As a father I often wonder how influential I am around my daughters sense of wellbeing and identity.
They often tell me how open they realise I am in discussing things with them, especially in comparison to their friends. I take pride in that. They know that I will always find out about their school and personal events and plan my work around those events. They know that whilst my empathy needs working on I am always there for hugs, cuddles and a good listener when they are crying and pouring their hearts out. They know that whilst I am a barrel of fun I have very clear defined boundaries around behaviour. They know that wifey and I will show a united face as parents when it comes to discipline, and they also know I have no problem saying sorry when I screw up.
I make no apologies in declaring that as a father I think my role is very important in helping my girls to have a sense of wellbeing. First as a human being and then the other labels. Girl. Black girl. This is why when people recommend Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg as a book for empowerment, I prefer in the first instance for them to read about Ursula Burns CEO of Xerox and Oprah Winfrey. Or Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm, On Beauty by Zadie Smith or Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman by Michele Wallace. This does not dismiss the achievements of someone like Sheryl but in the same way I would recommend rags to riches books for aspirational entrepreneurs from a working class background in the first instance, I recommend books that I know will tick a box of cultural specificity for my daughters. Keep the library balanced.
When I was training to be a counsellor I had a keen interest in developmental psychology and how it could be used as part of my youth work and as father. I remembered reading a number of works around how fathers helped to shape the identity of their children and was specifically intrigued as a father of daughters myself as to what my role does in their development and the influence of present and future relationships. I read papers from people like Schaufer and Naus and Mori which addressed the role of father figures. I was a Christian at the time and also read a number of books which gave a more religious context as to the fatherly role (something I know define as patriarchy) that was expected of me. In addition to this as a youth worker and educator I had spent many years being seen as a father figure to girls of all creeds, races and cultures who brought both their securities and their frailties as to what it meant to be a woman. Not that I had the answers by a long shot but heck I would do everything I could to surround them with the knowledge and people who could help to find that answer.
I wanted and still want to be the most excellent Dad I can be, and yes not just to my own kids, but in the wider sense of community too. Here are some thoughts as to my thinking behind this.
This morning I read a post by Pedro De Bruyckere (highlighted by teacher @learningspy) on girls playing dumb to please the boys. This post centred on research on a group of Year 8 (age 12/13) students in a school in Portugal by Dr Maria do Mar Pereira from the University of Warwick’s Department of Sociology. This isn’t the first time I have heard of this kind of research and to be fair addressing the inequality that girls face has been a core theme I have addressed not just as a parent, but a youth advocate and educator. In addition when I used to do career coaching a fair proportion of women that I worked with were incredibly anxious about how best to navigate that water between being demure and being “alpha” when seeking senior leadership roles. The conflict of identity is not restricted to just girls.
The background to this dumbing down, although anecdotal in my experience, is reflected by the amount of gifted young ladies who avoid careers such in STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Maths). Shunning some of the key subjects such as Physics, Chemistry and Maths at A Level and further down the food chain Engineering, Computer Programming, at graduate level. Granted it would be easier to suggest that much of this is down to girls wanting to be ‘celebrities’ but I think that is insulting to a number of gifted young ladies who wish not to pursue such career or learning paths for fear of being the only girl in a class and being subjected to unconscious biases and prejudices from male students, teaching staff and parents alike. No matter how it is dressed up, or the latest marketing fad to make science look sexy, in many conversations this challenge of identity, keeping your mouth closed and rolling with the punches for not being perceived as a dork, nerd or feminist bitch is a narrative that has been shared with many young women over the years as part of my work.
My work has allowed me over the years to work in a number of schools, both mixed and single gender, including independent, grammar, non grammar and pupil referral units. For the high achieving girls the sticking point has always been around self confidence. So many girls achieve excellence in exams and tests but lack the confidence in being able to present themselves or take agency of their personality. Coaching them to move forward from that default has been tough work. This also refers to work with students who are underachieving. Having that sense of belief that they are capable of applying themselves without ignoring the extenuating circumstances, as with gifted girls, of family, culture, housing and friends which affect their sense of identity. The same story reads for those girls I and others have worked with in the middle. That large group that often get overlooked.
Again this anecdotal but is reflective of the work I and colleagues in this space see.
This has definitely informed my own parenting. With my own two daughters I told them they have nothing to prove but to themselves. The reality is they will compare and it is a constant conversation that I ensure my wife and I, and all the supporting adults we have asked to help provide a support network for them to achieve their potential. Whilst we know we can be influential we have also curated an environment of successful entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals, entertainers, scientists who mentor them, talk to them and encourage them that they are enough.
In addition to encourage them about the intelligence part of their identity, there is the other area of identity which concerns their beauty and image
I had a look at this video recently. A powerful treatise from a model who was well aware of the privileges and legacy which allowed her to be where she is today
Now there are some real cultural provisos that need to be taken into consideration when talking about image and beauty to young girls. The video makes this clear. In my experience the issues of weight, makeup, style and hair vary as much in conversation with a young girl of white british, south asian, african, Caribbean, eastern european or south east asian heritage. From cheekbones to thigh gaps to big butts to weaves, hair straightening and the assumption of Kardashians that unite them. I once thought of writing down all those experiences as a means of educating youth workers working with young ladies but there are so many!!! They are legion.
For my own daughters there are the politics of black hair. My youngest is adamant she will always wear her hair natural. The eldest toys between straight and natural. There is one rule I will not move on (patriarchal I know) but they know that no weave shall pass the threshold that are our front or back doors. There is the politics of make up for darker skin. Knowing that many of the major brands have no real knowledge of colour blends regardless of whether they drop a famous celebrity on their campaigns or not. There is the awareness of seeing popular female figures of colour either having their skin lightened or the appearance of it, or who has passed the brown paper bag test.
As a Dad I have had to, along with my wife, be aware of how they should be aware of but not limited to societies perceptions of colour. They have noticed how within the black community others will refer to my wife as pretty especially in reference to her complexion. They have had to take it upon themselves to educate others not to touch their hair as its not a plaything and that yes they do wash, condition, brush and sometimes straighten their hair too.
Anyone who ever said being a parent was easy, especially to girls, in a mans world was either smoking something, delusional or very very privileged without a sense of the outside world.
Best Job in the World
Taking the responsibility one of getting my daughters to a place where they can have some serious agency about their identity and all the areas of life it will affect is an honour and challenging task. It has its complexities and also its learning too. Don’t believe me try asking your daughters to give you feedback on what they think your strengths and weaknesses are.
As a parent whilst there is a sense of belief that we have a sense of primacy in their lives, it is just as important to be aware of those other influences such as media, friends, schooling, etc which will help to shape perceptions. To do so honestly and at all times having their best interests of empowerment, resilience and fulfilment as core elements of them being themselves.
Only time will tell what influence as a Dad I have had. I believe they are secure, confident and am proud they feel safe to come and share with me their concerns and victories. I would hope they never have to dumb down their intelligence or play down their beauty because of societal pressures. Oh, and girls, if you are reading this, I know that you can forge my signature, and I am changing it!!