• Rita Pontes

By Katie Arnold - Outside Online

Bestselling author Caroline Paul’s new book, 'The Gutsy Girl,' is a how-to guide for parents to push through the anxiety and let their kids take acceptable risks outdoors

The other day my seven-year-old daughter, Pippa, and I rode the flow trail at our local mountain bike park. We’d heard it was smooth and gentle enough for kids and she was desperate to try it, so even though it was her first day on a fat bike, and the sign at the top read “Technical Trail: Advanced Riders Only,” I said yes. Before we started, I coached her on the basics of downhill mountain biking: keep your weight back, your pedals level, and feather the brakes. Then she pushed off, shrieking with glee as she rolled over the first loamy whoop-de-woo.

I rode behind Pippa, watching her handle her bike with confidence, control, and joy. If there’s any sweeter sound than a little girl oohing and ahhing as she banks through turns and up and over dusty berms, I don’t know what it is. Still there were moments when I had to bite my tongue and resist the urge to scream Careful! or Slow Down!, half expecting to come around a corner and find her endo-ed in the dirt. The desire to protect our children from harm is innate and reflexive and, at times, all-consuming. As I like to joke to my husband, mothers’ worry is what keeps the human race alive. But too much can be limiting and, especially for girls, potentially detrimental to their development.


A few days earlier I’d spoken by phone with Caroline Paul, whose op-ed in the New York Times Sunday Review last month, “Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to be Scared?” went viral. Paul is the author of the bestselling new book The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, which is part high-energy how-to guide, part hilarious memoir, and part interactive adventure journal designed to help girls of all ages build confidence, pluck, and bravery by venturing outside.

“I want to gird girls with life lessons of bravery and resilience before puberty, before the real pressures kick in: to be liked at all costs, to look pretty, to be perfect,”

Paul, 52, was one of the first female firefighters in San Francisco in 1989. One of the first things she tells me during a phone call is that most parents, often without realizing it, treat girls differently than boys. “Even the most progressive, open-minded parents caution them more, saying, Be careful. Oh, no you shouldn’t. Or, Watch out!” she says. “There’s a sense that our daughters need more protection than sons, which is ironic, because before age 11, girls are ahead of boys physically and emotionally. My twin sister and I could beat every boy in class until seventh grade. Until then, we were the same as boys. And we break the same as boys.”

It’s never too early—or late—to raise girls to be fearless and adventuresome. “I want to gird girls with life lessons of bravery and resilience before puberty, before the real pressures kick in: to be liked at all costs, to look pretty, to be perfect,” says Paul, whose own madcap childhood escapades included trying to set the Guinness World Record for crawling when she was 13 years old. (The distance to beat was 12 miles; nearly hypothermic, she quit at mile eight.) “Going outdoors gives you confidence and self-esteem to handle the teenage years, and it carries into womanhood, too,” Paul says. “Nature doesn’t care what you look like or if you’re popular or nice. What it cares about is if you’re a good team player.”

The most awesome part of the awesome message of Gutsy Girl? “Bravery is learned,” Paul says. Build it into our girls’ hearts, brains and bodies now and we’ll raise a new generation of badass female forces. Here are ten ways to teach our girls and ourselves.

1. Adjust Your Attitude

My two girls have been game and outgoing from the get-go, but I knew I might be unwittingly sending mixed messages about fearfulness and danger, so I inventoried my recent behavior for signs of gender bias: Would I have encouraged my daughters to hit ski jumps faster and launch higher if they were sons? Doubtful. I have no problem shouting at their ski buddies, who are boys, to slow down if I think they’re out of control (yeah, I’m that mom). If they had Y chromosomes would I let them play unsupervised in the sandy arroyo near our house, collecting iron with little magnets, without checking to make sure they were safe from strangers every ten minutes? Possibly. Take stock of your own prejudices in different scenarios and ask yourself honestly if, now, knowing what you do about girls’ capabilities, you really need to hover so closely while she hauls off across the monkey bars. Would you do the same with your son?

2. Talk About Fear

“Emotions are complicated,” explains Paul, “and as girls, we are acculturated very early to fear. But here’s the thing: the rush of fear feels a lot like excitement. Sometimes they’re just feeling exhilarated when they're faced with a steep hill on their bike. Girls need tools to understand the emotions as they grow up.” We should encourage girls to go outside their comfort zone, Paul says. “When they are scared, say ‘OK, you’re scared. What else are you feeling?’ Then let them name their feelings: excitement, confidence, et cetra. Talk to them about their skill level so they can put fear in its place and go forward. I really think that if you give them guidance, fear won’t stop them.”

3. Practice Bravery

As Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, “Do something every day that scares you.” Give equal or greater air time to bravery. “Bravery is an emotion that’s unfamiliar for girls. It’s considered the purview of boys and men,” says Paul. “No one questions a mother’s courage to protect her kids, but it’s so odd that we don’t attribute bravery to women otherwise. At a young age, if girls learn to value bravery like boys do, they’re going to be so good at it.” Paul suggests encouraging your girl to practice five acts of “microbravery” each week, like picking up that icky spider on the kitchen counter. And when your daughter does something gutsy, name that too. Repeat after me: “that was brave!”

4. Break It Down

If your girl has a goal that intimidates her—like climbing a tree when she’s scared of heights—show her how to break it down into smaller steps. “A lot of girls are focused on perfection,” says Paul. “It’s that all or nothing thing. But you don’t have to be perfect.” If you get to the top of a steep hill on your bikes and your daughter balks, stop for a moment to ask her, “What do you think we should do about this?” Break it down into shorter, more approachable chunks and pretty soon she’ll be flying down the hill from top to bottom in one go. “Feeling scared is good,” says Paul. “After all, the bravest person is the one who feels afraid and does it anyway.”

5. Find Role Models

“I actually grew up very shy and kind of a scaredy cat,” Paul says. “I read a lot. Which is where I got a lot of my role models. Most of them were men, like explorer Ned Gillette.” Ditch the princess phase by pointing your girls to books with strong female characters, so they can identify their own role models. The pages of Gutsy Girl are filled Girl Heroes, including teen rock climber Brooke Raboutou and round-the-world explorer Nellie Bly. Says Paul, “I rarely talk about them being the best women. They are the best in the world.”

6. Give Them a Long Leash

When Paul was 13, she read a story about building a milk carton boat in National Geographic—and then spent months making her own. She never would have collected enough cartons if she was bouncing from piano lessons to soccer to gymnastics every day after school, like so many schoolchildren these days. “You have to give kids free time to dream up and do their own adventures,” she says. This starts with letting them out the door on their own, an increasingly controversial parenting move of late. “I don’t think we’re protecting kids when don’t let them go outside on their own. We’re simply putting a bubble on them until they rebel. And then when they do, they have very little of the expertise we should have been giving them. It’s about giving them the right information so they can make good decisions.” 

7. But Not So Long…

As a child and young adult growing up with her twin sister in rural Connecticut, Paul was constantly hatching crazy new adventures. Sometimes a little too crazy. Once she got sucked into a thunderhead while paragliding in Brazil; another time she nearly lost a partner in a crevasse on Denali.“I learned that being reckless is not being an adventurer,” she says. “It’s being stupid. Being an adventurer is all about assessing risk and understanding your own comfort zone.” Teach your girls to be aware of the inherent risks in their sports, clear-eyed about their own skills, and humble in the face of natural forces greater than themselves. Then you can back off and really let them rip. 

8. Stick It Out 

To be truly gutsy, girls don’t have to be the best. They just have be determined. “I’m not being coy when I say that I’m not that highly skilled,” says Paul. “But what my sister and I are is super dogged. We have a belief if you are motivated enough, you can actually do it. Girls often think you’re born with a talent or you’re not, and if you’re not, you better not try it. But that was never something we thought.” Instead, they got savvy and came up with two guiding strategies in life:  “One, find a niche where nobody else is,”—case in point, Paul’s brief stint on the U.S.A. National Luge Team—“and two, be determined.”

9. Failing Is Cool, Too 

Paul bailed on her world record crawling attempt, but it’s still the raddest, most inspiring story in her book. Not because she and a friend dragged themselves for eight miles along her high school track while the boys’ lacrosse team jogged by (“To say that we were embarrassed does not come close to describing the mortification we felt.”) But because at age 13, she came up with the hair-brained idea and was intrepid enough to try. “Failure is having a resurgence,” Paul says. “It’s inevitable and a way of moving forward.” She writes, “Anne and I had failed but we had also dreamed big, which is much better than dreaming small and succeeding. Setting a world record is magnificent. But you know what? Failing to set one is pretty impressive, too.”

