This summer, at an all girls’ summer camp, a few other camp counselors and I took our girls on a low ropes obstacle, a swinging ladder strung up between two trees. It was the turn to go of the youngest of the group -- a small 5-year-old. I watched as my kids, about 10 and 11-years- old, cheered on the youngster. I joined in, hoping to build up her confidence so she could complete the daunting task, but when she placed her first hand on the ladder I realized my cheers, and the cheers of the others, would go unheard. Still I cheered.
Her eyes twinkled and she grinned as she scampered up the ladder as quickly as her small legs would take her. She didn’t need our support or cheers to build her confidence. She was fearless and, most of all, she had no doubt in her mind that she could complete the ladder. Despite this, we laughed at her and talked about how cute her carefreeness was.
When the next girl climbed on to the ladder, the mood had changed. She was older, one of the 10-year-olds. She attacked the ladder with the same amount fearlessness as the child before. I gritted my teeth as she nearly fell attempting a gutsy jump in order to complete the obstacle as fast as she could. The girls begged her to slow down, telling her she didn’t have to be the best at everything. I stood silently watching.
The hypocrisy of the two girls’ treatment surprised me. Now, the 5-year-old's unapologetic, brazen confidence was written off as innocence and naivety, but if she dared to act the same way at 10 she’d be quickly shot down by society and her peers. It’s no secret when it comes to people, especially girls -- confidence drops with age, but to see the living proof of it in front of my eyes was shocking. To see that the ones tearing the lucky girl, the one who had managed to stay confident, was not some outside force, but the girls themselves. What surprised me even more was the lack of encouragement and cheers the girls gave a 10-year-old who seemed to doubt herself. I wondered if I had ever been the 5-year-old or the 10-year-old or the group of girls.
Later, the 10-year-old came to me. Ashamed, she whispered that the other girls had cruelly asked her why she always wanted to be the best. I paused, not sure what to say. Part of me wanted to know why too -- another part wanted to scold her for not putting her safety first.
I knelt down so we were eye to eye and made her promise she’d never let what anyone had to say stop her from doing anything she loved. When she nodded and walked away I sighed, hoping it was good enough to undo any damage my gritting teeth and lack of cheering had done.