:: Maria's concept: BeeWoman! "Saving the world, one garden at a time!" At Comic-Con she told a reporter, "When I grow up, I want to be myself." ::
Houston, we have a problem: some people are still confused about what girls and women are capable of, and those people are sending out the wrong messages.
Raising a daughter, a little girl, to be a woman, makes me ever more aware of all the messages buzzing around... in marketing, in the news, in retail stores, on book shelves, on the playground, and in schools, even in my own beliefs. I addressed my own re-introduction to the power of femininity, the natural attraction that some people have for pink. But my concerns and awareness of girl issues has expanded as Maria's world and exposure to messages about her place in it has expanded. And, frankly, I am concerned.
When it comes to limitations and expectations, I try to set no boundaries for Maria. That is, I will never say: "That is not for girls." And let's assume I am intelligently addressing those things which are clearly in the realm of possible for either a girl or boy: science, technology, engineering, art, math, music, mud, power, robots, invention, creation, caring, nurturing, jumping, sliding, slamming, spitting, singing, dancing, jeans and T's, tutus and wings. Not only do I want her to freely choose these activities and accessories, but I expect her to try, to fail, to try again, to improve, to practice, to excel, and to share. And when the going gets tough I think she should
So, where is the problem?
The problem is in the pink aisle at the big box store, where every toy is telling her that her sole focus and purpose is to reach the point when she can dress like a slut. I was going to write euphemisms and sweet talk it, but what six year old wears eye shadow, padded bras, lipstick, and platform shoes, and why would I want to give her a doll that carries a credit card and an ass-tattoo?
The problem is in stores carrying T-shirts that read (and I am not making this up:)
"Allergic to Algebra" and "I am too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me."
Hilarious, right?! Hahaha... so facetious, and smart-alecky. So tragically hip. Or simply: tragic.
Seriously. Girls are smart. Smart enough to pay attention to all the messages we are sending, and whether it is a "joke", or not, they are learning that being stupid is kinda cute, funny, acceptable and being smart is not so sexy, not so funny, and "hard."
A friend from my own childhood was posting the article about the obnoxious T-shirts on FB, and she shared something really interesting. Jen Hazelnut Rat said: "Having frequently heard, as a young child, that "boys tend to be better at math than girls," I was easily influenced by this extremely inaccurate and damaging misconception. I ALLOWED THIS LIE TO HOLD ME BACK IN SCHOOL, AND THEREFORE, LIFE. These shirts shouldn't even be viewed as "funny.""
This was such an eye-opener for me, such a familiar and kind of sickening truth. Starting in third grade, I was told by teachers, and visitors to school, that 'studies show-prove-tell us that girls fail to excel in math, and that it starts happening later in grade school and junior high. That boys are inclined-destined-naturally talented in math.' And the message was repeated periodically throughout grade school. Some teachers would counter this with a message about how girls should try harder, pay attention, focus, overcome, but I was still taking in the "fact" that my math skills were doomed, and, frankly, having an excuse for why I was struggling with tough assignments was awfully convenient. I believed.
I believed it was pointless to ask for a better teacher, it was useless to get a tutor. I believed that I might as well focus on easier subjects, and forgo a career in medicine. I believed that it was a matter of fate that I found math challenging. By the time I reached junior high, and did have good teachers, and was getting intelligent messages, I think I was kind of hard wired to expect less of myself. In some ways I overcame, and achieved more than I might have, but I did not feel any compulsion to believe in myself in a way that mattered to my choices in school. And this story has been my weird little secret all these years... so I was stunned to learn that someone else suffered the same absurd tragedy.
Jen and I are raising our mighty fists of righteous indignation and shouting: Dumb is not sexy-cute-funny-cool-justifiable-excusable! And corporations marketing Dumb are corrupt, disreputable, and reckless. Shame!
I love girls, and boys. I love children. I want the message to them to be about inclusion and opportunity, about respect, about acceptance. I want Maria to feel that her interests matter, that her curiosity is the starting point for a lifetime of learning opportunities. I want Maria to see failure as a part of learning, that it is not a final statement about her abilities, but a sign that she is doing something challenging. Challenging is good. Hard work, effort, sweat, practice, and determination are great.
Maria loves robotics, FIRST, 2102 Team Paradox, and being in the mix of metal shop activity and creation. She is wholeheartedly interested in design and manufacturing. She loves ASIMO, and in St Louis she saw as many ASIMO demonstrations as she could, even making friends with Tiffany, ASIMO's presenter. Even as young as six, she dedicates her time and interest to learning and participating in FIRST and Team Paradox as much as she can.
She wants to meet people, learn more, and share her passion for her interests, and we are fortunate to have opportunities to give her the experiences she enjoys. So, imagine if two years ago, I implied that robotics is only for big kids? or if I hinted that girls don't build robots... it's messy-hard, it's for boys? What if we reinforced the messages that math is for smart kids, or the ones with talent? What if she struggled to learn to count to one hundred, and we said, "That's okay, pretty soon you'll be like most girls and fall behind in math anyway, so let's not worry about it."
Maria did struggle to learn to count to one hundred, and I said, "Keep trying. You'll get it." And we practiced together, and we played at it, and we took our time, and now we all hear her count to one hundred, every day! and to one hundred and twelve, and adding five hundred plus five hundred, and asking "What do you get when you add six hundred and six hundred?"
Maria loves to dance, and she loves to dress-up, and cook. She has plans that she is firmly committed to, to open The Best Restaurant Ever. She draws and paints, she sews. She swims, and runs. She is learning how to read, and it hasn't been easy, but she's getting it, and she loves it. She loves our time in the garden, and learning from her brothers.
Last week she wore her skirt with robots printed all over it, and when I picked her up from school she said: "The girls at school told me I shouldn't wear this skirt, because 'robots are for boys, and I was being silly.'" And, I am relieved to add that she was appalled at their statement and beliefs. She went on to tell me, "I told them, 'there's no time to talk about this right now. But you are wrong, and when I tell you about 2102 Team Paradox, you will know robots are for everyone!'"
Maria, all of your life you can choose to explore the world, take adventures, meet people, and try new things. Sometimes you will love what you try, and sometimes you will struggle. Sometimes people will tell you 'you cannot do this,' but trust your instincts, and when you don't like one "expert's" opinion, then find another expert. Failing is only bad if you give-up without doing your best, without trying to do better. Failing is part of learning. Learning is part of living. Some things you may not be good at, but you decide when that is; do not let studies or statistics label your abilities. Your success is largely a reflection of your interest and your effort. It is a good idea to ask for help. It is a good idea to offer help. Knowledge, instructions, and skills are not privileged information, but sometimes you need to work for them. You need to let your curiosity lead you to books, ideas, art, music, classes, tutorials, mentors, your community, and then be engaged in your education, because you can learn. I hope you will always find a way to do what you love, and love what you do.
Never give up! Never surrender!