Rian wrote a thought-provoking post titled “Thoughts on being a terrible dad” which touches on something most parents probably feel: frustration at being told how to raise our kids:
My daughters love princesses, and I sometimes tell them to be careful. According to the internet, this makes me a terrible father. And I’m getting a little bit tired of hearing about it.
We have two children, a boy and our little girl. All parents know that being a parent isn’t exactly easy. Our kids are born without manuals and whatever we are told when they are born is frequently not as applicable as our well-meaning advisors may hope. Also, having kids can be terrifying.
I was chatting to my brother-in-law yesterday (he and his wife recently had a little boy) about this. Having kids has introduced me to fear that I didn’t know before them and, at the same time, tremendous joys and highs I wouldn’t have experienced without them. They certainly make life interesting and we do the best we can to raise them well.
I’m pretty sure we are making all sorts of mistakes and preparing them for years of therapy and “growth” but our ability to raise healthy and confident children depends so much on how much we know about ourselves and our fears. We do our best.
Our daughter is a busy little girl. I have always tried to teach her she can do whatever she wants to do when she grows up (she is almost 4 so we have some time) and I do my best to let her explore her world and do crazy things (within limits, mostly having to do with sharp objects and fire).
While we live in a complicated world where women are historically treated as second class citizens (often far worse) and still seem to struggle for recognition in a world still dominated by men and our stupid paradigms, I don’t understand why I should go out of my way to introduce these modern inequalities into our children’s consciousnesses. All that achieves is created a conceptual starting point that sets them up to repeat our broken behaviours.
That isn’t to say that we will lock them up in a metaphorical tower and tell them its all flowers and unicorns, we don’t. What it means is that I want to teach our kids how to be better than we are from blank slates. We won’t always get that message right and some of our paradigms will seep through but why teach my daughter that she wont be treated as equals as a starting point. Rather teach her she can do whatever her brother does and perhaps even do it better and let her growing confidence guide her through the stupidity that awaits her.
Rian linked to a couple articles online which seem to be intended to teach us to be better parents and while some of the tips make some sense, most of the “advice” is just crazy. Here is an example from Devorah Blachor’s New York Times article titled “Turn Your Princess-Obsessed Toddler Into a Feminist in Eight Easy Steps“:
Propose that the hatred that Anastasia and Drizella feel toward Cinderella is not the fault of the stepsisters, so much as it represents a complete indictment of Western society and its attitudes toward feminine beauty. Suggest that all three women might be victims of the same impossible societal pressures. Work in this timeless Naomi Wolf gem: “The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash are destroying women physically and depleting us psychologically.”
When I first read the article, I thought it had to be a joke. Surely she isn’t suggesting we actually have that sort of conversation with our daughter? If anything is going to send her to therapy, that sort of discussion probably would. It just seems to me that talking to our kids like this creates mental models that won’t serve them as they grow up in a dynamic world. It won’t cultivate their potential to think for themselves and create a reality that serves them, it will hobble them. I sometimes wonder if some feminists forget they are human too?
My favourite story about our daughter that my wife often tells is that my wife once asked our daughter what sort of princess she was (at that point she just declared she would be a princess for a game she was playing)? My wife asked if she could be a variety of Disney princesses and our daughter said “no” to each one, insisting that she would be “Princess Superman”. That is our little girl. She plays with Superman and Metro Man, spars with our son with toy light sabers and occasionally dresses up in a pink fairy outfit and prances on her bed (sometimes with a tiara).
Her current favourite song is “Let it go” from Frozen and she sings it while it plays on her iPad and she dances around the house with a blanket over her shoulders like a cloak. She has fun, she is comfortable being herself and I know she’ll play Star Wars with her brother later too. I don’t particularly care if she is a proto-feminist, as long as she is her own person and she is happy.
As far as not telling kids to be careful goes, I try not to do that either. I heard about a great alternative a while ago which I try use more frequently: “pay attention”. That said, as Rian pointed out (and you almost certainly know), there are times when we do need to tell our kids to “be careful” and it is usually when they are about to do something dangerous! We are still parents after all and we don’t want them to hurt themselves. Yes, it probably instills a little additional fear but I can live with that one too.