Girls can be as brave as boys — and need to be raised believing that's true, an author and former firefighter says.

Caroline Paul is a former member of the San Francisco fire department, and has rescued people from burning buildings, flown planes and performed CPR on a baby.

But when she first became a firefighter 20 years ago, the question she got asked the most was, "Aren't you afraid?"

Paul says that's the wrong question to ask, and explains why in her new book, Escapades of Your Life of Epic Adventure.

She's not suggesting parents are doing a poor job raising their children, but that parents can improve their daughters' ability to face challenges — and enjoy doing so — later in life.

Paul spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray earlier this week when she was in town for Geeky Summit, a conference for women working in the technology sector.

Q: What's wrong with asking women and girls if they're afraid of something?

A: For me, personally, I was in a really exciting job, so when someone asked me whether I was scared, I was missing out on all these great stories that I could tell them because I had accessed, actually, my bravery. And I think we ask girls and women if they're scared a lot because we assume that they are.

Q: You accessed your bravery? What does that mean?

A: I think that we have a choice when we face situations like, I guess as a firefighter, but even as I'm talking to women in tech, when you walk into a job and ask for a raise.

You can choose to look through the situation sort of through a paradigm of fear or through a paradigm of bravery.

And I think we raise our girls to look at things outside their comfort zone with fear, and we teach our boys to get outside their comfort zone and use bravery.

I'm sort of on a stomp to get us to change that and add girls to the list of people who should be acting brave.

Q: If I take what what you say at face value, that we ask girls if they're afraid more often, are we developing a conditioned response in young girls to that question?

A: Yeah, there's no question, and they have studies that show that.

There's a study that I cite a lot about parents on a playground and they saw that parents — both moms and dads — were way more likely to caution their girls when they played on playground equipment than they were their boys.

'Actually, she's not that scared. Often she's simply outside her comfort zone.' - Caroline Paul

With their girls, they'd caution them and say, "Please don't do that," and if they still wanted to do that, they would often assist them.

But for boys, they would encourage them to play on this playground equipment and they'd often show them how to use it on their own.

So we're sending a message to girls that you're fragile and helpless — and we're telling boys, rightly, that they should access their bravery, get out of their comfort zone and do it on their own.

Q: Are we reinforcing to girls that if you act scared, it's cute? Do we make that mistake as parents?

A: Yeah, I think we've now decided that fear is a feminine trait.

I think as parents, it's not that we're being bad parents. It's that we think fear protects a girl because we view the world, I think, as more dangerous for girls — and I'm not necessarily disputing that.

'Guide a girl to get outside her comfort zone, no matter what it is.' - Caroline Paul

But what I am saying is, fear will not protect us. Bravery will. Because here's the thing about bravery, and you'll see it with boys.

When you act brave, you learn all these skills of self-confidence and relying on your own decisions and how to take risks that make sense.

Boys learn all this and then they apply it when they get older to their jobs and their families.

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Don't teach your girls to be fragile and helpless, the author says. Instead, guide them so they learn to be brave in new situations. (John Amis/AP file photo)

As girls, we're taught often to just be fearful, and we're actually sort of rewarded. You'll notice when a girl says she's scared, often people will laugh and think it's cute.

Actually, she's not that scared. Often she's simply outside her comfort zone. Now we're not teaching her all those lessons that come when you get outside your comfort zone.

Q: In your world, what does it mean to raise a girl that's gutsy?

A: It means that when she says she's afraid that you encourage her to look at things through a paradigm of bravery, like say, "I am brave." It also means looking at what we are telling our girls and just watching when we say, "No," when she's doing something that seems risky to you.

Often this is physical risk because kids, of course, are outside playing. But later that's going to translate into emotional risk, psychic risk — and we're not going to have the tools.

So just watch and instead guide a girl to get outside her comfort zone, no matter what it is.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener