Family Field Trips
"We have to look beyond patriarchy, that's for sure. But, you know, it's starting to be that we also have to look beyond feminism too. Our daughters' lives are limited by both theories."– Gail Reid-Gurian, mother of two girls and family therapist
On a sunny day in June, I took my daughters to Manito Park, our neighborhood play area. Gabrielle was 7 and Davita 4. Beyond the normal swings and slides, the girls always enjoyed a sculpture there, built from logs and shaped like a Viking ship. On this particular day, we arrived early, and the girls, who had brought some of their stuffed animals, began to play a game involving two mothers caring for children on an ocean voyage. I offered to be part of the game if they wanted me, but then, as they enjoyed their "girl world" without me, I settled into a book on a bench at the periphery.
Their play went comfortably, filled with creative ideas and adjustments, in that way girls have with each other. They could have gone on happily, alone together, until they got hungry for lunch. But a car pulled up, and out stepped a mom and two boys, around 5 and 8 years old. The mom and I waved as strangers do in parks when the sweet energy of children is about. Her two sons dashed onto the ship loudly. I watched, fascinated at first, then disquieted.
The complex game Gabrielle and Davita had created was interrupted by the louder and more aggressive energy of the boys. Within seconds, my girls abandoned their game and took to observing the boys' action and cries. "I'm captain now!" "Shoot the shark!"
Watching this usurpation of my girls' play-world, I felt a growing irritation. I thought sadly of how often this happened between boys and girls.
There it is, I thought. What we are so often warned about: that when the boys come around, the girls step aside. The girls' self-esteem drops and the boys take over.
My protective instincts for my girls rose even while I harbored no ill will toward the boys, who were, after all, just enjoying the world through their own way of being. I felt almost like a crime was being committed to my daughters. I felt like I should do something.
A professional student of human nature, I spend a lot of time observing children's behavior. When I'm not sure what to do, I fall back on watching. On this morning I did just that. And I learned a valuable lesson.
For about five minutes, my daughters tried to return to their game. This became impossible, given the noise and interruptions. Then Gabrielle said something to the older of the boys, made some suggestions, began a negotiation I couldn't hear from my bench. The boys slowed down a little, listened, talked in the midst of their bouncing and playing. Gabrielle, as the alpha female on the ship, seemed to talk mostly to the older boy, the alpha male. She pointed; he pointed. She told Davita to move one of the dolls over to where he was, and he instructed his little brother to take hold of it and prop it up on the aft rim of the ship. Within 10 minutes from the boys' arrival, the "set" was rearranged. Now the four children were in a group near the helm of the ship, each of them with a different job, and all of them engaged in some new game, even more rich and complex than had been my daughters' or the boys' original intentions for play, this one featuring princesses, giants, pirates, treasures and, I found out later from Davita, Cinderella's lost shoes.
My disquiet, my irritation, even my hidden anger were replaced now by admiration. As so often happens in the world of children, something small was really something large. The kids were living out their nature wholeheartedly, and it was worth a lot to observe it at work.
A Moment of Awakening
This moment at the park was the first of many incidents that cried out for me to think beyond our culture's present ideas about girls, about girls and boys, and about women and men. If you think about it, how many times have similar things happened on playgrounds, in workplaces, in homes, among children, teenagers, adults? Initially, there is overwhelming energy from males, but soon, gradual assessment, then guidance, from females. As a married man, I am no stranger to this circumstance!
And in the five minutes of negotiation that went on between Gabrielle, Davita and the two boys, I realized I needed to revise the timeline by which I watched for drops in girls' self-esteem. Among these four children there was no drop in self-esteem, though initial observation seemed to show there was a sad drop for my girls. Instead, there were the natural interpersonal relationships that emerge when we are patient enough to observe them.
This incident occurred many years ago. It was one of the times in my life that I've felt dissatisfied, as a parent, by what our present, conventional conversation about girls has taught me about "gender stereotypes," "girls' self-esteem drops," "girls in crisis." A number of catchphrases dominate our dialogue about girls, but our girls actually live far beyond the words. That morning, I went home and began a list of these phrases, as well as some of the theories that indoctrinate me nearly every day – in some form in our media and pop culture – to see girls in a way that allows very little for the subtleties in which girls really live their lives.
I told Gail about my observation. As she does so often, she smiled at me, a little bemused. Quite often she sees things more clearly and much earlier than I do, but just doesn't tell me about it. "Mike, hardly anyone anymore really looks under the surface of girls' lives," she said. "Feminism used to do it 20, 30 years ago. It was deep. But now it's skidding on the surface." It was during the rest of that day that Gail and I talked about this, talked about my writing this book, and acknowledged something we, brought up in the feminist tradition, had avoided dealing with.
The great ocean of girls' lives actually lies beneath the surface of the simple formulas we are now taught about "girl power" and girls' self-esteem. Feminism is, we realized, no longer the best theory to care for many of our girls.