Culture in Mind

Mental health, culture, and ethnicity

Lessons My Daughter Taught Me

Parents don't always know better.

Me and my upgrade

Having children is a big experiment. A bigger experiment than anything science can conjure. The experiment is not just about how the child will turn out but also what kind of lessons we will learn about ourselves and about life in the process.You never know how well you did because there is no end to this experiment. Not really. WIth so many unknowns it is hard to solve for the x factor. Was it you or was it nature or was it the one thing their teacher said that stuck forever? You will never know.

My daughter has a Buddha like quality to her. She is the girl the other girls go to for advice. And she says simple sentences that allow me to skip lectures I've had planned for years. She's been teaching me life lessons since she was born. Here are four of them.

LESSON ONE

The first lesson my daughter taught me was that there is no one way to be a baby, a child, an adult or a parent. I knew this. Really knew it. But having a baby proved it to me everyday. We live in a culture with a set of rules about how babies should eat and sleep; what makes a grown-up; what's a 'real' job etc etc. And really its just about what works for you. Every baby I met was different. And so were the parents. And once I thought about it I realized that billions of people had been raised in different cultures with different principles and were just fine. Furthermore, American culture was not that good with raising children if we used an outcomes based assessment so reading American books on raising children did not make much sense. Instead, I figured out what MY child needed and who I wanted her to be as an adult and went with that. Knowing of course, that my wishes may not come true (Though as of today, at 14, she has wildly exceeded any expectations I could have had of the kind of fabulous human being she would so far turn out to be).

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LESSON TWO

The second lesson my daughter taught me was that gender is a big deal in this culture. And this relates very closely to lesson #1. People really care about socializing children into prescribed gender roles that have nothing to do with what a child wants to do or who a child wants to be. Because she had a tiny frame I used to put my then 3 year old in coveralls so that her tiny waist and long legs were not an issue. I got grief from relatives and friends about dressing my girl like a boy. Truth is my girl did not like 'girl clothes' as they stopped her from maintaining the callouses she had on her hands earned from hanging upside down on the monkey bars.

The struggle it took to put her in a dress and the rebellion she displayed by taking it off as soon as she could made me wonder what was so magical about a dress that would make her a girl as she was already born a girl. When she asked me why everyone wanted her to wear a dress, I had no answer. She once asked me if she could be a girlie girl and a tomboy too. I told her yes; not sure what she meant by either. I told her that whatever she did was what a girl did because she is a girl. Recently, she told me that she is beginning to like dresses as its easy to get ready and go. 

LESSON THREE

The third lesson my daughter taught me was that you can be noone better than you can be yourself. Yes. Sounds simple. But this lesson came as I was having a grown-up conversation with a girlfriend about how she was 'supposed' to behave in a particular social situation. I told her to "just be yourself". Nine years old at the time, my daughter with consternation asked, "If you are not yourself then who else can you be?" Not yet having internalized the social conventions that demand personas that do not reflect who we truly are, she was puzzled by the conversation. But I've quoted her often on this point. We are taught to silence who we are and what we want to fit into expectations that permeate our beings without us really being conscious of it. See Lessons #1 and lessons #2.

LESSON FOUR

Race ain't nothing but a color. Whatever the differences there are between black people and white people they are not explainable to a 3 year old. One day my then 3 year old daughter came home and asked me the question, "Mommy, what are white people?". Hmmmmm.... I asked her why she was asking. She told me someone had called her best friend white. (Which she was). And then i proceeded to tell my very brown daughter that white people had white skin. She then asked if her friend, Nia, who has very fair skin but is African American, was also white. I told her she was not. She was confused. And so was I. I knew if I started with curly hair she would be asking about a white child with curly hair etc etc. Having taught race and ethnicity for many years, here I was with my own child and I could not explain the difference between white people and black people. I tell this story every year when I teach that class because I want students to realize how much we create the differences between us. That we learn these differences in subtle and not so subtle ways. My daughter and I dont talk race. Because though it may matter in her life from time to time, I will not reinforce divisions that matter in no consequential way. 

There are many lessons my daughter has taught me about life and about me and about what children are made of. At 14 she is almost grown and I am sure there will be more lessons for me to learn. And I am ready to learn more lessons about me, about her and about life.

 

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.S.W., and M.P.H., is the author of Bipolar 101 and is an associate clinical professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. 

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