The Power of Proactive Parenting

30376498_6f28708275_zI would be lying if I said I didn’t have a fantastic childhood. My memories of being a child are full of summer camp, getting absorbed in sci-fi and fantasy books, writing notebooks full of stories, playing with friends out in the woods, traveling, riding roller coasters and watching beloved Saturday morning cartoons. My parents were both loving and supportive and encouraged my sister and me to excel in school and broaden our cultural horizons. No one ever told me that I couldn’t do anything because I was a girl or that I would be better off sticking to a certain career path. When I said I wanted to be a writer at age 10 after reading the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, my parents didn’t tell me that I had to become a lawyer like they were or try to push me into a different (more job-secure) field. Instead, they supported me all the way, which I continue to be grateful for.

I haven’t had to face some the harsher discrimination, oppression and violence that girls and women around the world face. And I acknowledge that I come from a place of privilege. That said, despite my parents’ support and sheltering as a child, I have dealt with misogyny and racism my entire life. Now that I am a young adult and can reflect on my childhood, I wish my parents had been more proactive and explicit in discussing gender, race and sexuality, and subsequently, misogyny and racism, with me growing up.

As I came to identify as a feminist/womanist and develop critical consciousness on race, gender, sexuality, capitalism, class, ability, violence, etc. in college, I was finally able to start unpacking baggage I had been carrying around since I was child. My parents couldn’t shield me from societal misogyny and racism that I (like everyone else) had internalized without realizing it. Now I recognize that growing up, I often felt unattractive and invisible because of how Blackness is always portrayed as scary and undesirable, embarrassed and worried that my naturally curly hair was “wild” and ugly and that whatever boys wanted was always more important than what I (and other girls) wanted. I distinctly remember the awful, helpless cringe I would get in the pit of my stomach whenever I heard or saw something misogynistic, but knowing nothing about feminism, I just assumed that misogyny (not that I knew the word at the time) was simply the way things were and I needed to get in line. Now I can tell myself that these beliefs are wrong, but the length of time that they persisted in me has been fundamentally harmful.

I think my critical consciousness awakening (and healthier self-esteem) would have occurred years earlier had my parents sat down to proactively talk with me about issues I would have to face out in the world, but within a framework that acknowledged that systems of oppression were wrong and I had the power to not only fight them, but to not follow them: to set my own path in a world that would tell me I didn’t have the right. I wonder how different I would be now if my parents had actively affirmed Blackness and womanhood, discussed sex-positivity and color bias in society and pushed me to give myself second chances in fields I, by the end of high school, had convinced myself I was bad in, like math and science.

From this side of the fence, I can only imagine how difficult and overwhelming parenting must be. But in a world with built-in systems of bigotry and violence, I think sending children out into this world as just “individuals” without talking to them about how the world might treat them due to ingrained biases can do harm. I believe that parents can work wonders for their kids if they speak to them proactively about things before those things become problems that need to be reacted to. If I decide to have kids, I plan to talk to them about all of the above. I’d definitely have to change the wording to suit their age and I’d certainly seek help from available resources and trusted friends, but I would do my best to explicitly talk about and give names to the things my kids could experience.

On International Day of the Girl, I want to encourage girls to reflect on their relationships with their parents and discuss how their parents could be or could’ve been more proactive in discussing the complex discrimination they might face in the world as girls. But I want to also encourage parents and girls to discuss how girls hold the power, as I’ve learned, to set their own paths. We should teach girls that while the world may tell us “no” simply because we are girls, we have an inalienable right to say “yes.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user CTD 2005 licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Corinne Gaston is currently an editorial intern at Ms. and is working toward a B.A. in Creative Writing at USC. When not in the Ms. office, she is the Associate Opinion Editor at Neon Tommy. Follow her on Twitter @elysehamsa or go to her personal blog.