Friday, July 18, 2014

Finally, A Ninja To Inspire My Little Girls

As a parent, there are millions of little joys in the everyday, as you watch your kids discover the world around with all its profound beauty and untold mysteries. But once in a while, you can get crushed by it too, when you see them realize a harsh reality of life and the world they’re inheriting from us.
One of those little parental-soul-sucking moments happened to me recently, and it started with a simple drawing.
Our six-year-old daughter loves to draw. She tells us she likes drawing more than going outside. She even knows what she wants to be when she grows up – an author illustrator. She’s the best natural drawer in the family. I remember a drawing of herself she drew at age three. It was the kind of thing a cartoonist would conjure up. Of course, I am a bit biased.
Our little artist's first self portrait, from
quite a few years ago. She was 3 then.
She also happens to love the Ninja Turtles. It’s a family affliction I’ve written about before. In recent months, our two older daughters have grown out of their TMNT obsession. But not our third. She still loves them, talks about them, plays with their dolls and asks to watch the show – which has been reincarnated on Nickelodeon, after a 20-year hiatus, for another generation of kids.

One night a few weeks ago, our little drawing fiend took her art kit to the kid table in the corner and began a new masterpiece. When she was done, she didn’t want to show me.

“It’s just pretend,” she said. “It will never happen,” she added.

“What is it?”

Reluctantly, she showed me.

“I drew a girl Ninja Turtle,” she said, with resignation in her voice. “But I know Ninja Turtles are all boys.”

I smiled at the drawing as my heart sank.

I’m no dummy. I know there are many ways this world is unfair and cruel, to little girls and to everybody else. But for some reason, her belief that all Ninja Turtles have to be boys hit me in the gut.

She’s my third daughter. I’ve watched her older sisters grow up, and I’ve worried before about what it’s like for a little kid to suddenly realize the world is not entirely theirs for the taking, despite us telling them that, if they work hard enough and dream big enough, it is.

It reminded me of a few years ago when I was watching the Tour de France with my eldest, and she asked a simple question. “Why can’t girls win this race?”

Something I never thought about growing up as a boy surrounded by brothers is something that’s now painfully clear as a dad of daughters: there are countless examples of things little girls simply aren't allowed to dream to do. It’s especially true in sports.

Throwing the winning touchdown at the Superbowl? Hitting the winning run in the World Series? Only little boys can have these dreams, even if it’s not terribly realistic for most of us. And it's a profound moment for a parent when you watch that unfair reality dawn on your daughter.

Sure, there’s a girls version of baseball, but it’s not the World Series. There’s a women’s NCAA tournament, though I’ve never watched it. Occasionally, there’s a female race car driver these days or a female jockey in the Kentucky Derby. And my daughters always root for them. But when I sit with my kids and watch sports, which I do a lot, with the exception of the women’s World Cup it’s almost always men playing other men. They see that.

And there are many examples outside of sports, too.

We’re catholic. Every Sunday (okay, most Sundays … how about some Sundays) we attend church and watch a man lead the mass and perform the rituals of our faith. The question has been asked, why can’t women be priests? I don’t have a good answer, other than they just can’t. One less calling for my girls to pursue, I guess.

Priests, pro football players, baseball stars, Tour de France winners, and now Ninja Turtles: The heroes my daughters cannot aspire to become add up quick if you look around.

As a parent, all we can do is be more cognizant of these messages, and teach them about the need for the serenity, the strength and the wisdom, as the saying goes. Lord knows, there's room -- and need -- for change, on these issues and others.

After the female Ninja Turtle drawing incident, I did a little research to see if the concept of a girl turtle had been broached. I discovered that in the long lifespan and many reinventions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise, there actually was a female turtle character introduced. Her name was Venus de Milo. Though Venus has yet to make an appearance in the latest Nickelodeon version of the series, which is all my daughter cares about. But there is hope.

And then, this week, another female ninja of sorts burst onto the scene. She’s not a cartoon, or a turtle. But, she’s certainly a ninja. Her name is Kacy Catanzaro. And you can be sure my daughters gathered around the computer to cheer her on.

