An Open Letter to the Principal of my son’s school.
Dear. Mrs. B,
Yesterday I read the newsletter you sent home for the month of January. It started out promisingly.
“I would like to challenge you to make a resolution to listen to your child read or read with your child for 15 minutes a day. It is the one thing you can do for your child this year that will have an impressive positive impact on their learning.”
So far, so good.
“Talk to your child about what they like to read.”
Yes…that’s important. Acknowledge your child’s interests.
But then you proceed to tell parents what their children will like…according to their gender.
“Boys like books about spiders, snakes, sports and extreme weather and girls like books about animals, stories about “girl things”, and beauty or teen magazines.”
And that’s when I got irritable. There are so many things wrong with that sentence I don’t know where to begin. Besides the fact that it’s a run on sentence, it’s also full of silly, embarrassing stereotypes.
We don’t even need to trot out the old chestnut that “Boys can play with dolls and girls can play with trucks,” even though that is also true. According to the research of psychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak about 80% of girls have brains are wired in the traditional female sense, and about 20% of girls are wired more similarly to 80% of boys. So yes, some girls are more like most boys and some boys are more like most girls. That’s a basic.
What disturbs me is the idea that if you are a girl who is wired like 80% of all other girls that it limits you.
I speak as an 80 percenter over here, with a very traditionally feminine daughter. We both love(d) dressing up, playing dolls, playing kitchen, playing mommy. We love makeup and sparkles and princesses. You know what else we like? Playing in the dirt. Lifting up a brick and seeing what worms and centipedes are doing. Walking in the woods. Playing swords. Reading about the human body. Telling jokes. Wrestling.
My daughter might need encouragement to read. It’s ok that she reads books about animals and the occasional girls magazine (when it’s age appropriate, some of them definitely are not.) It’s ok if she wants to read beauty tips, thoughI don’t think she’ll have to be encouraged by the principal of her school to do that! Girls get plenty of pressure to conform to beauty standards as it is. It’s more likely we’ll need to steer her away from beauty tips and towards literature.
If she wants to read some fabulous literature primarily geared towards girls, like The Little House books or Anne of Green Gables, then I will cheer and certainly encourage it. But I will also encourage her to read books about spiders and snakes and sports and extreme weather. Because girls aren’t just girls. They are people.
It seems like every day I read that girls are slipping behind in math and science…it’s considered to be a real crisis. And at the same time we are telling girls they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. But becoming an adult is something that happens in inches…not all at once. A girl who is force fed beauty tips and magical pony stories and but not also encouraged to also gather real world information is not likely to grow up with a good career prospect, or any understanding of the power that she has inside herself to be the woman she chooses to be. I chose motherhood as my primary career path, which does not require limited understanding, but something far broader. You are a mother of a daughter, and as a woman you have chosen a career path that has given you a great deal of influence. This is not something that could have happened if you had focused on being a girl, instead of being a whole person.
I realize that this is just a school newsletter. You probably just dashed it off quickly and thought “Nobody reads these things anyway.” I don’t expect you to spend hours or even more than a few minutes gathering your thoughts. So here’s a time saver. Try to stop using gender-specific language for starters. Instead of “Boys like A and girls like B” you could say “Children like to read about A and B.” This can take some time. I still struggle to remind myself to stop calling the Doll Aisle at Target The Girl Aisle. But just remind yourself, children are individuals, and they all deserve to be encouraged in positive directions
As the principal of a school in a low-income district, you have a powerful platform here. You have the opportunity to make a difference. I know you already are, because you have girls on the basketball team and boys on the cheer team! Let’s keep moving in that direction. Let’s encourage kids to be who they are, and give them plenty of opportunity to grow. Dr. Deak says the brain is like a rubber band, and if you stretch those rubber bands, they stay stretched. Let’s make girls bigger in math and science! Let’s encourage them to read about yucky bugs and scary tornados. You never know when you might be turning a someone who didn’t know she could BE anything other than a cosmetologist into a entomologist or meteorologist.