Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Raising a Learner

:: 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 gracefully bow out, leave it to the boys, learn her place, giggle and make excuses ask for help, try harder, make a different approach. She won't have to go pro, and master it all, but in the end I want her to do what she loves, whatever it is, and respect herself for all the things she wants to learn, tries to learn, and continues to learn. Forever.

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!


Miriam said...

Oh, what a wonderful post. And what wonderful pictures of Maria living her life and being a strong, curious, caring, fierce, smart girl.

This is changing, but way too slowly. And along the way how many lives are affected?

Tami @ Lemon Tree Tales said...

I always thought that girls stopped doing well in math at a certain age, not because of lack of skills but because of a misguided belief that boys didn't like girls who were smart. Which is a shame.

I don't have children but am friends with a wonderful couple who have two lovely girls that I've known since the youngest was 6 months old and the elder was 3 years old. Over the years I've watched them and have seen the toys and clothing that they want to have. It's sad how much Hannah Montana and the Disney princesses had such a hold over them. I hope for their sakes and for Maria and all the other little girls that they don't let the toy companies' PINK change their natural curiosity and talents.

judy in ky said...

This post is wonderfully worded and illustrated. Go, Natalie! You are spreading the word that needs to go out to moms of little girls. If no one buys those stupid t-shirts and slutty clothes, they will go away.

I had a similar experience in school (back in the dark ages). I was interested in science, and a guidance counselor told me that it wasn't for girls, that girls would never be accepted in the field. They told me my choices were teacher, nurse, or secretary. Thank goodness this has changed! But those tees have got to go!

Dom said...

I love this post! Thank you! It was very well written and brought to mind what I was told as a child. I have also struggled with limiting myself because they told me I was not smart enough in school. I love your way of thinking. Maria is beautiful and she will grow up to be great because of you!

ArtyZen said...

As ever, a reflective and honest and caring post. The photos of Maria are just wonderful and her life-force comes through them all.
In England, for the past few years, girls have 'overtaken' boys in the exam results for math. This is due mainly to a change in teaching methods - where there's more emphasis on course work and projects - and now there's the backlash of comments stating that the teaching system is wrong if it's giving girls the advantage...The struggle for equality is a big one. I'm glad to say Romy spurns 'girly' things; is tough, sensible and competitive with her brothers; has many boy friends at school; has a natural affinity for math and expects to be able to do what she wants to do. The only limitations she has are those that relate to her age and safety which goes for my boys too.
I could write a lot more as I also feel passionately on this subject but this is your subject today, not mine, but thank you for raising it!

Rebekka Seale said...

I love, love, love, love this so much. You are one of my mama role models. As the future mama of a little girl, I am bookmarking this post to reread again. Thank you for taking the time to share your heart with us!

Sara at Come Away With Me said...

You are a wonderful, caring, insightful, resourceful, fun and very intelligent mother. Your kids are blessed to have you.

Alison said...

I say frequently I'm glad not to be raising children in this day and age, because it's so damn complicated and difficult! But I'm not worried about Maria. She has you, and her brothers, and Suki and all the robots to help her see beyond the Pink Aisle. You all have amazing powers over her that you can't begin to understand.

In college, when my women friends called me strong in this terrible man-dominated world, my response was "Say what you want about men, but it was a man (my father) who pushed me to stand up for myself." All those seeds you're planting are finding fertile soil, believe me.

Alison said...

Oh, and I shared this link on Facebook. "Robots are for everyone!" She should get that t-shirt--next year's Team Paradox slogan?!

TnTConnect said...

You are a WONDERFUL mom! Kudos to you (and all of us mom's) for refusing to hold back our kids based on gender myths. My daughter's (both of them) loved squirt guns, football, etc. AND they love their pretty dresses (age appropriate). Keep up the GREAT work!

warren said...

YES YES YES! It drives me insane whenever I think of my daughter wearing "I am too cute for math" or even seeing that such clothes are even made. I applaud your efforts and it looks like you are doing well!

Dumb is not sexy-cute-funny-cool-justifiable-excusable! And corporations marketing Dumb are corrupt, disreputable, and reckless. Shame!
Indeed! My wife is not dumb, my mom is not dumb, they have never played the cute stuff. Argh! To even suggest it but so many parents raise their kids this way! Argh!

Ok...settling down now. It just strikes a chord with me. The other day, the neighbor girl, 5 years old, came over in heels and makeup. Her mom was dressing her that way, not for make-believe time but for...I have no idea. It was to go out though. I nearly died. Sexualizing a 5 year old makes my blood boil though...

Ok...I'll settle down. Keep up the good work Mom...keep raising your boys and girls right!

d.a. said...

This post brought tears to my eyes. Maria (AND your boys) are very lucky to have you as a mom. Kudos. said...

you rocked the shit out of this!

will link to you on monday my sister!!!!

have a lovely!

Tracy said...

Fist pump and WOO-HOO from here too, Natalie! This was just so amazingly expressed! You should write a book... seriously! I'm not lucky enough to be a mom myself, but am lucky to be aunt to three beautiful girls. It is hard raising a girl-child in this world. I see my sister already struggling with some of these issues, and her daughter is but nearly 3. You are doing well, my friend... keep up the no-cute policy... LOL ((HUGS))

Anonymous said...

This was such an amazing post. I have to admit I am glad I have boys and do not have to deal with the awful clothes out there for girls.

Somehow I was very fortunate and never received the message "Girls can't do math." I don't know why. Perhaps I just didn't listen - it was my best subject. I even majored in math in college.

Brava to you and Maria and her robots. Best of luck to her!

From a mom of two piano playing boys who love to read - one who dances ballet and the other does gymnastics!

Down with stereotypes & obnoxious T-shirts!

Kate said...

I left this tab open in Chrome for a week to remind myself to leave you a comment. I grew up as one of two daughters with my Dad who taught us we could do anything, and I am mighty grateful for that. I also managed to survive without the pink/purple craze that seems to be directed at little girls now. I think Maria more than most girls stands a fighting chance at not worrying about "girl things" vs. "boy things." And kudos to her for telling the other girl she was wrong!

unschool said...


Visty said...

I love to see this. As a girl growing up in the 70's who was taken completely out of the gifted program because I was only gifted in language, reading, and problem solving but not gifted in math--it frustrates me how the general thinking about intelligence keeps changing from one gross misconception to another. Your daughter is lucky to have you, for sure.

Jenny said...

Just read this FANTASTIC post and wanted to thank you for writing it. Raising girls is hard - I continue to be appalled at the images I see of girls and women every day in the media. It's overwhelming and I often feel I've failed my daughters. This post reminds me how important it is to keep working to combat those images and to help them grow up to be capable, confident, happy women who are true to themselves.