“Look, Papa, I’m a girl-ninja,” said my daughter as she moved her hands around, fight mode.
Really? A girl ninja? Only five years old and somehow she picked up that ninjas had gender, male gender to be exact. “Whoa, that’s awesome,” I told her. “But also, it’s just called ninja, because you don’t call boys boy-ninjas.” She didn’t really care. She just kept showing off her moves. My husband gave me a look that said both, chill-out and thank you.
It bothers me, though it’s nothing new. This happens all the time. What exactly is inherently masculine about ninjas? Aren’t their bodies and faces all covered up? At least she knew she could be a ninja if she wanted. But that expression of hers reminded me why it’s so important to change the narrative for girls and boys.
Your daughter receives messages like these All. The. Time. School-aged children self-segregate by gender, which is fine. It’s developmentally appropriate. At this age, your daughter is figuring out who she is, and one part of this process is figuring the role of gender.
So how does she learn what it’s like to be a girl, and later a woman? We know that she is heavily influenced by what she sees and experiences – probably more so than by anything you’ll tell her.
We are all victims of covert sexism
Overt sexism bothers me. But, I’m more concerned with the covert stuff – the unconscious things we do that reveal our biases. Research says that parents are still encouraging daughters more than sons to share their feelings. You are more likely to let your son run around to “get his energy out,” and you are less likely to feel nervous if your son is the one climbing a tree. You are still more likely to praise your daughter’s looks and your son’s achievements.
I’m sure you are fighting your own gender bias. I know I am – every day. Becoming aware of it is half the work. And this awareness is not made out of one single aha-moment. You can’t read one blog post, or even a book to figure it all out. It’s a series of aha-moments that follow you for… well, forever.
If you are female…
As a mom, you can relate to many of your daughter’s experiences. You are probably more aware of how we treat boys and girls differently. But your own biases will still trip you up. The research above applies to men and women equally! After all, you were raised in a sexist world, too.
You might empathize more with a crying girl than with a boy. Mothers more quickly call a boy’s cry a tantrum, while a girl’s cry gets a softer response. In her book, The Curse of the Good Girl, Rachel Simmons describes how women often fulfill the peacemaker role in the family (and everywhere else). Mothers overcompensate for grumpy dads all the time. You grew up in a world where women are expected not to ruffle anyone’s feathers. Be nice. Smile.
If you don’t pay attention to your own biases, you may unknowingly tell your daughter to “ask nicely,” while you roll your eyes at your son. Boys – they are so loud anyway – Ugh, whatever.
If you are male…
Conversely, as a dad, you will face very different challenges. This is where privilege comes into play. Privilege – it’s magical! And its magic lays in that the person who enjoys it rarely notices that he does. I only really started paying attention to male privilege in my 30’s. That’s 30 years of walking around completely unaware! And I grew up in Latin America, where machismo can be observed EVERYWHERE.
So, as a dad to a girl (and a good human being) you have some extra homework. Start noticing the challenges girls and women face daily. Once you get it, you see it all the time. And you’ll notice how it affects your parenting.
You are more likely to solve a problem for your daughter, while you’ll encourage your son to do things on his own. If you co-parent with a female partner, you will delegate a lot of the “feeling talk” to mom, thereby teaching your daughter that men don’t need to deal with feelings. And, you are more likely to encourage your son to stand up for himself and fight his bullies, while you tell your daughter to “just ignore them.”
Gender bias is real
And it affects us all, even super enlightened people like you and me! But guess what, you don’t have to be perfect. Parenting is not about getting it 100% right. It’s just about doing your best. Whatever changes you make in your own life, you are modeling them to your child. This is what she will take with her throughout life.
Boys and girls are intrinsically different in many aspects. Research shows that girls and boys are not only different in their anatomy. Their brains develop in different ways, and at different rates. It is natural and normal that a parent’s relationship would be different with a son or a daughter.
I’m in no way advocating genderless parenting. But, as I raise my daughter in a world that has a consistent record of oppressing women, I want to make sure that my interactions with her encourage her to be the best woman she can be.
Gender inequality throughout history left us with images of men who accomplish, and women who support them. Think about it; famous male heroes took risks while female heroes were caregivers. Both roles are good and important. I want my daughter to know she can pick either one.
Whatever she chooses, she is not the female version of an originally male thing. She is the original, and she happens to be a girl.
So… No, kid. You aren’t a girl-ninja. You are a ninja. And, whoa, those moves are something!!
Can you think of other ways in which we unknowingly limit our girls? Please tell me in the comments!