Monday, July 11, 2022

"To Honor And Respect Their Imaginative Play"

I'll never forget my first moment "alone" with our daughter Josephine. The midwives were attending to my wife leaving the two of us together in a corner of the room. I'd mentally rehearsed for fatherhood, of course, but the reality of being suddenly responsible for this human being was beyond anything I could have imagined. She was wide-eyed, forming her lips into a tiny circle, a person who was counting on me.

We were expecting a girl, so her biological gender was no surprise, but I found myself suddenly both nervous and resolute at the prospect of being the father of a girl. I knew that I was going to be her primary caregiver for the foreseeable future. I was as confident as one can be, but even in 1996 it was uncommon for fathers to assume this role. So I worried, even in that first moment alone together, not that I would be inadequate as much as that she would be missing out on . . . something. 

On the other hand, I thought about the girls and young women I have known, including my wife Jennifer. Over the years I'd had heard them talk about things like body image and mental health issues that seemed alien to me. They had issues with their mothers that seemed fraught and complicated, bearing little resemblance to the relationship I'd had with my own mother. I didn't want any of that for our daughter. Indeed, as I communed with her in that first moment I wondered if I could protect her or immunize her against our sexist world. She would grow up to be, if I had any say in the matter, a strong, independent woman who felt good about herself, who knew what she wanted out of life, and who didn't take crap, especially from men.

"How can we give our girls the mindset and the permission to be the fierce brave girl?" asks parenting author and educator Maggie Dent while speaking with me at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Long known as Australia's "queen of common sense," Maggie was talking with me about her latest book Girlhood: Raising Our Girls to be Healthy, Happy and Heard.

In writing the book, Maggie tells me that she was forced to recognize her own wounds. She talks of the pressures she felt to be quiet, submissive, and "good": to suppress her instincts and urges which, she says, tended more toward the loud and boisterous. "The gender stuff," she says, "Oh my goodness, that takes our girls' voice away so early!" 

I had, as a father, assumed that I was going to be raising what we used to call a "tomboy." For instance, I dressed her for action, opting on most days for overalls instead of cute little dresses. I wanted her to be ever ready to climb trees and ride bikes. I kept her hair short, deeming it more practical for a proper childhood, and will confess to taking no little pride when strangers would ask me about my "son." I was conscious of the toys I allowed in the house, rejecting anything that seemed to stereotypically girly. 

Then one day, when she wasn't even yet two, she came across a bejeweled crown. Placing it on her head, she looked at me and said, "You don't know what girls do," then proceeded to wear crowns, daily, for the next three years.

I'd failed. Or so I thought. My first instinct was to denigrate that crown and well as the princess dresses and other trappings of girlhood that began to come into our life from that moment forward. I realize now that my attitude was, in itself, sexist, in that I was elevating masculinity (tomboy-ness) over femininity (crowns). I didn't have Maggie to guide me at the time, but thankfully I fought down my worst urges, and "allowed" her to explore her identity as she saw fit, even if I resented the intrusions of "the world" into the genderless paradise I had hoped to create.

"One of the things we do to help girls to have a voice is to honor and respect their imaginative play," says Maggie.

As the next several years unfolded, I began to see that despite my prejudices, Josephine had an agenda when it came to being a girl. As I watched her and her girlfriends explore their femininity through imaginative play in ways that confounded me, I began to understand that this process, for Josephine at least, was too important to squelch. Before long I was embracing the frilly pink costume dresses as they became tattered and soiled because they represented who she was, right now. 

"How do I raise my girl to be herself and not in competition with every other girl?" Maggie asks. "How do I raise her to be herself, whatever that may be?"

I'd started by wanting to judge the culture of girlhood I was witnessing as a father, but came to understand that it's not my place, or anyone's place, to judge our girls as they engage in the vital project of coming to terms with who they are in this world that tries to tell them who to be. Indeed, it's our judgments that so often become the wounds that Maggie talks about having to overcome. My role as a father, I found, was to love, respect, and honor her choices, her path, and her exploration, and to let her know that I love her no matter what.

What young Josephine taught me was to withhold my judgments and to trust that she was fully capable of finding her own way in this big, complicated world. It's only in the space beyond judgment that we can explore what it means to be ourselves.


To watch my entire interview with Maggie Dent and 22 other early childhood and parenting experts and thought-leaders from around the world, please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Together we can raise all our children to be themselves . . . whatever that means!

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