life in all its immense beauty and pain. All we can do is prepare them. And educate them. And support them. And call out bullshit when we see it.
Fear is not a strong enough defense strategy, I'm afraid. And there is nothing more detrimental to the human spirit than a keeper and a cage.
Caroline Paul writes: "According to a study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology last year, parents are 'four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful' after mishaps that are not life-threatening but do entail a trip to the emergency room. It seems like a reasonable warning. But there is a drawback, and the researchers remarked on it: 'Girls may be less likely than boys to try challenging physical activities, which are important for developing new skills.' This study points to an uncomfortable truth: We think our daughters are more fragile, both physically and emotionally, than our sons."
She continues: "Nobody is saying that injuries are good, or that girls should be reckless. But risk taking is important. Gever Tulley, the author of '50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do),' encourages girls and boys to own pocketknives, light fires and throw spears, arguing that dangerous activities under supervision can teach kids responsibility, problem-solving and confidence. It follows that by cautioning girls away from these experiences, we are not protecting them. We are failing to prepare them for life."
Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Do one thing every day that scares you," and I believe that is the best advice to give our children—our daughters, as well as our sons. Because while there is a time and a place for BEING CAREFUL, there are so many times and even more places where BEING CAREFUL holds us all back.
Broken arms are rites of passage, anyway. So are scars. And stings. And all of the things that hurt a little bit. And I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Miss Muffet was all, "What's up, spider? How goes it? Let's go on an adventure together, wanna? Just let me finish my curds and whey first."