The importance of raising brave girls

“Bravery is the audacity to be unhindered by failures, and to walk with freedom, strength and hope in the face of things unknown.” - Morgan Harper Nichols

In 2016, author and presenter, Caroline Paul presented a TedTalk about raising brave girls and encouraging adventure. As a child, Caroline Paul was obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records which led her to try to break the world record for crawling which was 12.5 miles at the time. With furniture pads on the outside of their jeans and in the pouring rain, Caroline and her friend crawled 8.5 miles in 12 hours.

She reveals that in her attempt to break the record for crawling she was getting out of her comfort zone, calling upon her resilience and finding confidence in herself. These aspects of bravery remained with her and continued to develop in adulthood. In 1989, Caroline Paul became one of only 15 female firefighters in San Francisco. He co-workers, family and friends were doubtful about taking on such a dangerous career and whether she was strong and brave enough to take on such a responsibility.

She describes one particular fire when she and her fellow male firefighter were blown backwards by an explosion. She picked herself up, took up the hose nozzle and continued to fight the fire. Her partner told her she had done a good job because he had been doubtful of her ability to manage in such dangerous situations. 

Caroline Paul posits the view that parents treat their daughters differently to their sons. There is an inherent view that girls should be protected and treated as being more fragile, whereas, it is good for boys to be involved in more risk taking play and activities. Such actions send a message to girls that they should be fearful when in a situation which takes them out of their comfort zone. 

Dame Stephanie Shirley makes a similar point through speaking and writing about her own life. As a five year old, she was sent to England as part of the Kindertransport which saved 10000 Jewish children living under the control of the Nazis. In the 1960’s she set up her own software company and recruited women who had professional qualifications but had to leave their jobs when they had a family. Her company programed the black box flight recorder for the Supersonic Concord and the women who worked on the project were all working from home. Despite the challenges, dame Shirley demonstrated bravery and continued to develop her company. 

Learning courage

As Caroline Paul points out, bravery can be learned. I have been able to observe how this type of learning plays out at our school. 

In our Kindergarten the children are encouraged to take risks in their play. Such risk taking allows them to undertake their own hazard or risk assessments and develop resilience and confidence. Our Bush Kindergarten provides an excellent example in that the children have the freedom to explore their natural environment. When there is a tree to be climbed or some water to play in, the children assess the environment, determine what the risks might be, and make adjustments to their play.

Bravery can be learned in the classroom environment. Our girls in the Junior School are provided with learning challenges within the curriculum offered to them. Our girls demonstrate bravery when they proffer a response to a question from their teacher or suggest a way to solve a problem to the other girls in their group. Girls like to offer correct answers, and there is bravery is speaking up even though you might not have the correct answer.

The Senior School curriculum offers similar opportunities for risk taking, making mistakes, and using your voice to offer opinions or challenge the opinions of others. The texts which the girls read are often focused on characters who challenge themselves, take a different path than others, or make mistakes which result in important lessons learned. 

Playing sport, joining co-curricular activities and participating in service to the community all support the development of resilience and bravery within our girls. 

Outdoor Education for girls

From my perspective, our students have over the past two years, been challenged to overcome some of the most difficult circumstances our community has had to face. They have experienced the challenges presented by Lock Downs and remote learning. They have had to find ways to remain connected with their family and friends, often missing out on the milestones that would be expected in their lives. For a period of two years our Year 12 students have had to learn differently and have had to overcome hurdles to complete their examinations and move forward into tertiary studies. Their resilience has been further developed and their bravery has been demonstrated.

I often reflect on the challenges that past Principal, Ruth Tidemann, had in the early 1990’s when Howqua was planned and executed. She was supported by the School Council and families, but I am sure there were those members of the School and broader community who may not have recognized the benefits of such a program for girls. The literature on Outdoor Education has generally been focused on the benefits for boys in terms of building resilience and bravery. Like Caroline Paul, I believe that Outdoor Education was another sphere in which it was good for boys to take risks but the environment would be dangerous for girls. 

The girls who have completed our Howqua program provide excellent examples of how being taken out of one’s comfort zone and offering opportunities for confidence building can significantly change one’s view of self as a confident and capable individual. When a girl can successfully complete a six day hike or manage changing weather conditions or support your peers during a canoeing activity, then she becomes aware of her own strength and bravery. This level of personal understanding of one’s capabilities and character can be used in every aspect of your life.

Susan Just, Principal