Today's post is exactly as the title describes...one dads thoughts(me) on what it means to raise a strong and confident daughter. I know that whatever I write here today, it can only be my own opinion. Every dad is different and would probably have very different things to say about this subject, but....this isn't their blog, it's mine. So, there you go.
To be honest, when I first started out on the road to fatherhood I kind of expected that parenting a girl would be much the same as parenting a boy. Just to clarify...I knew that girls and boys have some fundamental differences that would make what they needed from me different. But on the whole, kids in general need the same kinds of things to thrive: love in large amounts, three square meals and lots of snacks, a safe warm home, someone to make them wash their hands, take baths, eat their vegetables, and do their homework....Someone to take them to playdates and karate and girl scouts and fencing...Someone to be there to guide, set limits, tickle and squeeze the heck out of them, and help them be their best selves. These are things that all kids need and I didn't expect that raising my daughter would alter this formula much. but its funny sometimes, that you can go along your merry way thinking everything is all good, and then something comes along that makes you realize that raising a little human being is deeper than skinned knees and homework. For me that moment came this summer when I took my daughter to see the Disney/Pixar film, Brave...a film that made me ask myself if I was giving my daughter all she really needed. (Come on...what parent doesn't think those thoughts?....)
First of all, Disney movies can be kind of hit or miss for me. Sometimes they are great and then sometimes the message can be a little too sweet....like that birthday cake with the butter-cream frosting that you can only eat two bites of before you have to put it down and swear off cake for the rest of your life. But being a parent means you go see a lot of movies you would rather not because the kids have a good time. Brave was nothing like that. I found myself having as much fun as the kids did and Selena did not squirm or talk through half the movie, which is a sure sign of good kids movie. Instead, we both watched the touching story of a very spirited young girl as she battles tradition and her family in order to decide her own fate rather than be married off to some unknown prince. She was a wild thing and a warrior at heart that not could not only keep up with the boys...but beat them at their own game. She didn't giggle delicately behind tiny hands nor sing about her her prince coming along someday...she lived wild and free and just wanted to remain that way. Not what I was used to from a Disney princess(save Mulan of course). I have always liked girls that can kick *ss and take names...and Merida made me cheer for her. And Selena for her part, sat in her chair with her eyes glued to the screen. Never before in the history of movie watching had she ever been so still or silent in a movie that did not involve talking dogs or Justin Bieber. If I had not also been enthralled, I would have been shocked.
But then there was a moment in the movie that...as a dad...made me think about what I was engendering in my daughter. In the beginning of the movie, Merida is riding her horse through the forest and shooting targets with her bow and arrow until she reaches a waterfall with a tall, imposing looking, pinnacle of rock. She takes one squinty-eyed look at the rock that no one but a king of legend had ever been told to have climbed, and then with jaw set in determination she climbs up the sheer face in her long dress, her bow, and a look of adventurous excitement. She reaches the top and victoriously basked in a view that few ever see...and I sat there kind of stunned and thought to myself, "That's what I want for Selena." To be that in charge of herself and able to find that kind of inner fire that no challenge is too big. I wish that for both of my kids but sometimes it seems especially important for girls to find that part of themselves and never bury it because she wants some boy to like her or because society tells her that, that it isn't what girls do. I want her to be that feisty girl that crosses the lines of convention and does what other people tell her is impossible.
I have never cared if Selena was "girly" or a "tomboy" because all those distinctions don't really mean much to the kind of spirit that Merida showed. They are just expressions of the person underneath the labels we put on them for our own convenience. They can not really capture the person they are meant to describe. For instance, In the first year that Selena came into our home, she slipped on her Cinderella dress up high-heels and walked in them like a pro. She loves Pink, want's to wear makeup, and already talks about the boys she likes. She really couldn't get anymore girly if she grew cotton candy for hair and shot rainbows while riding a lavender unicorn though a field of teddy bears(which I know she would love). That's just always been the way she is. But the fact that my daughter has these personality traits doesn't really have any bearing on showing that pure inner fire that Merida showed as she stood on the top of that rock, in utter triumph, in a place that only her legends had ever gone. Merida had climbed to the top of that pinnacle in a full dress that went down to her ankles and took on a challenge that scared grown men.... that's what I hoped for my daughter to find inside of herself...and I was began to wonder if I was helping her find it.
