A few weeks ago I was dropping off one of the girls I babysit at soccer practice. She waved goodbye and walked confidently onto the field, not thinking twice about the fact that she was the only girl present — the rest of the team was made up of boys. The boys kicked the ball around before the session started and she inserted herself into their game without thought. She is seven years old, but already feels more secure than I would asking to join in on a game with a group of guys, and I am a college athlete.
I sat down on the benches by some parents to watch her practice for a bit. Among them was a mother with her daughter who could not have been older than two. The little girl was wearing a dress and her diaper was innocently poking out from beneath. She was entertaining herself while her mother talked with other parents. The girl kept bending down, revealing the the entirety of her diaper, to look under the bleachers and laughed joyously each time she was able to get a glimpse of what was below. After a few minutes, her mom scolded her.
“That’s enough honey,” she said. “You need to not show your underpants and sit down like a lady.”
I was appalled. This child was so young, yet her mother was already socializing her to follow seriously outdated female stereotypes such as being quiet, compliant, and modest. Was anyone really that offended by a playing toddler whose underwear was showing because her parent chose to put her in a dress? Forcing happy little girls to act small is hardly what should fall under the modern definition of “ladylike.”
Ultimately, the mother’s words made me take a closer look at the way I treat the two elementary school girls in my care each day. Is there anything I unknowingly do to perpetuate limiting ideals of what a woman should be? That day made me think about the responsibility I have to show them they can be anything, do anything they want.
I try to tell them they’re smart before I tell them they’re beautiful. I loudly praise them when they finish a book or figure out a math problem, but I keep my mouth shut when they have food on their face. Why should I teach them to care what they look like? Society has done enough of that as it is; the children’s shows they watch often feature girls with unrealistic proportions and tight clothing. I want them to know that being smart and capable is far more internally rewarding than looking like their Barbies.
We go to the library and I push them to try books above their reading level. In their basement, they like to play spies, heroes, and scientists, but they also play with dolls and cooking supplies. When they qualify something as inherently male or female— “Girls are better cooks than boys,” they once told me— I try to expand their worldview and I ask them why they believe that to be true.
I am not their parent, but I do what I can the nine hours I am with them each day. This is a job I took for the summer to make money for school, but I now know it is so much more than that. It is my chance to make an impact on two multi-faceted, beautiful young women, and to be a voice of guidance for them during this scary, but equally invigorating time to be a woman.