How To Counter The Sexist Bullsh*t Your Daughters Learn At School  

We can give our children tools to empower them when they are bombarded with harmful and oppressive messages.

I sat in the middle of my advanced placement English class in 11th grade. We were learning about sentence diagramming, and as much as I loved writing and reading, I could not figure that shit out. 

The teacher called on my best friend and me to come to the front of the class and do some samples on the whiteboard. My best friend happened to be male and extremely intelligent. 

The teacher stood before a class full of our peers and announced, “Brad, you can do this sentence over here to show the class the proper way to do sentence diagramming. And Sam, you can write yours over here to show the class the wrong way to do it.” The teacher chuckled, and we all followed her lead and laughed about it too. Brad laid a comforting hand on my shoulder and quietly said, “I know you can do it right too.” He felt the pain that I was feeling in that moment. 

“I feel so stupid,” I whispered. We did our sentences. And, surprise, I did mine wrong. I could barely make myself write anything at all because I had an audience waiting for me to fail and a teacher finding humor in my lacking.

As young women, every day in school cements new messages into our psyche:

Armpit hair is gross. 
And shave your legs while you’re at it. 
You can’t wear spaghetti straps because your body is too distracting for the opposite sex. 
I don’t care that this guy makes you physically uncomfortable
You are overweight. 
You will never be accepted.
You didn’t try. 
You aren’t smart enough. 

How do we, as parents, counter this deeply ingrained message that our girls and young women are supposed to look a certain way to be accepted, that they are responsible for someone else’s actions and thoughts, and that they must fit inside specific boxes to be considered valuable? 

The answer is anything but simple or easy. We can’t just say, “Ignore them, sweetie.” An impressionable youth is learning everything about the world and how they fit into it. When we tell them to ignore it, we aren’t giving them any tools. Ignoring it can work in the moment, if “work” means not calling out problematic behavior to maintain the status quo (and often to maintain personal safety and minimize harm). But it doesn’t just go away as the child lays in bed thinking over the words and implied meanings that were hurled at them throughout the day, as they consider whether there could be any truth to it all.

How do we, as parents, counter this deeply ingrained message that our girls and young women are supposed to look a certain way to be accepted, that they are responsible for someone else’s actions and thoughts, and that they must fit inside specific boxes to be considered valuable?

And when they look around and see no one standing up and speaking against actions and words like these, especially when they don’t have the power to speak up themselves, they are resigned to believe that the message is true. They think they should just keep their head down and pretend it doesn’t exist. Or worse, that they should keep their head down because they have no power to change it. 

The good news is we can give our children tools to empower them when they are bombarded with harmful and oppressive messages.

Starting from birth, we need to let our children be assertive. We need to stop telling our girls to “be nice” while laughing with strangers when our boys are “just being boys.” When it is safe to do so and isn’t furthering harm done to us, we need to stand up and speak up when someone says or does something problematic. Often, people don’t realize their misstep until they are informed. And if they do know about their misstep, we are at least setting an example for our children that we don’t have to stand for it too. 

 

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We can give our kids words by reading stories that empower marginalized characters or sharing our life experiences. Through storytelling, we teach our children about the experiences of people that might live differently than we do, which can result in our children developing empathy for people from all walks of life. 

Parents need to be the voice for their children when their own voices are rendered silent. When my teacher made an example of me, she took my power away and harmed all the girls in the class. When our children share these experiences with us, we need to be the person who marches up to the school and demands change. 

If no one challenges the status quo, it will remain just that. 

Healing our child’s heart starts with validating their experiences. When our kids come home saying they feel upset or troubled by a situation they encountered at school, whether it was with another child or with an authority or maybe even an internal message they felt due to society in general, we need to validate those feelings

A child might say, “I’m ugly. I’m never going to get a date to prom.” We shouldn’t immediately step in to counter those words. Of course, we should lift them up — but without dismissing how they feel. We could start off with something that allows them to express the deeper issue: “Are you worried you don’t have a date right now?” It hurts to feel like you aren’t good enough, and allowing them that space to talk through their hurt will allow them to process and heal from that rather than immediately jumping in with “You’re beautiful! Of course, you’ll find a date.” The teen might feel unheard and like we don’t “get” them because we aren’t showing that we hear them. 

Most importantly, we need to look in the mirror.

Are we inadvertently affirming these harmful messages in the way that we speak about ourselves and about others? Do we shave our armpits to fit in or because we like how it feels? Do we victim-blame assault survivors? Do we talk down to ourselves, audibly, about our weight and our shape? The saying should go, “do what I do” rather than “do what I say, not as I do,” because doing what we do is the most powerful way that children learn about themselves and the world around them.

Transforming the status quo often feels impossible when our society is entrenched in patriarchy and misogyny. We need to teach our children that no matter how hopeless the fight feels, there is always a way forward. We can surround them with examples of how to take care of their hearts and minds so they know how to seek healthy comfort when everything gets too heavy. We can show them how to speak up. And we can love them unconditionally, providing a safe home base when getting shoved backward is too much. 


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