Telling our kids they can be BOTH

by Kristin on September 1, 2011

in Love, family & community

Photo by Jolante

Embracing who we are—especially in the midst of apparent paradoxes—is a theme I come back to again and again (most recently in this guest post). What does it mean to be a divorced liberal Christian, or the daughter of an orchestra conductor/jock? (My dad provided me with plenty of societal contradictions to get comfortable with as I grew up.)

Now, as a parent of middle school girls who are in the thick of their identity-formation -crisis and -experimentation years, the identity issue becomes even more complex. One of my main goals is to help acknowledge and affirm who my children are in truthful, matter-of-fact ways: “You are quick at math,” or “You seem to really love singing.” Another, trickier goal is to make sure they know there is no such thing as “either, or” when it comes to their identity. They can always be “both, and.”

Not surprisingly, I lost it yesterday when I heard about the now infamous T-shirt being sold in the girls’ section of the JCPenney website: I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me, the shirt stated.

The message is harmful on so many levels that I hardly knew where to aim and fire my frustration first. But on the most basic level, the problem with the shirt is that it says “pretty” and “smart” don’t go together. It also suggests that if you’re pretty, they don’t need to go together because you can always convince some male in your life to pick up your slack.

Thankfully, the shirt was taken off the website yesterday, after triggering a flurry of outrage on Twitter, Facebook and various blogs. But there will always be subtle societal messages closing in on us, telling us it isn’t “normal” to be this and that. I think that means it’s time for all of us to get loud and proud about the so-called contradictions in our own identities. We need to be talking to our kids and to one another about these messages, where they sneak into our culture, and how they subtly shape us. If nothing else, at least the unfortunate T-shirt can serve as a good jump-start to the conversation.

Are there any perceived contradictions wrapped up in your identity? How do you think we can best fight the effects of stereotypes—especially in the lives of our kids?


Yes, I’m back! Taking the month of August off was good, and it feels extra good to be here with all of you again. My loose plan, moving forward, is to make blogging a bit more manageable by posting just twice a week (I used to aim for three times) and keeping my posts on the shorter side (300-400 words rather than my typical 600-700). We’ll see how it goes! Thanks, as always, for your patience and encouragement. You make this all worth while!

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  • Katie

    Amen to this! I was also outraged when I saw that T-shirt – especially since I was always a smart girl, and longed to be pretty – and to hear that you could be both. (And also since I NEVER asked any guys to do my homework. Ever.)

    There are definitely some contradictions wrapped up in my identity – I may have to write my own post about them. :) But I think the most interesting people are those whose characters contain paradoxes.

  • suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    YES to the both/and! i’m certainly ok with it, but find myself on the fringes for not toeing “properly” demarcated either/or lines. our kids can and should be who they are–and i pray they experience less resistance for it.

    welcome back, friend:)

  • Ray Hollenbach

    First of all, welcome back.

    Second, I never imagined the pause button on my DVR would become part of the parenting arsenal, but it’s become my weapon of choice. Whether TV shows or commercials, we frequently hit the pause button to talk about the messages thrown at us moment by moment. Without the pressure of “I’m missing the show!” we can ask questions of, ridicule or praise what we have just seen, demonstrating that we do not have to mindless swallow whatever flows from the dominate medium of our age. Our eight year old has picked up on the practice and is becoming a social media critic already. She taught me quite a bit!

  • Alise

    Lovely to see you back!

    I too want my kids (boys and girls!) to know that they don’t have to fit in any single mold. Honestly, I sometimes think this is a tiny bit easier for my daughters than my sons. If my daughters do a “boy” thing, that’s generally looked on more favorably than if my sons do a “girl” thing. My daughter playing the trumpet is no big deal, but it would be a bigger deal if my son played the flute. Of course, this is heavily related to sexism against women anyway, so it’s all pretty awful.

    My contradictions are many. I live by the Whitman quote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

  • Jen

    Welcome back! I missed your writing and hope the new plan works perfectly for you! And what a topic for a comeback…

    I started thinking about my own contradictions, and realized I may have too many to list as well. (If I start writing things down, this comment will be a blog post.) I do think it’s fascinating how at some point — middle school, maybe? — kids start dividing themselves into cliques and living their stereotypes. The clothes they wear, the music they enjoy, and so many other things define them.

    Even as a homeschool kid that didn’t really deal with that so much, I had myself boxed in as a quiet, nerdy, not-so-pretty girl (except I took a lot of delight and pride in it :)). I know I still stereotype myself now and then and feel like I’m just now learning how to embrace the both/and paradoxes in me. We never stop learning! Maybe the best way to fight the stereotypes is to talk about the messages they receive (pause button…. good idea Ray!), live, embrace, and talk about our own unique self-contradictions… and always remind them that being loved is the identity that matters.

    Again, welcome back. Shoot, now I want to blog about this…

    Also, Alise: I love that Whitman quote. Thanks for reminding me of it. That could be my life slogan. =)

  • Kristin T.

    Katie, isn’t it interesting to think back on our own perceptions of self when we were that age? I remember thinking I would always be “cute,” but I really wanted to be pretty. And I was always considered “smart” but never *too smart.* I wonder if that was intentional? Anyway, I do hope you end up writing a post about this: “I think the most interesting people are those whose characters contain paradoxes.”

    suzannah, you’ve definitely described what often happens: “[I] find myself on the fringes for not toeing ‘properly’ demarcated either/or lines.” I wonder if the challenge is to demand that such people not be relegated to the fringes, or to figure out a way to make the fringes a happier place to be?

    Ray, thanks for the welcome back. I truly have missed my interactions with all of you. And I love the pause button practice! It’s such a great metaphor for how we should be thoughtfully going through life, too. I’m going to try to use the “pause button” more often in my day.

    Alise, thank you! And thanks for bringing your sons into the conversation. I often “forget” about boys, since I don’t have any, and I’m never sure that my conceptions of them are even accurate. I think you make a great point about the particular problems they face and how those gender stereotypes impact them (just like those terrible T-shirts have an impact on boys who wouldn’t even wear them!). Yay for the Whitman quote, too!

    Jen, it’s nice to step back into blogging with a topic that got by blood simmering. :) You’re absolutely right about this and middle school: “…kids start dividing themselves into cliques and living their stereotypes.” I have to admit, it’s been a stressful couple of weeks, with my youngest just starting middle school. They want more than ever to be sure of who they are, but at every turn there is this residual “Am I OK, as I am?” anxiety. Thanks for this reminder: “…being loved is the identity that matters.” I hope you end up writing a post of your own on this!

  • Paul Merrill

    Glad you’re back.

    Rest is a good thing. And lowering your content output is a great idea for keeping blogging manageable.

  • Meredith

    I’d definitely second everything the other commenters have said (including the “welcome back!”). Sometimes I feel like my entire personality is filled with contradictions. The practical, logical side is almost always at odds with the imaginative, creative, emotional side.

    I really dislike that shirt, for all the same reasons you wrote about. But from a purely humorous point of view, if I had let my brother do my homework for me, I would have been worse off than if I did it myself. I love him dearly, but he was – and still is – a horrible speller with terrible penmanship. His work would have been no better or worse than mine!

  • Dorie

    late here, but I had to think about all my contradictions :-). I think my biggest, or overarching, one is being both creative and analytical. They’re both really important to me, and if I notice that I’m being both at the same time, I’m usually pretty happy.

    My mom always wanted us to know that we could be many things, and I’m trying to pass the message. I knew that it applied to professions, but it took a long time before I realized that it applied in other places. And that explains why I had lank hair for much of high school.