What I Didn’t Say . . . But, Was Glad She Did

Soccer’s been in my blood since I was little. Watching my kids learn to love it has been awesome.

For the first time last fall, my 7-year-old played with girls instead of playing co-ed. I wasn’t sure what I thought about that switch. I’d noticed that already a couple of the boys dominated the field in terms of “time with the ball.” This bothered me some. But, I also wondered if girls might remain more athletically challenged (for a number of reasons) in a co-ed context than off playing on their own.

But the league lets them choose at this age. So my partner and I let our daughter decide and she opted to play with girls.

Then this happened.

Winter indoor soccer camp was back to co-ed. One session, I sat watching and noticed that only the boys raised their hands when the coaches asked questions. I knew the girls knew the answers. In fact, I knew my kid knew the answers! But over and over, only the boys tried to speak.

The same day something else happened. I noticed my daughter jostling with a boy much taller than she while they waited in line for a drill. Then I overheard her say—two or three times—“hey, that’s not nice!” “Hey!!!”

She looked upset.

In the car ride home I asked what happened. She explained he’d cut in front of her in line and told her boys should get to go first. I reaffirmed what she already knew: that he wrong. I also told her how pleased I was that she’d stood up for herself; that it can be hard to do that and it was awesome she had.

What I didn’t do was use the word, “sexist.” In fact, I didn’t say anything specifically about the gendered nature of his behavior.

I’m not totally sure why I didn’t, but I think I was a worried that if I focused on the gendered nature of her exchange (which was obviously there!) I risked making too much of it. Like I didn’t want to give her a complex about the dynamic between boys and girls that might cause her to make herself “smaller” somehow because she goes into situations expecting she’s going to be treated poorly because she’s a girl.

As it turns out, this was a huge mistake. It was precisely the opposite of what I should have been worried about.

At bedtime, I still felt uneasy so decided to circle back.

I asked her how she felt now about what had happened. She told me she was fine. But she actually wasn’t. Because, then, she told me more. “That boy also said it would be embarrassing if a girl beat a boy out on the field.” She was still upset.

Thank goodness we had checked in again! This statement totally upped the gender-ante. And I could tell by the way she looked as she relayed this even more overtly sexist statement how “small” it had, in fact, made her feel.

Now it was clear I needed to go for it, all the way.

“You know what? That boy wasn’t just being mean,” I said. “There’s a word for what he was being. He was being ‘sexist.’”

I tried hard to keep it concrete. We talk about gender a ton in our house and about how there isn’t “boy stuff” and “girl stuff” (even if people you love try to tell you there is). But now I specifically explained that sexism against girls and women is a big problem—at school, in families, in all the places we live and do our thing. It’s when people say things that suggest boys are better than girls, or do things to treat girls as if they aren’t as valuable. It’s when rules are there that make things unfair for girls and boys get treated better.

She hadn’t understood his “embarrassing” statement (though she definitely knew it was an insult). So I explained that his statement only makes sense if you assume boys are better athletes than girls–which he was. Again, “Sexist”!

I told her she’ll have experiences like this a lot. And I told her that her mommy, daddy (who was also there that day at camp) and I were all proud of her for standing up for herself because, when she did, she wasn’t only standing up for herself. She was standing up for all girls.

So, here comes the best part. Here I’d worried that giving her the big, scary S-word might give her a sense of a world oh-so-dangerous and damage her agency and joy-filled spirit.

On the contrary, she seemed to  puff up. The look on her face became more animated. And she, now with language and a way to analyze what she already knew she was actually experiencing (notice that: this as opposed to me trying to smooth it over for her by keeping it vague), made an unexpected, but direct and empowered connection I never thought to make.

“That reminds me of the woman on the bus who wouldn’t give up her seat when white people told her she had to move,” she said.

“Rosa Parks?!” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “Remember?! She didn’t want white people to treat Black people badly so she stood up to that bus driver.”

“Yes! Like that!!” We also talk about race all the time in our house, but now I gave her that word too. “Rosa Parks was standing up against racism. Racism is all the beliefs, behaviors and laws in our society that harm African American people, Latino people, and all people of color.”

We went on to talk about Rosa Parks’ courage and how she was even more courageous because she was Black and a woman. And we talked about how it’s everyone’s job to stand up: including white people (like my daughter) against racism, and boys and men against sexism.

I left the conversation with a sense my daughter might be more likely to notice next time she knows the answer while in a group where only the boys are trying to speak. That maybe she’ll  throw up her hand and get in the mix. I think she left reassured of her own abilities and responsibilities to take things on when she knows something’s just not seeming right.

Last week I read an essay on anti-racist education that emphasized how much adults and children stand to mutually grow if adults stop underestimating what the children in our lives perceive. The line where we don’t ignore children’s racial experiences, but also don’t insert ourselves as authorities when we do engage them can be difficult to find. The authors said adults need to raise our concerns about racism “as ideas to discuss to rather than as right answers” (Kimberly Chang and Rachel Conrad, p. 34). This applies to all the other ‘isms’ too.

I don’t know if I found the right line that day, but I definitely grew. I grew in respect for my daughter and her ability to analyze what’s really going on. And I grew in my clarity that supporting our children in naming the truth of their own experiences isn’t likely to make them small or afraid. It’s much more likely to make large and courageous their capacity to act with agency in the world.

And, for me, watching that happen in my kids….that would be truly awesome.

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