This week, as I watched and read about Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head and neck by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education, I am humbly aware of the triviality of my own work.
Most of my working life is devoted to understanding the causes and consequences of gender stereotypes. When does the girl, whose math teacher consistently skips over her raised hand, stop trying to participate? Why do boys incessantly tease their peers who act too “girly”? Most of my home life is devoted to the academic pursuits of my two daughters. In the evening, I have been known to gripe about my third grader’s time-consuming long division homework. While Malala was being wheeled into a UK hospital on a gurney, my own daughter was sitting in class in her highly selective school for gifted children. Most of her classmates are girls, usually in Hello Kitty socks and sparkly sneakers. In every way, we live in two very different places.
My own daughter watched coverage of this on the evening news. She was, of course, confused. Her 8-year-old mind can’t really imagine a world different than her own very comfortable one. Her greatest daily challenge involves replacing the batteries in the Wii remote. I struggle to help her understand the lives of the poor or homeless in our own city. It is especially challenging helping her imagine a world where girls are shot in the head for trying to go to school.
So, parents are faced with a dilemma when events like this happen in the world. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first news story like this recently. This summer, Afghan girls were poisoned for going to school. As god-awful as it is, I believe it is worth talking about with our kids. All kids, not just daughters, need to know that getting an education is a privilege, even if that privilege is sometimes boring.
Now, I will be the first to complain about our public school systems — too much teaching to the test, a too-short school year, and poorly supported teachers only begin my short list. Even as I write them, I realize how trivial the complaints really are.
Tomorrow when I take my daughter to school, I won’t be worried that some militant group might try to assassinate her because she is learning math. I won't tell her to avoid the water fountain for fear it is poisoned. I also won’t be compassionate when she complains about her homework. I want, instead, to have an unpleasant conversation with her.
To inform her that some girls are willing to die so they can have homework, to remind her that some people think she is unworthy of an education, and more importantly, to urge her to become as educated as possible so she can figure out why in the hell some people are so threatened by intelligent women.
Kids in elementary school can handle that conversation. Especially if the end point is to focus on how we can work for change. I personally don't know how to implement that kind of change in the world, how to convince others that educated girls aren't the cause, but the solution, to an unstable society. But I do know that a little bit of anger is good for us. It gives us the fire in the belly we need to improve the world. And girls, especially middle-class American girls who mostly worry whether the cafeteria is serving pizza or not, need to be a little angry about the world. Anger helps fight complacency. Too many of us are complacent, and we need more people appreciative of what we have yet motivated to help those still fighting for it.
Outside of our American cocoon, there are a lot of people who need to learn the power of highly educated women. Gene Sperling, director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations, states, "In terms of improving health, women's empowerment, and family well-being, girls' education is the highest-returning social investment in the world." As you send your daughters safely to school, don’t take this investment for granted. And help your kids to not take it for granted either.