In the 1960s when I was growing up, girls didn’t play football. I did. I got thrown off the team for tackling instead of pulling off that stupid little flag. But I could throw a perfect 40-yard spiral. Useless for a teen-aged girl in 1966.
Also useless for a 13-year-old girl was to be able to heft a 100-lb barbell. That stunt cost me dates for the rest of my entire high school experience. I had horses. Who needs boys? That’s what farm chores did- having to heft a 100-lb feed bag into a barrel. It had to be done. It was bigger than I was. You figure out how to do it. After a while the muscles just show up.
In the sports arena, my big brother was the gazelle. I was the dyslexic camel, but I put in the work to get better. As a rider, a runner, anything that got me outside. I loved being in the highest branches of our huge camphor tree, and more than once my mother came hurtling out our back door when she heard the top branches give. There were a lot of them. Helps break the fall. She shook her head, brushed off the splinters and threw my leaf-stained shorts in the wash.
Southern Girls Don’t….
Growing up in Central Florida in the sixties was not a time when girls were encouraged to try radically different things. We were expected to have manners and graciousness, and wear frilly dresses and neat socks, shined shoes and know what kind of silverwear to buy for our hope chest.
A hope chest. Shit. I had no interest in a hope chest.
Getting married and having kids was the last thing on my mind. From the time I was four years old I dreamed of having my own place. My own home. I wanted to explore, get dirty, break my nails, push the boundaries. Luckily neither of my parents either discouraged me, nor did they suffer from helicopter parent syndrome. When I disappeared for an entire day on my horse, I only had to make it home, alive (mostly) for dinner. I was on my own. God bless my parents for trusting that I was responsible. I might have suffered from social anxiety as a child and teenager, but I wasn’t afraid of much else.
I came home covered in chicken poop, bleeding from blackberry thorns, picking ticks off my legs from the forest, and covered in sand from a collapsed sand fort that my brother and I had built. I threw heavy hay over the fence for the horses and packed even heavier crates of eggs for my dad.
But proper Southern Girls didn’t play hard. Nor did they….
…Join the Army
I had left home in the middle of my junior high school year. Good girls didn’t move out on their own. They were handed over by their protective fathers to a proper young man with the expectation of promptly setting up a household. They didn’t put themselves through their senior year of high school on their own. They also didn’t join the Army, especially with the Vietnam War still in play. In many ways the Army and I were made for each other. I met people who introduced me to skydiving, canoeing, sailing, flying and a whole raft of experiences that Good Little Southern Belles didn’t do. While my high school classmates got married and started punching out kids, I was working on the Carter Presidential Inaugural. Learning how to fly. Working out in sweaty, smelly gyms to stay strong. Usually the only female tossing iron.
The first time I ever leapt out of an airplane in 1974 I was utterly hooked. I loved being in the air, the freedom, exhilaration, the pleasure of learning to control my body in the sky. I love the sky. Still do. When I began skydiving, my social anxiety waned. Almost immediately. There was something about facing that open sky, considering the wind, the peas (where you’re supposed to be landing in an ideal world, as opposed to power lines and treetops), and choosing my own exit that demanded confidence.
My experiences pale by comparison to today’s radical women. However what I have learned is that when a girl — of any age — learns to take a risk, she becomes by god invincible. Girls are not by nature risk-averse. They learn to be that way from societal and cultural messaging. By osmosis from their parents. From people who have preprogrammed ideas about feminine roles. When we prevent our kids from taking risks we are communicating at every single level our lack of confidence in them- but more likely, in ourselves.
Go through any department or TJ Maxx store and you’ll see a plethora of dumb signs, all intended to be motivational. Live out loud, they say. Go for it. I have always wondered why we need a sign on the desk or our wall to exhort us to take a chance, when all it takes is enough guts to just do it NOW. When we train our little girls to be black belts, or box, or ride enormous horses, we begin to lock in a level of confidence and invincibility. Back when I first began skydiving my mother told me that I had a death wish. That was her way of saying stop doing what I was doing.