Boys don't always find that inner fire so easy either...but as boys, everything that we watch on T.V. and everything we are taught to be moves us in that direction. And while the things we tell young girls are better now than they were when I was Selena's age...there is still a big disconnect between how we tell boys to be and what we tell girls. As a dad, and a gay man who loves to see strong women, I had to ask myself if I doing enough to help my daughter find that steel inner core that she will need to face a world that isn't always a safe place for women? As we sat in the dark theater, I couldn't answer that question with any certainty.
I still remember her kindergarten year, and how fearful she was of the monkey bars. She would shout, "Dad look at this!" as she gripped the first rungs with an "O.K....I'm really gonna do this", look on her face...only to drop to the ground because she was too afraid to fall. She would be angry with herself and beg for one more chance to show me she could do it...but repeated the same fall for another several tries until it was time to call it quits and go home. But, by the next year she was swinging across those bars as if she would grow a tail at any minute. I was proud and sad and humbled all at once as I watched her grow into her own confidence one rung at a time....remembering the days when she was really little and I would hold her up by the waist and let her take the bars one at a time in her tiny little hands. In the end, she worked it out all by herself. The same happened in ice skating recently as I skated next to her as she slowly inched along the rink with a death grip on the side rail and her lips set in a thin line of determination. I remembered the monkey bars and wondered how long until she would be letting go of that rail and skating rings around me. It all happens so fast and sometimes I am the one not ready for it.
So I think about Merida on that pinnacle and the question of if I am doing enough to help my daughter find that kind of spirit of fire and I think perhaps that she is already finding it for herself. But not that, that is always a good thing....
With spirit came defiance and that may be funny when it's an argument between Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor...it's not so funny when it's my child trying to argue her way around my directions as if she's the star lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court. She's good....but she's not that good. She tries to use my previous instructions and directions against me as if I told her to do the exact opposite of what I am telling her to do right in that moment. Yeah...not so funny when I am already busy and just need her to cooperate. She often fails to recognize that no matter how airtight her argument is...a dads "because I said so" always wins. She loves to but heads with me so much more than she does with her other dad that I often wonder if the attitude I get from her is because she is defining who she is in contrast to me....Oh joy. But such is a dad's life and a part of what it means to raise a girl.
There are some things I hope for my daughter that have crystallized over time....I wan't my daughter to never settle for a guy who treats her bad or one she feels she must change for. I wan't her to know that she can do anything in life she wants to. Any dream she has...she has only to take the first step. With that, I hope that along the way she learns the same sense of empathy and humility that reconciled Merida to her mother. A strong spirit is of value when it is balanced by a kind heart and I hope that she will find both. Then that heart will be the star that guides her and her spirit the wind in her sails.
All these thoughts passed in the span of time that it took for the movie to end. I looked at Selena and suddenly felt so small and my hopes for her so big. Was I putting too much on her?...maybe. Every one deserves the chance to be just who they are and to be loved just for that. but we both left the movie that summer day on fire. Selena was jazzed and wanted a bow and arrow like Merida. We ended up going to three stores to find one, only to come up short. So disappointed, we went home. Selena then built her own bow and arrow out of construction paper, got out her old hobby horse and rode it around the back yard shooting imaginary targets and doing her best Scottish brogue. It was hilarious and heart warming all at once. It seemed that even without a real bow and arrow, horse, or bright red hair, a spark exists within her that I want to protect like a tiny flame in the wind. I was very proud of her and could see her climbing the same rock Merida did to face life with courage, confidence, and love. what parent could ask for anything more?....not this dad.
Until next time dear readers.....
(P.S....this is so Selena and me....)