Self-Expression for Young Girls
Another post from my space on EverydayFeminism.com
Before Kris and I made the decision to become location independent unschoolers, our daughters attended public school.
Like many other public schools in Georgia (and I imagine across the United States), there wasn’t a real separation of church and state. Assumptions were made about beliefs — meaning that schools assume that most families are Christian — and there were Christmas plays and other faith-based activities centered on the prevailing religion.
As neither we, nor our children, follow a particular religious belief or practice, we were faced with in-school activities and lessons that posed concerns for us as parents.
Religious beliefs were only one aspect of our concerns, as our daughters had plenty of lifestyle abnormalities that caused them to stand out among their classmates.
They were two of maybe five children with loc’d hair. They were unvaccinated (which caused us to have to go through several irritating conversations both in school and with their pediatricians). And they were pulled out of school for weeks at a time while we visited different cities as part of our lifestyle transition process from suburban living to location independence.
As parents, Kris and I are constantly checking in with ourselves, each other, and our daughters (now 10 and 8) to address the question of acquiescence versus acceptance.
We often wondered whether we should be storming up to the school in efforts to reinforce the beliefs and boundaries we set in our household.
We constantly discussed whether we were embodying a sort of tacit complicity that may send mixed messages to our daughters about acceptance (of other people’s right to practice and share what they believe) and acquiescence (to the dominant norms).
Thankfully, with time and open dialogue, we created some management techniques for communicating those beliefs and boundaries, and those aspects are at the core of this post.
What follows are a few instances in which we faced the acquiescence-versus-acceptance dilemma.
Note that I purposely offer no concrete solutions, but instead offer up two of Kris’ and my experiences with our oldest (and most vocally expressive) daughter, Marley, each followed by questions that may help you access your own questions, and perhaps your own answers.
Scary Little Black Girl
When Marley started kindergarten, she got a rude awakening about the prevalent message (particularly in the South) that black (as in race) equals bad.
In this video, I asked Marley to share her experiences so that people could see the types of conversations that are happening on playgrounds across America.
This was in 2009, but we have come across similar issues as recently as last year, while we were spending a few months in Georgia.
I told Marley that it was good that she felt confident in asserting her belief that she was in fact, a good person, and not a scary one.
She told me that she asked the girl whether she would be afraid of her for any other reason that her being black, and the girl’s response was no.
That response prompted Marley to explain to her peer that she (Marley) was “raised right”and “would never be a scary person to anyone.”
We were so proud of her, and so heartbroken that she had this experience during her first year of school.
We did not go to the school to file a complaint, nor did we ask for a conference with the other girl’s parents. We decided that the best thing to do was to help Marley to manage herself, and to continue to do our best to raise a confident girl who would speak up on her own behalf.
We made it a priority to help Marley learn how to recognize that her race was not the issue. The issue was the message being conveyed to the other little girl and how that message translates into fear.
When she got home from school the following day, we asked Marley if she had any conversations with the girl who called her scary, or any of that girl’s friends. She said that she told them they were silly, and that she wanted to move on because any people of any color could be friends.
What would you have done if Marley was your daughter?
What result would you have wanted to see?
What would you have done if your daughter made that comment to Marley?
Killing the Easter Bunny
Before our lifestyle transition, we were raising our daughters in a suburb with the other two-children-one-dog-oversize-house folks. Our subdivision had potlucks and block parties and offered up baked goods and welcoming smiles to our family when we moved into the neighborhood.
One day, during a neighborhood women’s gathering, one of our neighbors pulled me aside to talk to me about a concern she had.
When we sat down to talk, she began to explain her frustrations with how my daughter (who was about seven at the time) had “upset the balance of something [holy] (I guess)” by telling her son of the same age that the Easter Bunny was not real.
She was really upset and droned on about the lengths to which she and her husband had to go to restore their son’s childhood joy by way of Easter Bunny-ness. Honestly, I stopped listening after a while.
To be clear, I am in fact saying that I found her concerns ridiculous.
I believe that every family has the right to impart whatever beliefs and customs resonate with them. No other adult has the right to attempt to alter the beliefs of a child in ways that are contrary to what their parents impart. But when it comes to other children’s opinions, the reality is different.
Had I, as an adult, made it my business to offer opposing perspectives to her son on bunnies that laid eggs and so on, that would have been out of line. But I did not.
My daughter, her son’s classmate and peer, did.
As a parent, I do not see that as an issue; I see that as an opportunity.
More specifically, I see those instances as opportunities to create dialogues around differences, respect for those differences, and of course, the right and practice of expressing one’s own beliefs without belittling the beliefs of others.
We’ve had plenty of practice in this area, since one child told Marley that she was going to hell for not believing in Jesus, among other threats.
Our neighbor seemed surprised that I did not offer her an apology and refused to have any sorts of talks with my daughter about the specific instance.
Instead, I told her that we talk to our daughters about the fact that other families believe, and have a right to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and other religious mascots, just as we have the right to believe something different.
Still, our daughters are curious and perhaps a bit precocious and do not shy away from conversations about religion or their opinions about those religious beliefs.
Ultimately, I told her that my daughter was not in charge of their son’s reality, nor the preservation of the reality his parents are working to create.
Were we to hold any child, or even the school, to that same standard, there would be no holiday celebrations that focused on pilgrims, Jesus, Santa, the Easter Bunny, or some of the other more subtle activities and lessons that, in my opinion, qualify as religious elitism.
Would you have spoken to your child about bursting the boy’s Easter Bunny bubble?
Did I miss an opportunity to raise a child more sensitive to other people’s beliefs?
Both of these instances are less about lifestyle differences, and more about the expectation of acquiescence.
I believe that if Marley accepted the label of Scary Black Girl, she, like other little black and brown girls throughout my own childhood, would begin to act out what was projected onto them.
Outspoken girls, particularly outspoken black girls in predominantly white schools, are often treated like exceptional anomalies who are just so articulate and smart, but have a bit too much attitude.
Many black women address the same issues daily, with the word scary being replaced with the word angry.
Our positive traits are generally viewed as exceptions to the (black) rule, and our outspokenness and unwillingness to acquiesce reads as angry or attitude-prone.
The religious argument offers a similar reality.
Marley (or her parents) were expected to be apologetic for expressing a belief in opposition to the norm. When I spoke to Marley about it, just to let her know that her peer’s parents were aware of the conversation she had with their son, she said she was sad that her words made her friend sad, but that she was not sorry for saying what she believed.
Again, we were proud of her, and used it as an opportunity to remind her that differences don’t have to equal disagreements. We reminded her that she did not have to hide her beliefs, nor shy away from expressing them, but she needed to be careful not to try and “make” anyone believe what she or we believed.
Ultimately, I know that Marley and her sister, Sage, represent something that causes fear and anger in the minds of some who are not ready – not ready to accept the idea of equality among races and sexes; not ready to accept that black and brown children are people, and not suspects; and not ready to live among others, regardless of their race, who believe in something different than what they consider the norm.
I’m okay with that reality, because I am of the belief that whatever I contend with, also has to contend with me.
Kris and I will continue doing our best to raise confident girls who become confident women unwilling to shy away from their right to express themselves.
No matter where we are in the world, people who risk expression will always be perceived as threats to people who look to preserve a sense of normalcy based on what makes them comfortable. As an immigrant, as a woman, and as a black woman in particular, I am no stranger to that reality.
All I know is that I will continue to express myself, and I will continue to be part of a household, and a greater community, that prioritizes the nurturing of children willing to confidently express themselves, too.