Those of us who skydive or scuba dive or ski or paraglide or horseback ride- assuming we’re serious about it- take lessons and train our asses off. We prepare. We intend to enjoy every delicious, intense drop of adrenaline available and we are coming back for more. When over protective parents shriek Don’t do that! at our little girls, we terrorize them. Rather, let’s stand behind them and show them how to do a trust fall. Let’s teach them the skills to be damned competent. And let’s wipe the blood off their noses when they get hurt, and send them back out to do it again until they master whatever they’re doing. Deal with it. Life is like this, too. Because it is. We cannot and should not protect our kids from bumps and bruises. That raises cowards and sissies and people terrified of stepping outside their comfort zones. It also makes them easy targets and victims.
Last year I saw a Facebook video of a tiny tornado boxing with her trainer. Her hands were moving so fast they were a blur. That is one tot that is never, ever, ever going to be sexually assaulted. One dynamo who is going to make mincemeat out of any predator who thinks he’s going to make off with her tiny butt. Nobody is ever going to bully her. On top of that she is likely going to stand up for others who can’t protect themselves. Her daddy made her into a superhero. She doesn’t need to be motivated by watching Wonder Woman, she already is Wonder Woman in her own right. Wanna see something absolutely positively badass? Watch:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTkodB6gXbk
When I turned 64 I bought a kick boxing tape by Ilaria Montagnani, the remarkable martial artist. My gift to expand my abilities and push my limit. I love the punches and kicks and combinations. While I probably look like old goat on methamphetamine to my neighbors, I DON’T CARE. The workouts are hard, they shove me into discomfort, they build my skills, they push my balance. That’s badass at any age.
Here, come get this sammich, assholes
That builds radical girls. Girls who make it to the Antarctic in their mid-teens and wave sandwiches at the trolls who are so intimidated by them that all they can do is attack on line. Little girls who rock. https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/26/world/jade-hameister-epic-sandwich-response-trnd/index.html. Australian uber-kid Jade Hameister is the kind of kid who inspires me, at 65, to keep right on being radical.
“Parenting experts say that children who are encouraged to take reasonable, safe risks … tend to grow in confidence, are willing to make mistakes and use each failure as an education.” One of these experts, Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a professor, parenting speaker and mother, explains that this kind of risk taking is, “like everything else, something [kids] learn from parents and the experiences we provide them with.” https://avid4.com/blog/building-confidence-through-positive-risk-taking/
Radical girls don’t back away from a conflict and they don’t sell their personal value for the affection of some boy. If anything they are so busy becoming remarkable young women that boys become a back story. That’s not such a bad thing. Then when one comes along who really, truly appreciates who she is, and what she’s capable of, he’s not busy trying to tear her down.
A little girl who is encouraged to take risks becomes a woman of substance. She wouldn’t dream of watching others live a life out loud. She’s doing it herself. Unapologetic, proud and unstoppable. She’s not afraid to take life on the nose. Life WILL punch her. It’s as inevitable as death. How she handles it is largely determined by how she trains her mind, body and spirit to deal with being busted down, failing, and getting right back up.
Taking risks has taught me to be at ease in virtually any situation. I’ve nearly died in two skydiving events, damned near gotten myself eaten by a bull shark diving the Sardine Run, came way too close to a lion attack. I summitted Kilimnajaro at 60. I’ve run a half wild horse at full speed in the Egyptian desert and ridden a camel for seven days across Tanzania accompanied only by Masai men. I’ve kayaked isolated lakes in Greenland and broken my back riding a pissed-off horse in Kazakhstan. At 64. Those things put steel in a backbone. The more I do the more I am willing to do. These experiences have taught me to have supreme confidence in my competence, my ability to handle emergencies, and holy cow, do I have stories. Stories that no other 65 year old I know has, other than people like Jane Goodall and others like her close to my age or thereabouts. There are not enough of us out there as role models. And there is no earthly reason why there shouldn’t be LOTS more of us.
When a little girl learns to take risks, she learns never to panic. She learns to trust her strength, common sense and instincts. Whether she becomes an athlete, a researcher, an explorer, an entrepreneur or a CEO makes no difference. The fundamental lesson is pushing boundaries, and exploring our limitations. The more risks we’re willing to take, the more the entire world opens up to us.
