This originally appeared on the Princess Free Zone. Republished here with permission.
Having a kid means understanding that anytime or anywhere you might find yourself in the middle of a very serious and deep conversation. In my experience, one minute you can be talking about a new toy, and the next whether or not you can come back as a tree after you die (true story). Children have an uncanny ability to reveal their curiosities through the most seemingly innocent ponderings, and suddenly we find ourselves having to explain something complex like the theory of evolution without a moment’s notice.
Many of the conversations I have with my daughter take place while driving. We’ll be headed wherever and out of the backseat comes, “Mom, why do there have to be wars?” or “Mom, why did that man kill Martin Luther King?” Recently, Gabi said matter-of-factly, “Girls can’t do the same things that boys do, Mom.” Granted, this is a discussion we have had consistently since she was about 4. Being that she has always tended toward things traditionally considered “boy,” she recognized early the perceived differences between the sexes. Typically, she has been the only girl in a number of instances that highlight those differences. She is usually the only girl at boys’ birthday parties. She has been the only girl on her baseball team. Her playdates are primarily with friends who are boys. Inevitably, these situations lend themselves to questions and observations about her which come from both adults and kids alike.
So, the whole “girls can’t do what boys do” has come up before, but inevitably as she gets older the conversations become more complex and the follow-up questions more thoughtful and intelligent. When kids are little, the differences between boys and girls can seem miniscule. From sports to academics to relationships—both sexes seem to enjoy a similar trajectory and we are quick to let them know, at this stage, that a girl can do anything a boy can do. But soon the divisions between the sexes in relation to specific social boundaries can become difficult to navigate as well as more obvious. Women face uphill battles when it comes to entering certain career paths, for instance, and we know are still experiencing a gap in the pay scale.
There is nothing worse for a parent than having to admit to your children that life isn’t perfect or fair. At some point, your child will face some level of hardship and one of our jobs as parents is to prepare them for those times when they will need to call upon their inner-strength in order to get through it. While we have probably all told our children that they are capable of anything, and that with hard work and persistence, they can achieve whatever they put their minds to, we know it isn’t always that easy. Situations will arise in which they may find themselves seemingly without recourse and a frustrating feeling that certain things in life are simply unattainable because “that’s just the way things are.”
Prepared for another discussion about gender with my daughter, I turned around to look at her. “Why do you say that?” I asked. “What can’t girls do that boys can?” “Well,” she said, “they can’t play in the Major Leagues…and there’s never been a girl President.” She was right, of course, on both counts. So I said, bluntly, “That’s true. They can’t. At least not right now.” There was a disappointed look on her face. I continued, “But that doesn’t mean that it will never happen, Gabi.” She asked me what I meant by that.
I explained to her that things change and asked her if she remembered the story of Maria Pepe. In the early ’70s, Maria Pepe was the first girl to play Little League in New Jersey, but her story takes a decided turn when she is told that even though she was just as good as the boys (she had tried out and was made starting pitcher) she would not be allowed to play because she was a girl. The organization NOW picked up her case and sued the league. Eventually Maria Pepe won the suit that would allow girls to play in the Little Leagues; sadly, however, she was too old to play by that time. She was profiled on the wesbite Makers. I still can’t watch her video without getting emotional because I see the joy my daughter has when playing and realize that Maria Pepe was robbed of that joy.
Gabi told me she did remember her. I said, “What does her story tell you?” “That someday there might be girls who can play in the Major Leagues?” she asked. I told her that I believed there would be a time when that happened. I also told her to think about it this way: “If it hadn’t been for Maria Pepe, you might not be playing baseball right now.” As for the President comment, I explained that there would be a woman president and probably soon. I added, “You have to remember there was a time when women couldn’t even vote.”
“Gabi,” I continued, “if there is something you feel strongly about, like playing baseball on a high school team, you will have to fight for it. You can help make change by showing others what is possible. And by not giving up. I will help you if that is something you really want.” She nodded her head.
I’m not sure if she really understands the underlying message—she is only 7. But I will keep telling her that progress takes time. I will continue to point out those women who have come before us and made sacrifices so that we might be better off. And I will keep telling her that she truly is capable of anything, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be tough sometimes. My hope is that she will realize that boxes are for shoes—not people—and that nobody can ever put her in a box if she doesn’t allow them to. In the meantime, I will wait for the next deep conversation.
Michele Yulo is the founder of Princess Free Zone, Inc., a brand and blog that offers an alternative to all things princess for little girls by addressing issues of gender and gender stereotyping. She is also the author of the children’s book “Super Tool Lula: The Bully-fighting Super Hero.” She has a master’s degree in English from Georgia State University and enjoys writing and enlightened discourse. You can visit her website at www.princessfreezone.com, join PFZ on Facebook, , or email her at michele@princessfreezone.
Photo of the author’s daughter, Gabi, in uniform.