Being the only daughter in my family, I’ve been afforded a unique perspective of how girls and boys are raised differently. And mind you, my parents are quite liberal in the grand scheme of parenting; yet this only further solidifies for me how hidden and subtle this habit really is. It reveals itself in unconscious ways, but perpetuates the notion that boys and girls have to live their lives differently and adopt attitudes that coincide with traditional gender stereotypes. And in 2017, we should be moving past this.
“Be careful!” If you have or work with children, you probably say this an average of 185 times per day. I know I do with the five year old I babysit, because I adore her and would blame myself forever if something awful happened to her. But it’s a habit I’m actively trying to break, and here’s why: whether we realize it or not, we are more likely to exercise this caution with girls than boys. It’s not that our girls are taking more risks – it’s that traditionally, we are conditioned to believe girls are more fragile, in more danger, and are ultimately less capable. Sounds crazy, right?
It’s not as unheard of as it seems, and, at the age of 22, it’s something I still experience in my own family. A few years back, my two older brothers had just returned from a backpacking trip through Europe, while I was beginning to prepare to study abroad the next year. They started sharing their stories of hitchhiking through Italy and all the characters they met along the way. My father listened, laughing along, and then shifted his eyes to me, saying: “you’re not doing that.”
I’m not naïve to the unfortunate realities of our world. I know all too well that we as women have to enter certain situations with more caution than our male counterparts. But my brothers were perfectly safe, and did not come across a single driver who treated them with anything but kindness, and an interesting story to bring home. Why was I being denied that same experience? I see this same phenomenon every time I curse around my father. One f word here or there in my stories is fine; but three or four too many and I get the “you really should watch that language” spiel. Although my father claims he expects the same from my brothers (and I very much do believe he does), I can attest that I don’t think I’ve ever seen him share the sentiment with them.
This is not a lecture on bad parenting, because I don’t think any of these things makes my parents, or any parents, bad parents. In fact, I can say with confidence that I know these habits ultimately stem from a very deep love and care for their “little girl.” But if we treat our daughters as little girls forever, they will begin to believe they are incapable, limited, and should shy away from the necessary and fulfilling risks of life.
It’s not easy to watch the children you care about make mistakes. But we have to be willing to allow both our boys and girls to make them. If we preventively say “be careful” to our daughters and not our sons, we send the message that they are not trusted, nor able, and that it is necessary for them to cling to safety forever. Similarly, we need to be careful to not inadvertently condition our daughters to be perfect. Any adult knows that perfection is not attainable, but if we expect our daughters to act more prim and proper than our sons, we are essentially confining them to a tighter, more unachievable standard. If we honestly want gender equality, we need to take a step back and look at the messages our actions and words are sending, and truly raise our girls and boys the same.