I Won't Let My 4-Year-Old Daughter Grow Up Stepping Aside for Sexism, Like I Did


1. Last summer, I watched with pride as my 4-year-old daughter raised her foot, said a “kee-yaw!” from the bottom of her gut, and kicked the board in half. Her karate teacher, a jolly, encouraging sort, said, “You have a great smile, Grace.” And handed over her new belt, white with a yellow stripe

My heart sank. I started paying attention to what he told the other 15 kids—variations of: “You’re really strong!” “Great attitude!” “You’ve done some great listening!” It was only to the girls he’d offer the “great smile” remark.

So I sent him a very polite note, which read, in part:

“She will go through enough of her life being asked to smile by strangers, and will have the intrinsic challenge trying to balance the importance of how she looks with what she can do. I’m wondering if you’d consider applying the ‘great smile’ comments to all the kids, or none at all in the future. I think you’ve done such a good job at showing that both girls and boys can be powerful, so I know you understand what I’m talking about. I don’t want her to come away with the subliminal message that smiles are less important for boys than they are for girls.”

I received a very nice and prompt reply that he’d certainly be more aware of this aspect in the future.

2. That same week, we’d visited the Glendale Public Library and checked out a simple board book on superheroes. I noticed that all the male superheroes featured were performing feats of strength and showcasing their powers—jumping off buildings, lifting cars, pulling what appeared to be a gigantic oil rig, and the like. The page featuring the solo female, Wonder Woman, showed her pushing a swing with a child in it. I was disappointed to have to explain to Grace that this didn’t count as a superpower. (I mean, parenting is its own kind of superpower, but in a different way.) Why wasn’t Wonder Woman shown in a more heroic light, as the others were? It might have been different if they’d added Batman whipping up some pancakes to make it more fair.

So I wrote to the library and asked if they wouldn’t mind burning the book in the hottest fire they could make. Not that I really think books should be burned or banned. I just wanted it tossed in the recycling bin.

The librarian wrote back, saying that there were other books with stronger female characters on the shelves, so she would not be making any changes. I didn’t have the energy to argue that ALL THE KIDS WILL NOT CHECK OUT ALL THE BOOKS. What if they just check out this one?

So I asked Grace to start paying attention to what women and girls were doing in her books, and to see if they had different jobs than the men and the boys. And to start counting. To notice.

3. There’s a kid at my daughter’s preschool I’ll call Lincoln. He’s a wild-minded little man, who had a tendency to tease her until she cried, and also, who pretended to shoot guns at her. I brought him up at the teacher conference, and the teacher understood my concerns, yet defended him. “I wish I could tell you all the hard things that kid has dealt with already in his little life. I have a soft spot for him, he’s really very sweet. I’ll talk to him.”

Shortly after, Lincoln and Grace became friends—to the point where she has a little crush on him. “I love him, and I think he loves me back, but he’s just afraid to show it,” she said. She also says she’s conflicted, as he likes to play weapons, but she knows she’s not allowed to.

This week, as she was going to the toilet, he came into the bathroom and turned off and on the lights. I heard about it after school, and brought it up to the teacher, who said she’d have a talk with the class about boundaries.

I don’t want to referee her friendships. I know kids this age are figuring out what is OK and not OK and they are obsessed with their bodies, and other people’s as well. My talk with Grace was more specific. “I want you to know that he was trying to embarrass you while you were in a vulnerable situation. On the toilet, you weren’t able to get up. Friends don’t try to embarrass each other,” I told her. “There will be times when you’re going to be asked to play guns, or to do things that you know aren’t right. I can’t be here to help you during those times. You have to speak up for yourself.”

She asked for some more apple.

4. Kindergarten starts in August, and I’ve made an abysmal entrée into our new social circle.

I got a very nice invitation from a very nice lady I’d never met to a very nice playgroup with other kids who will be going to Grace’s new school. Playgroup Mom cc’d several parents in the email and introduced me, and then wrote: “It’s a good thing Noah’s a little ladies’ man cause he is going to be seriously outnumbered at this play date!”

When I asked her not to romanticize these kids so early, she said she’s sorry if she’d offended me, and that it was a level of “familiarity” that obviously rubbed me the wrong way.

I wrote her back and apologized for calling her out in front of the others.

“I hope you understand where I’m coming from on this: I’m tired already of boys getting different treatment than girls. I see this every day at her school. Boys’ bad behavior is waved away and girls are called bossy etc. I think it would sound much different if it were a group of boys and one girl and someone said ‘Elsie is quite keen on all the boys,’ don’t you? The only female parallel to ‘ladies’ man’ I can think of is ‘slut’ and I know you don’t want to go there.
“It hits a nerve because I’m watching her at 4 wrestle with gender and humiliation issues and she thinks it’s just how business is done.”

Playgroup Mom did not respond.

5. Here is the common thread to all of the above: Everyone meant well. Everyone thought that everything was harmless, or a joke, or something that could be explained away. I’m calling it “microbullshit.”

I didn’t notice microbullshit, or even the macro kind, when I was growing up. I didn’t know that when I was 5, and my mom dropped me off to stay over at some strange kid’s house—his name was Skylar and he was maybe a year or two older, we barely knew this family—that it was not OK for him to spank my bare butt in the dark. I didn’t tell anyone, because I thought that was just how business was done.

I didn’t know that when I was in corporate America less than a decade ago, presenting my glorious project to a bunch of male colleagues, that I didn’t need to laugh along with them when one remarked that I could now go back to the kitchen. I thought that was just how business was done.

I felt like slights were too small, too thin, to warrant comment. That I would look like a prig. That people wouldn’t think I was cool or funny.

But microbullshit is created from particles that make waves. Waves become tsunamis when left uninterrupted, encouraged by other small and favorable forces. The only way I can see to counter microbullshit is with microfeminism. I am not organizing a march or starting a magazine or creating a political campaign. I just speak up. Every. Single. Time. Because I don’t want her to become an adult and recognize microbullshit and wonder why her mother stepped aside 10,000 times.

It’s tiring, and I don’t care if I’m not cool or not funny or if people are showing my emails to their colleagues, with the header, saying, “WTF? Can you believe this bitch?” And then the colleagues would say, “Man, she should take a chill pill. Kids will be kids.”

I already know that parents in the kindergarten circle will not make eye contact with me when I meet them, and I feel badly about that. I trust Grace will fare better.

Last night, after making my case to Play Group Mom, I climbed into my bed, where Grace had crashed hours earlier, surrounded by Scooby-Doo books. I wrapped my arms around her and cried into her curly hair, which smelled faintly, comfortingly, of detangler. She sighed in her sleep, unfazed.

“I’m sorry you have to go through all this, so soon. You’re so little,” I told her, out loud. “You’ve got a lifetime of bullshit ahead of you. But I’ve got your back, baby. I will always have your back.”

Vanessa McGrady is a writer based in Los Angeles. Come hang out with her on Twitter, @VanessaMcGrady and visit her blog.

Image courtesy of Vanessa

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