The world has many flaws, even more than I realized before I became a dad of daughters. But there’s also a million things that are great, and awesome, and inspiring about it. This is one:

By the way, the inaugural women's Tour de France kicks off July 27th. It's called La Course, and you can be sure we will be watching. 
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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cute and Pink to the Left, Cool and Blue to the Right

“Don’t be mad, but I got a couple of shirts from the boys’ section," my daughter proclaimed as she found me and her little brother sitting on the bench outside the Gap Kids at the local mall. Her mom was still inside paying with our other daughters. 

I wasn’t mad, not even close. But I asked why, purely out of parental curiosity.

“All the girls stuff is too cutesy, and the boys stuff is just cooler.”

My daughter is a pretty typical pre-teen – except in the many ways that she’s exceptional, of course. She likes to ride her bike. Plays soccer. Has read the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series, and all the Hunger Games. She used to like princesses and Disney movies, and has recently discovered boy bands. She’s not what society would call a “gender non-conformist.” And that’s not what this is about.

But, it is very much about gender and conformity. And fashion, I think.  

I went back into the Gap, daughter and her younger brother in tow, to see what she meant.  
Why do boys get the cool shirts
and girls get hearts and butterflies?
Like all clothing stores starting with infancy, this Gap Kids is divided neatly into the girls’ side and the boys’ side. Just like the toy aisle at the department store, pinks predominate one and blues the other. Those are the colors assigned to us in the hospital, after all.

Looking beyond the color, I read the various sayings and slogans on the graphic Tees for each sex.

“Smile” proclaimed the first one from the little girls’ section. “Good as Gold” another. “Have Your Cake” a third, with eating it too being implied, I assume.

On the boys’ side, things were different.

“The Beach Life is the Only Life,” said the first; “All Work, No Play … Property of the Lazy Days Department, ” another;  And “Upstate Soccer, Lake George Strikers.” Somebody should tell the Gap the best soccer player in Upstate New York goes by the name of Abby.

Of course, it was the end of the summer buying season, which happens in early July -- don’t ask me to explain, it’s also when I start going through shirts like Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open. We were there because of the summer clearance sale and the “Take Additional 40% Off” signs. The racks weren’t exactly bursting, so maybe it was just that our Gap Kids was picked over, leaving behind only the nauseatingly cute Tees for girls and obsessively cool ones for boys.

I went online when we got home to discern whether this sample was representative of the larger population of graphic Tees. And it was. The girls Tees had animals and butterflies, cute sayings and lots of smiles. There were no "sporty" ones, and only two of 22 fell into the "cool" category. The boys, on the other hand, were all athletic and beachy, and exuded an abundantly laidback vibe.
There was also a boys Tee online that read, “I’ve Got the Skills to Pay the Bills.” I wanted to order it for my wife, but I don’t know what size she wears in boys’ shirts. Besides, that’s a different article. (Or maybe the same article, if it were longer and more introspective).  

It’s not just the Gap. On a separate trip to a local Carters, which sells clothes for babies and toddlers, I was surprised at the messages emblazoned across the gender specific cloths. I expected the pink and blue divide, but not the accompanying words.

The baby girls' onesies  included “Super Cute” and “Queen for A Day.” Not so bad. Until you compare it to the boys, which had “Mr. Macho,” “Ladies Man,” and “Chicks Dig Me,” among others.

There are few things cuter than baby
clothes that say: "I hope my boy grows
up to be a womanizing, macho adult."  
There’s no doubt about it, our daughters and sons are getting very different messages, beyond just pink and blue. And it starts when they are babies.

Of course, babies don’t have credit cards. So it’s us parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles buying these things. After all, companies wouldn’t make these shirts if we didn’t buy the product. Maybe it is super cute to see a baby boy with a “Mr. Macho” shirt. And maybe most young girls prefer butterflies to soccer balls and surfboards. But what exactly are we saying here?

When you step out of the kids fashion world for a minute, you notice a culture in the midst of a change. People everywhere, and parents in particular, are bucking age-old gender-based stereotypes associated with work and home life. Women who happen to be mothers are launching startups and leading top companies. Dads are shelving careers to stay home with kids, or working from home to be more involved. There’s a generation of parents working together to raise families, doing whatever they have to do to survive, and trying their best to make sure their kids don’t enter the world with preconceived notions about what it means to be a pink or a blue.

There’s a reason. We need more women in fields like science and math, for starters. And I want my girls to pursue those fields, if that’s where their interest lies, not become obsessed with a need to be cute. The push to make girls conform to just cuteness limits all the things they could become. 

