One day my 9-year-old daughter came home from school and complained to me about the way her classmate—who happened to be a boy—was playing superheroes with her during recess. Every time she got close to defeating him with her laser eyes, he would say that he had an invisible force field that was protecting him against everything. His force field made her feel powerless and unable to defend herself. She didn’t want to risk losing a friend, so after a while, she decided to just let him win.
I recounted to her that in my younger years I also had this experience when playing with some of my male classmates. I also never could figure out how to win against the rules, invisible protections, and risks that seemed to exist in their world.
Thirty years later, even as gender roles are finally starting to take a back seat, I was still attempting to decipher what drove a boy to have the confidence to conjure up an imaginary protective shield. Why wasn't that something my daughter did, too? My daughter and her 7-year-old sister have the largest imaginations I have ever seen, yet it didn't occur to them (or me) to play that way.
My daughter’s experience prompted me to find answers to my decades-long observations. I wanted to learn what the parents of boys were doing to make them feel like they were invincible. I wanted to give the same confidence to my daughters and teach them to be leaders.
I turned to Google and the first thing I found online was a study from 1998 that concluded it may just be biological, that boys are bigger risk takers than girls. The study included 290 kids who were shown photos of children performing one of four common activities—cycling, going down a slide, climbing monkey bars, or using a swing. And for each activity, there were also four photos showing different levels of risk. As it turns out, the boys were less likely to assess and avoid risk to their body before leaping into a predicament; the boys were taking the plunge.
I admit, the study made me nervous. If my girls aren't taking the same chances, how can they expect to reap the rewards? Then I came across a newer study from 2017 which found that girls may just assess risk differently because they face different obstacles than their male counterparts. So at that point I realized I needed to encourage my girls to take risks, no matter what comes their way.
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A good way to do this is by rewarding the act of taking a risk and not the result, says Mira Brancu, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. “What distinguishes long-term success is persistence in the face of setbacks. The best way to support that mindset is to see the risk as part of a journey of growth,” says Dr. Brancu. “If you praise the attempt, you are praising the progress toward the goal and the excitement of trying something new.” Next time your kid takes a risk, she says, provide feedback like, “I’m so proud that you tried even though you were nervous. Can you believe how brave you were?”
Another good way, adds Dr. Brancu, is being a role model for taking risks. I dove right into this one when I did an interview segment for a talk show. It was the scariest thing that I ever did. But we made a deal: I’d do the interview and my girls would leave behind their stage fright to speak in front of their class. My 9-year-old was so inspired with taking a chance that she got up and sang in front of her class—without any music accompanying her. We bonded over the risks we were taking, and it felt amazing when we succeeded.
As parents, it can be tempting to try to stop our kids from ever taking a risk so that they’ll never fail or be hurt. I've learned that isn't possible, and if it were possible, they would miss out on so many things that help them grow into capable little humans that can bust through any type of force field they encounter.