My daughter’s birthday is coming up soon, and, while I have a little time to go until she hit her teenage years (But not much!), I’ve been thinking about what I can do as a parent as she moves into these challenging adolescent years.
Here’s the problem, though:
I have no idea how to raise a girl.
I have no idea how to raise a boy, either, and I’ve got one of those at home, too.
That’s because, as corny as this is going to sound, I’ve tried to parent them as the people they are rather than based on their gender. “Tried” is the operative word here, though, because no matter what idealistic notions I had about being a gender-neutral parent before my daughter was born, things changed once I knew we were having a girl.
It’s background time, folks. Sorry, but it has to be done. My ex-wife and I had our son first. We decided not to find out his gender before his birth, so up until he was evicted from the womb (It was indeed an eviction rather than an escape, since he didn’t seem interested in leaving on his own.), he was known as Question Mark.
Four years later, my ex was carrying our second child in what was turning out to be a fairly rough pregnancy. As a present to ourselves, we decided to go ahead and find out the gender of the baby while we were in for an exam. After performing the ultrasound, the technician and the doctor conferred quietly. But not quietly enough. My ex and I heard the following exchange:
We looked at each other happily as my ex said, “We’re having a girl!” The doctor and technician whipped toward us, seemingly shocked that we’d broken their elaborate code. Yes, we took high school biology.
During the walk out to the parking lot, I didn’t say much. My ex would describe it later as a stunned silence. When she asked me what was wrong, I told her something along the lines of, “She’s going to be a teenager. There will be teenage boys around, and I know what they will be thinking. I was a teenage boy, and I know what I was thinking. And I was considered to be one of the nice ones!”
That right there is really the problem, isn’t it? I skipped right past the first 13 or so years of her life. There was no thought about her personality or her interests or her hobbies, career choices, or anything like that. I jumped straight to the potential issues caused by her genitals. More specifically, the potential issue of other males trying to get access to her genitals. My daughter hadn’t even finished gestating, and I was already worried about people trying to have sex with her.
What the hell?
I didn’t do that with my son. Granted, I didn’t know he was a boy until he was pulled out of my ex, but I didn’t immediately start worrying about him getting some girl pregnant. I want to believe there was some reason for my differing reactions besides “Because she’s a girl.”
There’s not anything I could point to in my own upbringing that would lead me to thinking differently about my son versus my daughter. I was raised in a very egalitarian household. My mother and father both worked, and, more than that, they both worked in the same field: education. My father has his doctorate, and my mother would as well if she hadn’t been interrupted by the arrival of…well…me, to be honest. She just never went back to do her dissertation, but she holds two Master’s degrees. At home, they shared the workload, and I didn’t realize until I was older that many of the household tasks that my father performed were ones that have been categorized in our society as “women’s work.” He did all of the laundry, and he was the one who made our lunches and got my brother and I ready to head to school every day.
I was never raised to think of men and women as anything less than equals, and, as an adult, I’ve actually had far more female than male supervisors. Yet despite all of that, the news that I was having a girl prompted a reaction that I am less than proud of.
Is it biological? Deep down in lowest recesses of my brain where tens of thousands of years of instinct reside, have I been programmed to immediately try to protect my female offspring from the sexual advances of male suitors? Is it just a matter of perspective? I’ve been a teenage male and have experienced the raging hormones and sexual curiosity that accompany that period in life. Do I just want keep my daughter out of that maelstrom? Or is there some larger cultural force at work?
I don’t have an answer. I do know, however, that in any analysis of the cultural forces working on our daughters, we have to also consider what we are adding as parents. For the first several years at least (and in my view, all the way through their lives), our actions and attitudes as parents are going to have as much of an effect as what they are getting from the broader culture.
She may be my little girl, but that doesn’t mean that I need to treat her differently than her brother or protect her from all of the “evil men” on the planet. My job as her parent is to raise her to be a functioning adult. If I can do that, she can handle the rest.
- Alan Decker
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