Elizabeth (greyautumnrain) wrote,

How to raise a girl (or boy)

Yesterday on the way home from our favorite Chinese restaurant Warren asked me how I thought we should raise the baby. It was such a stunningly broad question that I was a bit at a loss as to how to answer. “Just do what comes naturally,” was my initial response. Warren pointed out that he doesn’t operate that way; he thinks absolutely everything through. So we got to discussing it, a discussion I expect will last for at least the next eighteen years.

Warren specifically was pondering how to raise a daughter. While the gender of the fetus is very much up in the air, we did have the one ultrasound where it looked like it might be a girl. Warren said he thought that the right answer might be ‘just like you would a son’, and he thought that’s what my parents did. I am in complete agreement on both those points.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how my parents raised me, especially lately. I may be biased, but I think they were really good parents, and I might be a bit hard-pressed to do as well myself. I won’t say that they were perfect, on one ever is, but looking back it’s clear that the overriding factor in every decision they made was what was in the best interest of their children. Neither of my parents had anything that could remotely be considered an ideal upbringing. Both my parents lost their fathers before birth. Mom’s mother was a working single parent stuck raising two small children and a stepdaughter on a very limited income, and from what I’ve gathered was not a very happy person. Dad was raised by his aunt until he was nine, at which point his mother remarried and he moved in with her and his new stepfather. My parents don’t talk a whole lot about their childhoods, which leads me to believe that they were not filled with fond memories. I think it was very important to my parents that they do better for their own children.

I think that prior to my birth both my parents were hoping for a boy. Mom wanted to name a child after the father she never knew. I think Dad may have just thought a boy would be easier for him to parent. Obviously I wasn’t a boy, but the huge triumph of my parent’s parenting skill was that it truly did not matter one bit. It was especially striking with Dad. Looking back at my baby album there are numerous pictures of Dad with me; it so clear that he was absolutely crazy about me. Mom did all the mother things, or course, and she worked as well, back when there were hardly any working mothers. Dad handled all the dad stuff, as far as I can tell exactly the same way as if I had been a boy. He built towers as tall as himself out of wooden blocks for me to knock down. He took me up to the roof of our apartment building in Queens to ride my tricycle around. We played for hours with the model trains he’d gotten when he was thinking he might have a son. As a small child I just took it for granted all this cool stuff that Dad did with me, just like I took for granted the fact that Mom worked and read to me, and did all the other stuff that she did.

Later on I started to realize that Dad especially was unusual in his willingness to roll with the punches and not treat a little girl differently than he would a little boy. I guess I expect a mother to do that in this day and age (though perhaps I should not). Dad certainly did father/daughter things with us. He built us both doll houses and went to watch us dance. That was all great, but he did something else that made it all pale by comparison. A lot of men buy sports cars or something like that after they turn 40. For Dad it was guns. He recaptured the days of his youth in the army by getting a few rifles and taking them out to a range for target shooting. He also got a little air-powered pistol that we could fire in the garage or the back garden if we took a number of precautions. (Dad is huge on gun safety, so don’t even think of suggesting that this was risky.) After a few sessions in the garage where I surprised myself by doing OK in spite of my eyesight I expressed an interest in going to the range with him. If Dad even thought about blinking he hid it well. He already had a .22 that he’d purchased in the vain hope of interesting Mom in his hobby. He bought a second one so that both Margaret and I would have something to fire, and off we went. I loved it. My eyesight may be terrible, but I could offset that with patience and technique. Like I said, Dad was huge on gun safety, so I was constantly aware that I was holding a deadly weapon that had to be treated with every respect. It was scary, but it was also exciting and cool, and I was pretty good at it, all things considered. At thirteen I was also capable of noticing a key fact: Dad was the only man who ever brought his daughter to the range. There were a number of men his age who brought their sons, and there were some younger guys who had brought their girlfriends (most of whom weren’t so good at hiding the fact that shooting guns in a disused quarry was not their idea of a romantic date), but I never ever saw any other man who had his daughter with him. You never think of your own father as being exceptional until something like this dawns on you.

Obviously I like the way my parents raised me. I don’t believe that abilities are gendered. This is why I laugh at people who suggest that women aren’t as good at science or whatever. Women are just fine at science or whatever as long as their parents aren’t idiots who send the message that they shouldn’t be. Likewise boys are plenty capable of doing anything that girls are considered to be better at if their parents don’t discourage them. You should raise a little girl just like you would raise a little boy, and a little boy just like you would raise a little girl. To do that you just do whatever you and the child both find fun and interesting and educational without imposing stupid notions of gendered activities. You may not be able to prevent people outside the family from casting things as “boy” activities and “girl” activities, but I wasn’t going to accept some outsider’s bias over the example my parents were setting, and I don’t think my child will either.
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