As a parent, one of your strongest instincts is to protect your children from harm or hurt, physical or emotional.
My grade-school-age daughter came home one day and looked a little glum. I asked her what happened.
“I wanted to play kickball with the boys,” she said. “But one of them said that girls couldn’t play.”
My own school days started coming back to me in a flash.
“Did you ask him why girls couldn’t join the game?” I asked. “Did the other boys stand up for you?”
“He said that girls couldn’t play well enough. I’m a good player, Mom! And no, the other boys just snapped in line. They decided I could be the referee.”
My son noticed that something unfair was going on, and though he had the wrong word for it, knew inherently that it was discriminatory.
My son, who is a year younger than his sister, was listening to our exchange. He looked up from doing his homework. And said: “He’s just racist.”
My daughter looked at me with raised eyebrows.
I took a breath. “It wasn’t nice, and it wasn’t fair, but that’s not racist,” I explained. “There’s another word for it — ‘sexist.’ But, I think we need to figure out how to let him know that that’s not fair, and to get the other boys to agree.”
“You could just punch him next time,” my son added, and then looked his sister over appraisingly. “You could take him.”
I threw him a look.
“Just kidding!” he sang, as he ran away.
For days I thought about this conversation. I felt sad that my daughter was experiencing how unfair life can be for girls. She understands what’s fair and what’s not, and sees clearly when girls are not treated as equals to boys. One day after church, for example, she wondered aloud why God was referred to as a He when, as a deity, God should have no gender. “It’s all written from a very male point of view, Mom,” she stated with frustration. It was a true statement that I couldn’t deny.
My thoughts also turned to the male point of view — in particular, my son’s. I was struck by his part in the dialogue that we all had about the “kickball incident,” as we dubbed it. He noticed that something unfair was going on, and though he had the wrong word for it, knew inherently that it was discriminatory. I took that as a good sign. I was upset by his second impulse, though: if it’s unfair, just duke it out!
He was applying some lesson he’d learned somewhere other than home and I didn’t like it. What I wished he would have said, was that his sister should have discussed it with the boy in question, and tried to work it out somehow. But I suppose I knew that this probably wouldn’t have worked without the support of her peers. I realized that while I couldn’t change the behavior of the boy who wouldn’t let my daughter play kickball, I could do a lot toward helping my own son understand that women should be treated as equals and that, and even though he’s a boy, it is just as important for him to uphold and defend that notion.
Feminism is not just for girls.
I am blessed with some amazing female friends — women who have achieved incredible things in their lives and careers. One friend of mine is an orthopedic surgeon, a specialty within medicine that happens to be more male-dominated than others. Patients often think she’s a nurse when she walks in. Another friend of mine was a pilot in the Air Force, who also flew commercially for United Airlines. She once said, “I’m sometimes afraid that all I have accomplished will be lost on my girls. What I had to go through to accomplish what I did — it’s hard to see.” And I have a friend who is an engineer — another typically male profession. When I told her about what happened on the playground she said, “You know, one day I’d like to just be called a good engineer. Not a good female engineer. I could live without the qualifier.”
We all could, am I right? “Runs like a girl,” “She’s good for a girl,” and all of the other phrases that put down girls and minimize their accomplishments need to be banned. I’d rather hear my son drop the f-bomb than say something like that about his sister or another girl. If we ever hope to have true gender equality, little boys must learn to be feminists too. My son is young and still needs reminders. He’s finding his way in the bigger pack, but I do what I can. I tell him to think for himself, and to do what he knows is right.
How are things on the playground now? Marginally better. For the most part, my daughter makes the best of it, playing other games with some of the other boys from the group who are her friends, or she officiates at kickball. The same boy still doesn’t want her to play with the bigger group, though. He just can’t be swayed. And many of the boys just don’t seem to be concerned with fairness. Recess is short and they all want to get their playtime in. It is all so familiar, and a painful lesson for both my son and daughter to learn that people don’t always do the right thing. But at least they’ll know the difference.