Day 8: On the language of raising a girl

Big Deal Rose at six weeks

Ab0ut three years and nine months ago, Leila and I found out we were having our first child. In the months before we learned the gender, I imagined the baby as a boy. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I knew, being male and having only a brother and a foster brother. Even the female pets in my life have been in the minority. The thought of raising a girl scared me a little — not because I saw girls as fragile, but because I thought I would be unable to relate in some fundamental ways.

Leila envisioned a Persian-looking dark-haired, brown-eyed girl. She couldn’t imagine having a blond-haired, fair-complected child, even though I pointed out that my dad has jet-black hair, and most of my family on both sides have dark hair, yet here I was.

I guess it’s unavoidable that we imagine our children in our own image, in many different ways. In terms of a literal image, I got lucky. Rose is just missing Y chromosomes. But “Little Tim” wears it much better. I guess that’s the work of her mom’s genes.

I’m trying hard not to treat her as a mini-me. I don’t want to foist my baggage on her. I don’t want to treat her as a vessel for my unfulfilled wishes.

Yes, until she’s 18, I’ll talk up Stanford and Oxford, with occasional expressions of accepting admiration for Harvard and Cambridge (she’s got to have safety schools, and she should feel OK about them). I’ll strongly encourage music lessons. I’m tempted to force them, since I and most non-musicians I know wish our parents had made us stick with them. She’ll get plenty of geeky toys, and mini math and science lessons.

And, yes, the Buffy has been ingrained in her since birth. As a newborn, the Anya/Zander duet, “I’ll Never Tell,” was the only song that would quiet her without fail. She still calls that her song when she hears it. From about nine months until two years of age, she wanted to watch the musical every single day. Proud papa.

I think her mama’s proudest moment was when she took looked at a picture of Luke Skywalker and said, “Darth Vader’s his daddy.” (I am sad that she won’t experience the shock of that reveal, but I don’t think we could have protect her from that spoiler if we tried.)

But, ultimately, I just want her to be a self-actualized, happy and kind human being. I want her to know that there is nothing she can do or fail to do that will make me love her any less. And I want her to enjoy her childhood, not spend these precious years worrying about her future.

I know that Leila and I will have an important, but limited, role in who she becomes. Her friends, teachers, community, genes and many other factors beyond our control will shape her as much as, or more than, our efforts. We have a humbling responsibility and a humbling lack of power.

One of the advantages of having a first child later in life, and of hearing friend after friend talking about how they stopped worrying so much with their subsequent children, is that I’ve developed a certain equanimity in child rearing.

I (mostly) don’t feel the need to shape her into whatever image I have in my head of my perfect child, nor do I delude myself that I have that power. I (mostly) don’t worry about how she reflects on me or my parenting abilities. I (mostly) don’t worry about how I’m going to mess up this little girl’s life. That’s just a given. We all bear the scars of childhood and imperfect parents. She’ll have to learn to accept our imperfections, just as she’ll have to learn to accept her own.

What’s more, while these formative years are crucial, scientific research increasingly demonstrates that the human brain is much more malleable and capable of growth throughout life than we previously thought. Her entire future is not set by these first three to five years.

Nonetheless, I want to prepare her to be the best Rosemary June she can be, to have a healthy self-image, a healthy respect for others and a healthy intellectual curiosity. I want to foster executive function and an internal locus of control.

Language plays a crucial part in that.

On a mundane level, I’m conscious of using proper grammar. While I’m no fan of the cultural biases inherent in the way we equate intelligence and proper usage, I nonetheless don’t want her on the losing end of that equation. I also want her to develop an appreciation for the power and precision of words.

The best way to do this right now is to train her ear. I try to minimize improper usage (of course) as well as colloquialisms and slang (which she should learn, but as alternatives). I am surprised sometimes at how ingrained some bad language habits have become.

As a functional grammarian in theory, I find doing something “real quick” just fine. It’s meaning is perfectly clear, and doing it “really quickly” actually sounds a little verbose and stilted to my years. But I will correct myself in front of her.