And young men need to know there’s more to being a man than being macho. In fact, much of what we think of as being macho is directly counter to what it means to be a man today. Wear that “Mr. Macho” shirt when you're 30, and see if “Chicks” still dig you.

All of us consumers out there are at least partially to blame. But the Gap Kids of the world should bear responsibility, too. In the design phase, doesn’t someone speak up and ask, “What are we teaching with these Tee shirts?”

Isn’t there a parent in the room to say, “You know, my daughter loves soccer, too.”  

If not, there should be. It can’t just be about selling Tee shirts. There has to be a wider responsibility to the world we all share.

We used to be able to easily point to Disney and Legos as the biggest offenders in this category. Both have been forcing gender stereotypes on our young children for a while, and both have made strides recently (more like small steps) to get away from that. It’s time for the clothing industry to follow, and it starts with big retailers, like Gap Kids.

Our daughter happily wears the few boys' shirts bought that day, even though the sleeves annoy her because they're cut different than the Gap's girls' shirts.

Next summer, she'd really like to see a soccer shirt for girls. And, no, it doesn’t have to be pink. And yes, we would likely buy that for her, too … after the summer clearance begins.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Parenting Skill I'm Good At...

I’ve discovered a critical aspect of parenting I excel at: Embarrassing my kids. 

It’s a good thing, because there are other parts of this job that don’t exactly play to my strengths, like multi-tasking. (More on that in later posts). But when it comes to embarrassing the heck out of my kids, I’m like a duck to water … or is it fish to water. Anyway, I rock at it.

Today, when waiting in the line of family cars to drop off the three girls at the local day camp – so their mom and I could have three whole hours of uninterrupted work-from-home time – the “Cruise” song by Florida Georgia Line came on the minivan’s radio, the one that goes, “You make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise.”

Being cool and all, I decided to slide my seat real low, crank up the bass and roll down the windows. I thought it necessary for all the other camp kids to see at least one hip dad in that dreary procession of minivans. 

Right when I got that radio blasting for maximum hipness, all three of my girls shrieked and made the most horrific faces. The two younger ones assumed the fetal position, and the older one dove for the radio power button. Then she frantically asked me to put the windows back up – which had the child-safety locks on – while she held back tears.

I obliged. I guess I’ll just have to cruise after I drop the kids off.  
Rad Ride, dad. Just imagine how
embarrassed this guy's kids are at pickup. 

I’ve seen embarrassment at work with my kids before, like whenever I wear that awesome yellow fleece vest brought to you by the 90s and the fine folks at Eastern Mountain Sports.  

“Please don’t wear the yellow vest,” my kids say. For the record, they wouldn’t know cool if it moonwalked into the room and started belting out Pearl Jam tunes. I know, because I've done that too.

We all know the ease with which parental embarrassment can paralyze a child with fear. The scope of that fear seems to increase exponentially as the child enters the pre-teen years.

Our oldest, who's pretty well-adjusted on most other fronts, has become obsessed with how we act around her in public, especially when other kids her age are nearby. She doesn't want us to sing or dance or do anything fun. Or hug her, or talk to her. Frankly, she'd just as soon not be seen with us in public at all.

When she is around us, the mere threat of potentially embarrassing actions is enough to get her to follow our subtle commands -- or to make her start bawling. That all depends on how close we get to an actually embarrassing event.
When handled properly, fear of embarrassment can be a powerful teaching tool. Of course, this is the part I'm still learning: how to wield this power to a tactical advantage and not just for the occasional fun. Using embarrassment right is truly a subtle parenting art form.

The whole drop-off episode was my attempt to change her negative attitude about day camp. I think it worked, at least as a temporary diversion.
Some parents clearly don't know how to use embarrassment properly, and underestimate its power. All those stories about parents shaming their kids online, or making them stand on a corner with a sign that says something derogatory about themselves -- that's idiotic. You never want to do anything that will leave permanent emotional scars.

And you certainly don't want your own silliness turned into ammunition for other kids to be mean to your offspring. If my kids came to be known as "that weirdo's kids," that would be embarrassing ... to me.

But, when it comes to making sure the kids have a good attitude, a sense of humor, and much needed perspective on life, nothing works better than a little parent-centric embarrassment. And sometimes, it’s just plain fun.

Now, I'm going to roll my windows down and cruise. It's almost time for pick up. 

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