“You get what you get,” is the worst thing you could ever tell your kids.

What having a daughter revealed about my own ability to ask for what I really want.

If children cannot negotiate a trade of their red balloon for a green one, how are they supposed to negotiate a salary?

There is a phrase repeated in preschools the country over —

“You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”

Designed to teach children the value of accepting a gift graciously, this phrase has become the mantra for millions of moms attempting to curtail the endless loop of, “I want the blue one. Not that blue one, the other blue one. Not that one either.”

I get it.

Accepting a gift graciously is an endangered skill in today’s world. At their birthday party, you want your child to receive a book just as graciously as the latest light-up, sugar-coated, talking robot building block set of doom.

And I also understand that the best way to stop a preschooler in their tracks at the check stand in a supermarket is to repeat a phrase their teacher has been drilling into their heads since they stepped foot in the classroom with their over-sized backpack. I even found myself using it now and again when my boys were particularly whiny about something.

Then I had a daughter.

If you ever want to have all of your failings and insecurities as a woman reflected back to you, go ahead and give birth to your clone.

My daughter is the youngest of four children and the only girl. Her dad is in military intelligence and her brothers inherited my Viking blood, meaning any man she brings home will have to face the gauntlet of three giant brothers and a dad who interrogated people for a living. It also means she truly believes, in her heart, that she is no different than a 9-year-old boy.

At 2, we couldn’t get her to wear a dress to church unless we told her she could also wear “church pants” like her brothers. (At almost 6 she still calls tights “church pants”.)

She runs everywhere because her 9-year-old brother runs everywhere and she is determined to keep up.

She loves to wrestle because her 11-year-old brother wrestles.

She loves puzzles and cars and chemistry because those are the things her 13-year-old brother does with her.

The second she was born, the men in my life instantly fell in love with her and I was instantly aware of how different our upbringings would be.

A Child of the ’80s Raised by ‘50s Parents

You see, by the late 1970’s standards, my parents were old. At 42 and 44, my parents had the benefit of experience on their side but they were exhausted.

And decidedly old school.

My mom was born in 1935. She had two objectives in mind when she graduated from high school — marry my dad and have six kids, which she did. She believed her career was found in the four walls of her home. She felt her calling was to support my dad in whatever career endeavors he undertook, that if something catastrophic happened to him, she could always make a living as a secretary. What’s more, she loved her role in our family.

My dad was born in 1933 on a dairy farm. Growing up, his father believed the cure for everything from cancer to the common cold was work. After being drafted and doing a stint in Alaska in the motor pool during the Korean War, he came home, married my mom and used his GI bill to pay for his engineering degree. He was the epitome of success in his job — working his way up the corporate ladder, showing up first to the office and staying until everyone else had left, traveling so he could be a part of as many industry-wide councils and committees as possible. In his “spare time,” he served faithfully in our church, built a car, sculpted rock, did woodworking, kept the house in working order… you get the idea.

My parents never brought up college when I was young. In fact, I vividly remember the day I brought it up. I was 10-years-old and my mother was pulling laundry out of the dryer when I walked up and said, “Mom. I’m going to go to college.”

She didn’t even look up from what she was doing when she replied, “Okay. Just be sure to work hard in school and get a scholarship.”

When I told my dad I wanted to be a doctor his reply was a little less supportive and a little more indicative of his own set of values.

“Being a doctor isn’t a good career when you have a family,” he said. “To spend years and years at school only to stay home with your kids doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

This was my father’s equivalent of, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.”

You are a girl so you should settle for something other than what you want so you can support your future husband.

You are a girl so what you want doesn’t really matter as much as what men say you can have.

You are a girl. Your place is at home, with your family. Whether that’s what you want or not.

The trouble was, I believed him.

I started college at 16 in a concurrent enrollment program, got my Associate’s degree at 18 and earned a full-tuition scholarship to my school of choice. Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Communicative Disorders at 20 I started graduate school the next fall.

With my dad’s words ringing in my ears I had chosen a major that was slightly more medical than becoming a school teacher (speech pathology) because “it made sense”. The only downside? I hated the part where I actually had to work as a speech pathologist in the university’s clinic.

I loved my job hiring and training the student orientation team for the university and dreaded going to the clinic to learn how to do what I was actually there to learn how to do. And since I was hell-bent on finishing college at 22, I knew what I had to do.

2 classes and an externship away from my Master’s degree I made a phone call to my father that still makes me break out in a stress sweat.

“Dad? I’m changing my graduate program to Human Resource Management.”

Silence.

Then, “What about all of the work you’ve already done?”

“I can count clinic management classes toward my ‘elective’ credit. If I take 18 credits in the fall and 21 in the spring, I will still get my Master’s on time.”

Silence.

I knew what he was going to say before he even said it.

“HR isn’t exactly something you can put down and pick up again with a family.”

“I know.”

Silence.

“Well, I guess since you’re paying your own way, it’s all decided.”

“Yup.”

I knew it was the closest thing I could get to his blessing.

A year later, after taking way more graduate-level credits than any human should, I received my Master’s degree in Human Resource Management, two months after my twenty-second birthday. It was one of a handful of times I remember my dad telling me that he was proud of me.

Graduation Day 2000

The Conditioning We Give

“You get what you get,” conditions our children to accept what we give them without question. It shuts down their ability to make a request, even a valid one, even in the most benign of circumstances. If children cannot negotiate a trade of their red balloon for a green one, how are they supposed to negotiate a salary, speak up when they are abused, champion rights for those who lack power, or change the world?

It’s no wonder women tend to avoid negotiating starting salaries when there is no explicit salary statement. They have been conditioned since they were young that asking for what they really want is bad. Instead, they should willingly accept what is offered, no questions asked.

Perhaps what’s even more startling is the fact that women who do ask for more money are more likely to be penalized by male evaluators for initializing the conversation. Even the women who are bucking the trend and going after what they really want are being told, explicitly and implicitly, that they are to accept what their male evaluators give them and be grateful.

We culturally condition women from the time they are able to speak that they should never speak up. They should never challenge authority. Never ask for what they want. Never speak out against injustice.

It’s no wonder that while one in five women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime, 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police and only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities.

I will admit, the first time my daughter was handed a green pencil when she wanted an orange one, my breath caught in my throat. She wasn’t whining or crying, she simply said, “Mom, I like the orange one.”

This was my moment to break social norms, my chance to teach her that she shouldn’t have to settle for what she has been given.

“Then take your green pencil back to the nice lady behind the desk and say, ‘Can I please trade for an orange one?’”

She looked at me and whispered, “I’m kind of nervous.”

Looking into those big chocolate drop eyes, I wanted to say, “Then don’t do it! Let’s go buy you an orange pencil at the store so you don’t have to approach someone in authority and express dissatisfaction!”

But I also knew what was at stake.

“Go ahead, I’ll be right here,” I said, silently holding my breath that this would go well.

Standing on her tiptoes, peering over the counter, she said in her little lisp, “Can I please trade my green pencil for an orange one?”

The lady behind the desk seemed surprised. Here was a little girl making a valid request, using polite language, fully expecting to receive what she asked for. She reached down and grabbed an orange pencil. Handing it to my daughter with a twinkle in her eye she said, “Of course you can. Thanks for asking.”