A few months ago, my sports, book and music-loving girl asked if I were forced to choose, if I’d call her a “tom boy” or a “girly girl.” After I insisted she was neither because she was the one-and-only her, she replied, “I know I’m a tom boy because I took a Buzz Feed quiz.”
Even as a former Seventeen magazine quiz addict, my most major mom eye roll triggered on reflex. Are kids this age searching so hard for their identity that they’d trust the outcome of an eight-question quiz with obvious, leading questions on color, clothing and activity preferences? At least she agreed the methodology was absurd when we reviewed the quiz together.
But it wasn’t just the quiz that concerned me. I’d heard at least one other mom mention an undercurrent of girls rejecting stereotypical girly girl characteristics to embrace those of tom boys. She said her daughter feels left out and somewhat judged because she likes fashion and glitter and pink. I know this child is accepted and adored by all classmates for her strong sense of humor and unusually mature comfort in her own skin. It kills me that she feels isolated by a shallow girly girl label.
I wondered if the tom boy affinity was a play to fit in with or appear more attractive to boys. But parents of my daughter’s boy friends said when asked, their sons didn’t differentiate between or have positive or negative associations with girly girl and tom boy labels.
My response to these labels was so intense because young girls viewing narrow, gender-based types as mutually exclusive feels especially dangerous and dated in the context of the recent acceleration of the women’s movement.
While I didn’t solve why the tom boy label seemed preferred, I did start to obsess on the topic of what influences and motivates kids as they develop a sense of self and how, as a parent, I can help.
Adults use the phrase “you do you” to highlight and celebrate our differences. But kids often don’t want to stand out. I worry how my daughters (10 and 7 years old) will discover who they are if they’re wholly preoccupied with who they are supposed to be.
Beyond the constant of our faith-based beliefs that our children were created to be perfectly unique and for a purpose, I started to focus, and in some cases, rethink how I wanted to position female challenges and role models to them. The result is five commitments I’m making to my girls, today.
- Show them they can BE somebody without being SOMEBODY. I fear that the era they’ve grown up in – where fame is based on or strongly tied to social media following – has changed their definition of success. For me, the best role models are a mix of inspiration and reality, those who are successful being themselves. I want my daughters to appreciate everyday heroes’ stories – our friends and family who are not famous but important and satisfied – as much as professional athletes, actresses and political leaders. I’ve not chosen to be at home full time with my kids but I think my friends who have, and excel at it, are great role models for my daughters, as are the women we know who are thriving in professions in every industry imaginable.
- Keep barriers in a bubble, for now. I wonder if so much attention on female firsts is one part empowerment and one part defeat for young girls. Maybe they never would have considered certain jobs off limits if they were blissfully unaware that women hadn’t gone there…yet. No doubt women pioneers in all professions are to be studied and revered. And, as my girls get older and barriers become obvious, they need to see women in leadership and women, period, in previously male-dominated fields to find their heroes and visualize their future. For now, I’m going to celebrate these women but dial back the emphasis on their first-ness.
- Avoid projecting stereotypes of the past. I love girl power books that profile female role models in all fields. We read them often at bedtime and it occurred to me that many of the stories highlight how women defy established norms. I don’t want to pass along this historical baggage. A portion of one of these stories applauded an athlete who liked to wear makeup for her games. My girls weren’t born knowing that’s unusual and it is not linked to the athlete’s achievement. This is a sticking point for me because I think my girls can do anything and I don’t want stereotypes to stunt or shape their dreams. If one of them wants to be a forensic accountant who is known among friends to make the best buttercream and the other, a novelist who drag races to let off steam, they can be that. My parents encouraged me to play drums when I showed an interest, period. I now know it being a largely “boys instrument” heightened their support, but I didn’t hear that from them. As the only girl or one of a couple in a group of 15+ spanning 7+ years in band, I gained confidence not only in my abilities but in the possibilities for my future.
- Teach global gratitude. What my girls DO have is access and opportunity. I want them to know this is not the case for many girls globally and to have a grateful attitude. I watched David Letterman’s interview with Malala Yousafzai where she shared that 170 million girls worldwide don’t have access to or are banned from getting an education. I can’t shake that staggering figure and I want my girls to never lose that context of appreciation.
- Always assume they CAN. Like innocent until proven guilty, I believe my girls can do anything until they prove they can’t. As a child, I often said “I’m bad at sports.” My dad habitually corrected me, insisting instead that I had not tried or was not interested in sports. That pearl – the difference between “can’t” and “won’t” or “haven’t tried” – is on frequent rotation with my daughters and son.
This list will grow and change as my daughters do the same. I vow to continue the discussion and to never stop learning from the friends who are parents to girls, women and movements that inspire me.
Here’s to hoping the foundation of my girls’ identities is somewhat solid before questionable role models gain influence and barriers and stereotypes become obvious. And, that they don’t consult an internet quiz on if they’re ready to start dating or where they should go to college.
This piece originally appeared on Sammiches & Psych Meds.