Confidence Comes From Doing
There have been plenty of times I’ve felt deep terror. When I was being lifted by two diving pros through deep, icy water off the coast of South Africa with one ear bleeding and sharks making the rounds, I guarantee you I wanted to piss my wetsuit. But I kept my body soft and pliant, calmed my breathing (if not my heartbeat) and we made the requisite safety stops to get me to the surface and into the dinghy without incident. That kind of self control comes with risk taking. Panic kills. When I was beginning my skydiving career, in 1974 I watched a good girlfriend of mine panic on the way down, flip onto her back to struggle with her reserve shoot, and burn into the ground. In air sports, there is no time to panic. You do or not do. The consequences are permanent. I never forgot that awful sight and it taught me everything I need to know about taking training seriously. I lost my main parachute twice in 130 jumps, and both times in a matter of milliseconds my reserve was out and functional. There is no time to say, Gee, what do I do now? By that time you are three inches from road kill.
Turning Your Daughter into A Warrior
My old skydiving instructor from the eighties tracked me down recently when a letter of mine was published in Sports Illustrated. Robin had become a stunt man and had lived the life for all the years I’d not known him. By now he had a daughter, and he was steadily but surely turning his five-year-old into a Force of Nature. She was already a black belt in Karate, a horseback rider (Robin’s sister Terrie is a top notch riding instructor) and he is introducing her to more and more sports every year. She is downright fearless. I love Robin for doing this. Robin introduced me to his sister some years ago, and I’ve been training with her since. Fearlessness runs in their family.
Robin began training me on untrained, unpredictable horses. I learned how to deal with buckers, biters, backward-walking irritated barn sour brats, horses that spun in a circle, tried to pry me off at a dead run. The worse the horse, the better I got. Now I have a reputation at my stable for taking on the basket cases. Any damned fool can be put on a well-mannered horse and look like an Olympic pro. Let’s see what you do when we put you on a banshee. I have had my share of banshees all over the world. When you ride in Laos or Cambodia or Kazakhstan, you don’t know what you’re going to get. That’s part of the adventure. I ask for the most spirited horse. It’s cost me at times, but not only did I get up and walk away from each accident (once with a broken back, another with smashed ribs and broken teeth) I come back for more. Little girls who start riding young — my dad started me at four — learn to listen to their animals, and trust their instincts with enormous creatures.
A Modern Day Amazon
I’ve read stories about little girls in Africa being brought up playing with lion cubs and other so -called “dangerous creatures.” Hogwash. And here’s why. Kids are incredibly open and vulnerable- which is in and of itself a strength. I was taught never ever to fear a big animal-they read the emotion as a threat. When you are completely innocent when you approach animals and your intent is to be open, soft and curious, the chances of having them accept you are very high. You learn to be respectful of their unique personality, and their body language. A child who learns to respect animals- huge ones- young, not only learns to love them but when she grows up she protects them and the land they live on. We need vastly more of that right now. To read more about Tippi, who is living the life that ALL of us have every right to live, see https://www.boredpanda.com/tippi-of-africa-real-life-mowgli-girl/. In a monumentally important way, Tippi defines what is normal, not exceptional. For my money, she’s living how we all could live. At one with creatures, accepted by them, in love with them. She is my kind of badass girl. Her parents trust her and they have every reason to. What an enormous gift.
Not just about our kids
Let’s be fair. This isn’t just about children. This is about you, too. The other day on an online forum I read about a woman in her sixties who has decided to learn to ride a Harley. For her that is a massive adventure. By god, bully for her. It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference what the risk is- when you take it you completely erase the “impossible” that you carry like a lead weight. The impossible that causes us to say “I could NEVER do that.” That’s right, you can’t, until you just pull up your big girl panties and deal with it. In fact, that is the only sign that I have in my entire house.
Go to one of those skydiving tunnels and learn to fly your body (they are superb, they increase air skills by leaps and bounds). Who cares what your adventure is? When you and I as mentors, friends, and parents take risks, we teach our kids to be immensely brave. We don’t have to worry about them when we imbue them with skills, a sense of personal power, respect for their environments, and a deep feeling of respect for themselves.
Brave parents bring up brave girls. Brave girls like Blair Braverman (I’m not making that up, she’s a dog musher and an author). Brave girls like Lindsay Vonn. Brave girls like yours can be when you are also brave enough to encourage, try new things, and trust your kid’s instincts. They are considerable. Timid kids can come out of their shells. I cured social anxiety, which can be crippling. Not any more. And for my money, if taking a risk here and there can open the door up for us- and our kids- to live out loud for the rest of a good, long life, then it’s worth it.
See you guys at the drop zone- and bring your little girls.