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December 2016 Issue
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How to raise adventurous girls

Raising girls who are adventurous and confident in the outdoors comes down to the attitudes of their parents. Photo: David Norton
Don’t be over-protective – let them make decisions and take risks

Alice, our 19 year-old daughter, has recently joined both her university tramping club and the New Zealand Alpine Club. Growing up in a family with three girls, she was surprised to learn that participation in the outdoors was so heavily skewed toward males. During most of her tramping life, her father had always been outnumbered by me and her sisters.

Research tells us that most parents, without realising it, will treat their girls differently to boys. As parents of three daughters, we never faced this challenge. We still needed to be conscious of their gender, but it was important to us that they grew up feeling confident, brave and adventurous in the outdoors.

If you have young girls and wish to grow them into young women who are competent, confident and comfortable in the outdoors, here are a few tips to help you on your way.

Share the tasks

Avoid slipping into traditional gender roles in the hills. David and I had to make a conscious effort to mix up the chores while tramping. We were shocked when one of our girls asked, “Does mum know how to put up the tent?” as they never saw me doing it. It was a job David loved so I always left him to it.

A girlfriend of mine says her husband monopolised the fire lighting duties. But as a covert pyromaniac herself, she likes her children to see that she, too, is capable of making a good fire.

Let them fail

It’s okay for girls to get muddy, fall out of trees and trip in slippery rivers. Our girls have received cuts, stumbled in precarious places, sprained their ankles, fallen off top bunks and burnt themselves, all while having a fun and adventuresome time in the outdoors. While stereotypes might have us believe that girls need more protecting than boys, all kids require the freedom to make mistakes and fail; it’s how they learn, improve their skills and develop resilience.

Give them the reins 

Let your daughters take the lead and teach them to feel confident in their own abilities when making decisions about navigation, route finding, or where to pitch the tent. Let them know you will advise and guide them when necessary, so they don’t need to keep checking with you if what they are doing is correct. When you’re following them and you spy a way that might save you a few seconds, don’t undermine them by zooming past – it’s just not necessary.

Drop the competitiveness

While a bit of competition can be fun and motivating, it’s not good for anyone if family members compete with each other too much, especially if the same people are always ‘winning’.

Kids have different capabilities at different stages as they are growing and developing and no child needs to grow up in an environment where the first person to the hut or the top of a hill is considered superior or ‘better’ at the tramping game.

Encourage them to question your decision-making

You want your kids to be comfortable discussing and questioning the decisions you make in the hills, but this is especially important for your daughters. It can be hard for females to question authority, especially in male-dominated situations, but if dads let them practice on them, they can help their daughters develop this skill. Statistically speaking, chances are your daughters’ future climbing and tramping companions will be male, and you want them to be comfortable being part of important discussions, debates and decisions that need to be made on trips.

Teach determination

You don’t have to be the fittest, the fastest or the strongest to enjoy outdoor pursuits, or to be good at them. Our girls know that David will usually be in front of me going up a hill. His legs are longer, bigger and stronger, so if we are at a similar fitness level, I’m usually behind him. But that’s okay. Our girls know that motivation and determination are often more important than speed and strength and we have taught them to value these attributes.

Be a good role model

Mums need to be good role models. Let your daughters see you taking risks, being scared and brave, taking the lead and making navigational decisions. What your daughters see you doing will determine what they believe they can do, both now, while they are young, and in the future, when they are pursuing their outdoor adventures without you.

Encourage bravery

In the world of superheroes and fantasy, bravery is often the domain of males. Talk about fear with your girls and praise acts of bravery when they are obviously scared but they ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

We have had fearful tears at times from our girls, notably when crossing a hairy three-wire bridge, traversing scary ridgelines, descending steep scree slopes and even when walking back from the long-drop in the dark on their own. But these moments have also provided us with the opportunity to talk about being scared, feeling brave, knowing their limits and having confidence in their abilities and skills.

At times, their acts of bravery have astounded not only themselves but David and me too.