12 years later and I still remember the day my Eldest child climbed her first mountain. She and I were hanging out at a local indoor playground where she was exploring the colorful structure in the toddler area. I was about six feet away as I watched her struggle to get over a one-foot high foam wall focused on reaching the colorful pile of blocks in the middle. She would get a little stuck just as she was at the top of the wall and start teetering on her belly like a stranded turtle. There was no way to know what would happen next . . . maybe she would fall face first onto the other side or maybe she would fall back on to her heavily diapered behind.
I watched. I waited. She teetered.
Oh . . . the parenting suspense.
As I sat there watching her determined self try to conquer, what for her was a mountain, I remember thinking to myself, “Go little girl, you can do it!” And then just like that, a well-intentioned mom swooped in and, with a gentle “Here you go sweetie!” lifted her up and over the wall. I thought nothing of it at first, but then it happened again and again and again. When she would get a little stuck, struggling to get over the wall, someone would come in and help her out.
Three times, back and forth she was not allowed to do it on her own. Now, I cannot be certain, but every time someone lifted her to the other side, I am pretty sure that Eldest gave them the “Hey lady, I can do it myself!” stink-eye. Eventually I moved a little closer and just as the next parent was about to make her rescue move said, “It’s okay, she can make it on her own.”
The sociologist in me widened my observation lens to see how other children were being treated and, yep, you guessed it, the only kids getting this kind of help were the girls. Now I am sure that no one was thinking, “Poor girls, they can’t make it without some help” but that is the message that was being sent to my daughter. The message of what can be expected or assumed of girls was being sent loud and clear: boys can be left to overcome, girls must be helped; boys can be rough and tumble, girls must be pampered; boys CAN, girls canNOT.
As the father of three girls and living in a home where all of the fish are probably female as well, I fully admit that we have no idea what it means to raise boys in today’s world of messed up expectations of masculinity and maleness. In the same vein, as a the parents of girls, 7, 10 and 14, we have a unique view into various stages of girlhood through our own daughters and their friends. Most of the girls we interact with are confident and thriving, but, sadly we also see girls as they begin to doubt their abilities, take on skewed images of self and start to expect less of themselves socially, academically and physically.
Simply put, the messages we send in word and deed about our girls have an impact on their ability to dream, struggle and thrive. [Retweet It]
It does not help when these kind of expectations still exist on the playground. Our Middle child, naturally athletic, has started playing baseball during recess. Recently she has become more determined and vocal about developing her game, including letting me know that her teacher thinks she has a “sweet swing.” Turns out that some boys have recently begun saying that girls can’t play baseball. While she may not be destined to be a 6’2″ slugging third baseman, there should be no reason to think she can’t play a little ball in the 4th grade and beyond.
Progressive school, good kids and still we hear, “Girls can’t . . .”
We are fortunate to have a great school environment that will get all over these kinds of interactions before they get out of hand and my girls are surrounded by strong females, so we are confident that our daughters will be okay. But, as we know, not all girls are so fortunate. Girls that have these kinds of expectations reinforced at home, church or other formative contexts will inevitably own these expectations that are not born of reality, but of society’s continued view that somehow women are less than men. And as we know, when girls begin to think less of themselves academics fall, unhealthy body imagery emerges and they accept and perpetuate abusive situations of all kinds.
To avoid these situations we must be diligent in avoiding placing empty expectations upon anyone, but especially our girls. Whether it be in the subtle messages we send like needlessly offering help when none is needed to the more dramatic ways that we direct their social, academic and physical lives, we adults must do our very best to raise girls who have expectations about life and the world that are driven by possibilities and hopes. The world will present our girls with plenty of struggles and obstacles as they live life so the last thing they need is for those who have the privilege of raising them to add to the mountains they must overcome.
And in case you were wondering, when left to her own devices, Eldest did conquer the treacherous foam wall multiple times . . . and has been leaping over, around and through life ever since.