10. Let the Boys in on It, Too

Finally, don’t discriminate. “Boys should read this book, too,” says Paul. “They’ll like it because it’s about adventure. And they need to see that girls are kick-ass.”

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  • Rita Pontes

When we truly let our children run free, the only guarantee is that they will surprise us

By Bent Hewitt, Sep 1, 2018 - How to Raise Brave Kids

By the time my eldest son, Fin, turned six, the age at which he might reasonably have been expected to enter the public-­education system, my wife, Penny, and I had long since determined that neither of our children (Fin’s brother, Rye, is three years younger) would darken a schoolhouse doorway. As if this wasn’t recalcitrant enough, we’d also decided to pursue a self-directed, curriculum-free educational style known as unschooling. This meant that at the age when most American children are busy memorizing the alphabet, our sons were running wild in the fields and forests surrounding our rural Vermont home, belt knives and bow drills at the ready. Like many of our contemporaries in the unschooling movement, we placed our faith in the freedom and trust that more-­formal learning institutions are ill-equipped to provide. The result, we assumed, would be a degree of curiosity and resourcefulness that no school could equal.

I wrote about my family’s educational path in a 2014 essay for Outside called “We Don’t Need No Education,” and then in my book Home Grown. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the publication of our story, but I know I didn’t expect what I got. My inbox was flooded with e-mail from readers in at least as many countries as I have fingers, and I fielded calls from producers at the BBC, the National Geographic Channel, and CBS’s 60 Minutes, to name a few.

Obviously, I’d hit a nerve, one rubbed raw by a growing but still largely unspoken dissatisfaction with compulsory standardized learning, accompanied by a collective groping toward a satisfactory alternative. Could my family’s grand experiment be the answer, or at least part of it? Could my free-ranging sons really learn all they needed to survive and even thrive in an increasing complex and technology-driven world? Should Penny and I be revered or brought up on charges of negligence? I soon realized I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and quick as we could, we returned to living the quiet life we’d led before our brush with mainstream notoriety. This included the running of our small farm, the continuation of my freelance writing career, and yes, the unschooling of our two sons, by then 12 and 9.

Over the intervening years, I’ve been asked repeatedly for updates, and mostly demurred or answered in only the vaguest of terms. Partly this was due to an increased sense of protectionism around our boys during their blossoming adolescence, and partly it was rooted in my feeling that people were hungry for a particular type of affirmation that I could not provide: the assurance that despite their atypical education, my sons would prosper in the modern world.

I still cannot (nor do I care to) offer such affirmation. They are now only 16 and 13, still kids after all, albeit of an age when the oncoming headlights of adulthood loom large and the awareness of those new respon­sibilities can feel overwhelming. But then this is true of any child. Come to think of it, it’s true of most adults I know, including myself. As children, we tend to view adulthood as some sort of self-actualized plateau; as adults, we tend to view it as a double-loop roller coaster operated by a drunken carny.

I’ve learned a lot over the past four years, much of it informed by my sons. I’ve watched as Fin’s interest in music has become a driving force in his life, leading him to seek out an apprenticeship with a master guitar builder and, ultimately, to part-time enrollment in a public school with a unique student-led program that has them composing songs, booking gigs, touring, and recording. Fin loves the social opportunities school provides, along with the chance to immerse himself even more completely in music. And while it was initially difficult for Penny and me to see him walk through those doors, there is no denying that the life of my unschooled son is richer for the public-education system. Many times I have had to remind myself that just as I encourage others to challenge their assumptions regarding education, so too is it healthy to challenge my own.

Rye continues to be mostly unschooled, with just a bit of sit-down math thrown into the mix. He still spends the majority of his days in the woods. He remains a committed practitioner of traditional skills, as well as an avid hunter and trapper. (Indeed, the very morning I sat down to write this piece, I awoke at 3:30 A.M. to drive him to the field where he’d scouted wild turkeys the week before; four hours later, I picked him up, along with tomorrow night’s dinner.) His skills have evolved to the point where he now mentors younger children. He is saving for a truck, working part-time at dairy and vegetable farms and at a maple-sugaring operation down the road. I suspect that once he turns 16 and is granted a driver’s license, it won’t be long before we watch his tail lights disappearing down our driveway. He talks of big-game hunting in Alaska and the allure of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range.

