What we teach

For the past several weeks, my household population has tripled. My niece and her three kids have been staying with us. One of the fun things about having them here was getting to spend time with her kids, who are 17, 14 and 8. The eight year old and I bake cookies and monkey bread. We make a game of testing the chocolate chips to make sure they’re good enough before adding them to the batter. He takes this very seriously, closing his eyes and savoring it. He looks pensive while it melts in his mouth and slowly nods when I ask him, “What do you think? Is it good enough?” Baking together is slowly becoming our thing.

With the girls, it is different, because they’re older. Yesterday I did a coaching session with the fourteen year old. It’s a funny age, fourteen. She’s not a little girl, but she’s nowhere near adult either, yet at the same time, she has incredible insight. I see so much of myself at that age in her – all the excitement and insecurity, the propensity to think I had to carry everything on my shoulders. She is just finding her way and her sense of self is still fragile. It automatically makes you want to encourage and protect her and teach her all the things you wish you’d known at that age.

She just moved here from California a month ago, but already has a boyfriend. I see in that blossoming relationship the same excitement and insecurity, the fear that he doesn’t really like her and insecurity about measuring up to other girls for fear that he will leave her for someone else. In the fashion of early teens, their love is a dramatic one. One day they are the missing pieces of each other’s hearts, the next he is unsure if he wants a girlfriend, and the next he is forbidding her to accept friend requests from his guy friends. My immediate reaction was, “Who is this little pipsqueak to dictate who my sweet niece can have as a friend,” but maybe he’s just as insecure as she is. Whether it’s insecurity or because he’s a junior player who doesn’t want her to know what he’s up to is unclear, but it does make me wonder why we women do that to ourselves. Why do we tolerate it? I don’t see this young man swearing off all female friends. In fact, from what my niece says, there are a lot of girls he’s friendly with when they go to their youth group. I wonder how he’d react, if she told him he couldn’t talk to them anymore. I’m guessing there would be a double standard and there’s something in that about the kinds of conversations we need to be having with our young men too.

And reality is, he seems like a nice enough kid. He’s probably figuring his way just like she is, but it is telling that he has slipped into the role of trying to dominate her into complying with his “don’t friend my friends rules” just as easily as she has slipped right into the role of worrying that if she somehow displeases him, he’ll go looking for greener pastures. I think a lot of it has to do with the kind of role models and expectations we set for young women in our society. From early on, we teach young girls it’s better to be pretty than smart, better to be silent than express ourselves, if it’s going to make waves. We teach them that their value is in their looks, in their ability to please rather than in their minds, their character and sense of self. We tell them this when we say it’s okay for breasts to be sexual and sell everything from burgers to cars, but heaven forbid they could be used, even discretely, for their natural purpose of feeding a child. We might not tell them this in words, but it’s there in our sources entertainment, our media, the images that saturate our brains every day, telling us that our value is in as an object of desire and not as a fully actualized human being. And so, we learn to stuff, silence and deny.

Then, when we reach middle age, we suddenly realize that we’ve spent our lives focusing on putting other people before ourselves and then find ourselves spending money on therapy and classes to help us find our voice. And is it any wonder? Despite the strides made by feminism in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, it’s still there in our music, our magazines, our reality shows, our cultural obsession with people like the Kardashians, whose talent seems to lie in self-promotion and whose claim to fame is that they are famous.

A Facebook meme crossed my feed the other day, lamenting that we idolize people like Kylie Jenner, who just turned 18 and spent thousands on  a fancy car, facial reconstruction, and the sort of pouty duck lips that give women a perpetually dazed and vapid look, while we don’t talk enough about our young women warriors like Malala Yousafzai, who at 17 won a Nobel Prize for her work advocating for female education in Pakistan. And it’s right, we shouldbe holding young women like her up as role models for our girls, but a conservatively dressed young woman working for equal rights doesn’t sell the kind of E! ad space or dream a sexy, young socialite does.

And I’m not saying this as anything against Kylie Jenner. She is beautiful. She was beautiful, even without renovating her face. For all I know, she is a lovely young woman on the inside too. The thing is that she and her Kardashian brethren are not the problem. They are just a symptom of a system that teaches young women fucked up things about their value – – and, make no mistake, it IS fucked up to teach a girl that her value is in some unattainable, airbrushed standard of beauty.It is fucked up that we teach girls that her body is nothing more than a vessel for sexuality. And it is fucked up that a sweet, fourteen year old girl is worrying more about whether some boy will leave her for some other prettier girl than she is about whether the content of the boy’s character is such that he would dump her simply because some other girl has a prettier face or bigger breasts.

While my niece is just a young girl, at an age when she should just barely be wetting her feet in the dating pool, I see her already beginning to develop the fears so many women have about relationships. They tolerate so much, because they don’t believe in their hearts that they deserve more. I have friends and family who have endured lies, cheating, even abuse, because they don’t realize that they deserve (yes DESERVE) relationship with a partner who is loyal and kind and that there ARE men like that out there. I’ve done it myself, but I learned. Thank goodness, I learned. As hard as it is to be rejected, the question is not “Am I good enough to hang onto him?” but “Why would I WANT someone who doesn’t think I’m good enough, because, dammit, I am amazing?” That is what we should be teaching young women and not that their only value is as an object of desire.

I did a little exercise with my niece yesterday, wherein I had her list all the good things she recognizes about herself. When we were done, I read them back to her, saying, “I am loving, smart, caring, fun to be around, authentic and kind.” Then, I asked her if that’s the kind of person she’d want as a friend, a partner. Of course, she said yes. And when asked her if she thought someone like that didn’t deserve a boyfriend who saw how amazing she is and loves her for her, she smiled. This was just the first of many conversations to come, but I saw in her eyes that she’s starting to get that she is not only physically beautiful, but strong, smart, loving and kind and has no reason to make herself small, just so some boy (even a nice boy) can feel bigger. And if she blossoms into adulthood knowing that, she will be way ahead of the game.

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