In parenting, as in life, it is possible to hold two opposite beliefs at the same time. We want them to be confident but humble, to aim high but not put their sense of self into external accolades, to take risks and stay safe.
Experts wisely preach "consistency," but how is that possible when you aren't sure what you think?
Usually in the space I tell you what I think, but today I am asking you to help me figure that out, because I honestly don't know.
Last week HuffPost Parents ran a letter from an 8-year-old titled "Why Being A Girl Is Wonderful." Written on a legal pad in rounded kid penmanship, it radiated pride:
"We have veginas. We get jobs. We are creative. We have stuff that makes us pregnet. We have milk in our bobes. We are smart. We have power."
We included an interview with her dad under a screenshot of her letter, and he explained that he and his wife had deliberately created this context for their daughter in the hope that it would "mitigate a little of the unhealthy social patterns" she will face as she grows.
We loved it. You all loved it. Nearly 8,000 of you "liked" it on Facebook, and nearly 1,400 left comments. I put it on my own Facebook page with the comment "You Go Girl."
A few days later, we got a letter from a reader named Marvin, who wondered whether the message being sent to this little girl was exactly the opposite of what she should be hearing. He wrote, in part:
I've spent most of my life learning the feminist lesson that gender is not a factor in what makes an individual special. In fact, gender is typically irrelevant. Everyone has one for the most part.
I think if it was my daughter I'd tell her, your private parts are just part of your biology. Nothing special there. Half the people on the planet have parts just like that. Even animals. Cows have vaginas and milk in their bodies. What makes you special, (tapping on her forehead) is what's in here. Your brain. Learning and making use of that which you have learned. Yes you are creative, not because you are a girl but because you use your brain and in particular your imagination. Boys are not special because they are boys. Girls are not special because they are girls.
You are special because you are an INDIVIDUAL...
I think I would eventually teach her that there are some advantages to being a girl vs. a boy and vice versa. I would explain certain physical advantages, societal advantages, etc. I would tell her that she is probably going to run into people that do not recognize her value as an individual because they are stupid and they think about things like vaginas having some kind of value. I would explain that these are people of low CHARACTER.
Maybe I'm wrong.
Maybe I'm old fashioned.
Maybe vaginas are more important than character now.
Marvin is right, too.
How to reconcile these two contradictory goals? To teach our girls that females are awesome and also teach them that their gender is not the whole of who they are? To simultaneously celebrate being a girl and move past the point where it makes a whit of difference what sex you are?
And is this even a conflict at all? I think it is. Our managing editor, Farah Miller, doesn't. She thinks it is a recalibration for generations of sending the opposite message to both boys and girls1 and that you can teach both exceptionalism and universality at the same time. I wonder if overcompensating doesn't compound the initial problem rather than dilute it. And HOW to teach both lessons at once? I wonder about that, too. But, as I said, I am not really sure what I think, which is why I am asking all of you.
Before you answer, one last data point: I have two college-age sons; Farah has a two-and-half-year-old daughter. Does that color how we view these questions? I didn't raise my boys to believe that "boys are powerful," and I wonder if a note from an 8-year-old saying "we have penises ... we have stuff that makes girls pregnet" would have been as embraced by readers. Should it be?
What do you tell your children about the worth and importance of gender? Is it possible to send both these messages at once?