How to explain to kids you can’t be what you can’t see


By Annie D. Stutley

Walk into my daughter’s room and there’s an obvious message. Above her bed hangs a sign that reads, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Another reads, “She believed she could, so she did.” Next to her bed is a stack of books like “Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls,” “Shaking Things Up,” and “She Persisted.”

My sons’ room has a different aesthetic. On the walls hang pictures of their adventures together: sweaty afternoons, hanging from trees, slurping snoballs, or ready for combat in Spiderman and Superman masks. The books stacked next to their beds are “Harry Potter,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and “The Lord of the Rings.” They are the tales of boys, but they don’t deliver the same message my daughter is getting next door.

It’s not that my boys don’t need motivation. It’s that for their gender, empowerment is always readily available and doesn’t require special packaging. Girl power in my day was little more than Nancy Drew.

One night Fiona was reading aloud a book about Sally Ride, the first woman in space. When she got to the end, she read to herself silently before continuing.

“Mom, listen to this,” she looked up. “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing these jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

She then read the last sentence again slowly, taking it in.

You can’t be what you can’t see.

She looked up again.  “I love that. That goes on my wall next.”

I smiled at my ambitious girl with all the dreams. My youngest son, Michael, was passed out, drooling on my chest, unaware of Fiona’s newfound clarity and blissfully exempt from a moment that will undoubtedly pop up time and again throughout his sister’s life.

You can’t be what you can’t see.

He and his older brother, now 10 and 12 years old, have seen lots: presidents, sports stars, astronauts, entrepreneurs, movie directors, you name it. They’re aware of stories like those of Drew Brees, written off because of a shoulder injury only to make a comeback as a New Orleans Saints quarterback; George Lucas, who invented the technology himself that he needed to have “Star Wars” green-lighted; and Walt Disney, who was told he had no talent only to prove that he had all the talent. I remind my sons of these stories as examples of defying the odds, but I do so without the underlying message I give my daughter. My sons’ icons were disregarded because their potential was in question, not their sex.

Fiona is motivated through her books, the quotations on her walls, and my messaging toward a current, similar to that which runs through any group or culture that has been continually discounted, demoted, and discredited. She won’t experience that judgment to the same extreme, but I’m encouraging her to see what she needs to see in order to pick up the torch of progress.

You can’t be what you can’t see.

I couldn’t help but wonder as Michael drifted into a deeper slumber on my chest that night, what do my boys see?

My boys see me—their first example of a woman—as the benchmark from which all other women will be measured. My story, my heritage, the underlying current of joy that rips through me when I see fellow women shatter ceilings isn’t for Fiona’s eyes only.  My sons should be part of this, too—running beside the current and cheering on the female victories it inspires. The stories, the movements, the progression of women must include our sons; otherwise the battle cry will always be sounded from one set of voices, and consequently, never fully understood by the other.

The empowerment of women starts at home and it starts with me, the mother, and does not end with my daughter. People can’t be the change they must be if they can’t first see.

What do I want my boys to see?

I want them to see that the chatter of sexism was and is an important conversation. History has triumphed over some ignorance and fear, but “herstory” isn’t complete without sons who embrace the truth that all people are entitled to the inalienable right of using their potential to its fullest.

I want them to see that tradition is not an excuse for biases. I work from home. I attend school committee meetings, volunteer on field trips, make their meals, and tuck them in at night. When their father is home early he’s right alongside us in those moments, but I am the constant. I am their traditional nurturer, and I cherish my ability to be so present in their lives. But I owe it to them to see more of me though: my work, my opinions, my involvement—my total worth, a person—a woman—who is more than just one calling.

I want them to see why their sister, why their friends’ sisters, and the girls beside them in school are given a more ignited message of their worth and potential. I want them to see this distinction and not resent it, but rather pick up the torch, too. I hope they will still be able to recognize the importance of women changing history, altering tradition, and breaking barriers of backward thinking and how crucial that is for people like their sister to see.

Because I’ve taught them the reason it’s happening is that, together, we helped make it be seen.

Annie D. Stutley lives in her hometown, New Orleans, Louisiana, where she writes a Lifestyle blog for New Orleans Magazine and raises two not-so-little boys and one little girl with her husband of 15 years. When not writing, Annie enjoys costuming with her carnival krewe and piling up on the sectional sofa with her family of five and two dogs for impromptu movie nights. This essay originally appeared

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