Proper use of “good” and “well” is important in this household. I frequently quote Tracy Jordan: “Superman does good; you’re doing well.” (This is not a subtle dig at Trump, though I’m not above that. I wrote this the morning before his “NYT doesn’t write good” gaffe.)

While I’m conscious of all of this, it’s rather trivial in the scheme of things. What concerns me more is how language shapes Rose’s sense of herself.

Encouragement and frequent use of compliments are crucial. When I compliment Rose, it’s often with a whole string of words: pretty, clever, smart, hard working. That last one always makes Leila laugh. I think she envisions her in a hard-hat, going to the factory.

The balance of these labels is something I think about a good bit. As a blond-haired, petite, white (let’s be honest) girl with fairly symmetrical features, she gets called “pretty,” “adorable” and “cute” more than her fair share by friends, family and strangers. Sometimes she’ll come home from a visit with the grandparents and repeatedly say, “I’m pretty.”

That’s fine. I’d never ask anyone to stop those compliments, and I give them as well. But her fundamental sense of herself can’t be based on something so superficial, something changing and dependent on the views of others. I’m sure little boys get called “handsome” and “adorable,” but not so much that they define themselves by their looks.

“Smart” has its own problems. There have been numerous studies that show that kids who are given compliments on their intelligence do well initially but plateau compared to kids who are complimented on how hard they worked to achieve a certain result. The “smart” kids see a hard problem as an assault on their intelligence. Failure means they have reached their limits or weren’t really smart to begin with, so they shrink away from challenges. The “hard-working” kids see hard problems as challenges that need to be worked through. Failure is feedback to try harder, not a negation of something they’d been told was innate.

Hence, the “hard working” in the string of compliments. But that is not without its own problems. Hard work is necessary, but not sufficient. I don’t want her to be confused on that point. Otherwise, she may turn into one of those assholes who think they are entirely self-made and that their success entitles them to everything they can grab. That may be the worst outcome of all.

That’s why lately I’ve been adding “lucky” and “fortunate” to the string of adjectives. I want her to be grateful for what she has and cognizant of those around her who lack. “Kind,” “generous” and “compassionate” have also made the list.

Occasionally, we throw out the label “bossy” when she’s assertive. We say it as a compliment, to inoculate her against its sexist uses. I also try to play with her as I imagine I’d play with a son. We rough-house and play ball. She’s got a Black and Decker toy workbench next to her tea set (thanks to a hand-me-down from her male cousin). She’ll hear me own the label “feminist” when she’s old enough to know what that means.

One label we avoid now is “shy.” When her shy phase started, we’d say, “Oh, you’re being shy” or encourage her with a “don’t be shy.” It was cute. Soon she was saying, “I’m shy” as she buried her face in my shoulder. She had a grin, as if it were cute to her as well. But it was clear that she was adopting that label, so we stopped using it. We started to simply encourage her to interact without naming her reaction, and that shy phase mostly went away soon afterward.

Ultimately, these words aren’t magic. We must demonstrate what we mean by how we live, and we need to have meaningful conversations as she’s able to understand.

I’m also not neurotic about it. That doesn’t help either of us. If she’s breathing, I’ve fulfilled my biggest obligation.

But language does have power, and it’s good to be conscious of it. It’s not about rules or “political correctness.” It’s just about being a decent human being and trying to raise one.

“I Have Never Loved Someone”
By Shara Nova (My Brightest Diamond)
I have never loved someone the way I love you
I have never seen a smile like yours
And if you grow up to be king or clown or pauper
I will say you are my favorite one in town
I have never held a hand so soft and sacred
When I hear your laugh I know heaven’s key
And when I grow to be a poppy in the graveyard
I will send you all my love upon the breeze
And if the breeze won’t blow your way, I will be the sun
And if the sun won’t shine your way, I will be the rain
And if the rain won’t wash away all your aches and pains
I will find some other way to tell you you’re okay.
You’re okay…