I want to make one thing clear: we never set out to rewild our children, at least to the extent that I understand rewilding to mean an emergence of body, mind, and spirit within the natural world. Truthfully, we sought only to provide them the opportunity to fully inhabit their childhoods and their learning, in whatever ways felt most enriching. The fact that much of this occurred in the woods had at least as much to do with geographic circumstances as it did with philosophy. This is not to say that we didn’t have hopes and aspirations for our sons; of course we did. And still do. They’re our children, after all.

But I’ve come to believe that modern parents too often do a poor job of distinguishing between responsibility and control. Which is to say, it is our responsibility to provide a base level of material, intellectual, and emotional support for our children, along with experiences that will enrich their lives. But we cannot control the outcome. Perhaps our children will develop into the capable, compassionate, and successful (however we define success) people we fervently want them to be. And perhaps, in ways that may be disappointing or flat-out painful, they will not. Almost certainly, their interests and lives will evolve in surprising and delightful ways.

With the passage of time, I have become increasingly aware of a particular sort of irony that runs rampant in the unschooling and rewilding communities, which are joined at the hip by an ethos of freedom and self-­reliance. We choose a more liberated approach to our children’s upbringing at least partially out of a well-intentioned desire to ensure the development of specific qualities: curiosity and courage, resilience and resourcefulness. We want to instill a strong sense of place and a connection to something larger than themselves, something that helps them understand the world is not solely the domain of humankind.

In and of itself, this desire is not problematic; I doubt there’s a parent alive who doesn’t want their child to develop specific qualities. It’s when we link these qualities to a particular outcome that we begin to lose our way, that we conflate responsibility with control. I know that Penny and I have been guilty of this. Perhaps, in ways I don’t yet fully understand, we still are.

You can want all the freedom in the world for your children, and you can do your best to provide it. But what they do with it? That, my friend, is simply not up to you.

Ben Hewitt (@lazymillhillfarm) is the author of Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World.

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By Ellen Wexler on July 2, 2014 3:12 PM - Education Week Teacher

When children spend more time in structured activities, they get worse at working toward goals, making decisions, and regulating their behavior, according to a study.

Instead, kids might learn more when they have the responsibility to decide for themselves what they're going to do with their time. Psychologists at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver studied the schedules of 70 six-year olds, and they found that the kids who spent more time in less-structured activities had more highly-developed self-directed executive function.

Self-directed executive function develops mostly during childhood, the researchers write, and it includes any mental processes that help us work toward achieving goals—like planning, decision making, manipulating information, switching between tasks, and inhibiting unwanted thoughts and feelings. It is an early indicator of school readiness and academic performance, according to previous research cited in the study, and it even predicts success into adulthood. Children with higher executive function will be healthier, wealthier, and more socially stable throughout their lives.

The researchers asked parents to record the activities of their six-year-olds for a week, and then they measured how much time each child spent in structured and less-structured activities. The researchers define structured activities as anything organized and supervised by adults—like music lessons or community service. For an activity to be less-structured, the child must be in charge of deciding what to do and figuring out how to do it. All forms of free play counted as less-structured activities.

The researchers conjecture that when children are in control of how they spend their time, they are able to get more practice working toward goals and figuring out what to do next. For instance, the researchers write, a child with a free afternoon ahead of her might decide to read a book. Once she's finished, she might decide to draw a picture about the book, and then she'll decide to show the drawing to her family. This child will learn more than another child who completes the same activities, but is given explicit instructions throughout the process. 

At the end of the week, the researchers tested the children on skills like vocabulary and verbal fluency to measure their executive function. The more time the children spent in less-structured activities, the higher they scored.

"Structured time could slow the development of self-directed control, since adults in such scenarios can provide external cues and reminders about what should happen, and when," the researchers write in the study.

The study is the first of its kind, and the researchers believe it's relevant to debates parents are already having on blogs and at soccer games—but it's also resonating with educators advocating the importance of free play in classrooms.

"The ability to self-direct can spell the difference between an independent student, who can be relied upon to get her work done while chaos reigns around her, and a dependent, aimless student," former teacher Jessica Lahey writes in The Atlantic.

The researchers acknowledge that their study only proves correlation, but not causation. That is, it's possible that children with better executive functioning may prefer to participate in less-structured activities more often, they write, while children with worse executive functioning may be more likely to seek out activities already structured for them.

"This isn't perfect, but it's a first step," psychology and neuroscience professor Yuko Munakata, senior author of the study, said in a press release. "Our results are really suggestive and intriguing. Now we'll see if it holds up as we push forward and try to get more information."

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