[Tomorrow marks the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, the law that demanded equity in school sports for men and women. I’m writing a few posts this week about my thoughts on girls and sports.]
I listened to this commentary on Title IX this morning while dropping the girls off at their respective daycares and preschools, and wondered if my girls would ever have the chance to benefit from its passage. Will my daughters be athletes? Could my daughters be athletes?
As a feminist mom, I want my daughters to have positive relationships with their bodies: I want them to see their physicality as a source of strength, health, joy and pleasure. This is pretty easy with small children. They are still at ages where physical activity and play dominate their social lives. They attend schools that focus on free, outdoor play in nature, where the children are encouraged to climb, explore, dig in, and get dirty. Right now, not much separates my girls from their environment, or their minds from their bodies.
But I know that can change; it will change. Pretty soon the delights of the playground will give over to different, big kid interests. Pretty soon that childhood metabolism will settle out and their physical habits may change. Their bodies will look different. The older they get, the more scrutiny they’ll feel as sexual objects in a world that prefers girls to be pretty and docile and slim. I worry a lot about that stage. How can I prevent that from happening? How can I foster this exuberance, keep this going?
In a few days, I’ll talk about my own weird relationship with my body and with sports. But I’ll say this: overall, I’m a wuss. I am scared of pain and never overcame that to master anything physical. I don’t like, ya know, working hard. Very early in life, I foreclosed those options for myself and decided that I simply wasn’t cut out for that kind of activity, even though I was fascinated by sports and athletes.
I do not want that to be the case for my girls. I want them to feel the fear and do it anyway.
A few months ago, Robin (4 years) was struggling to learn how to ride the scooter. She really wanted me to push her around so she wouldn’t have to fear falling. I refused. I said, “You have to do it yourself so you can feel strong and brave instead of scared and worried.” She threw the scooter on the ground and screamed, “DAMN IT!!” (She is her mother’s child.) She did this a few more times, but each time, she got back on and tried again. She is making slow progress but every day she goes a little faster, takes a corner a little quicker.
Robin is obsessed with the rope swing at their hippie daycare. I worked there for a few hours yesterday and she literally spent the entire time on the rope swing. In the last month, her core strength has improved to the point where she can practically swing upside down with one leg wrapped around the rope, a la Cirque du Soleil. We put up a swing in our yard, and now she spends all evening doing it, too.
She wants to do flips, so I got a bar for our swingset. She is extremely proud of how fast she can run. She loves to show this off. After she runs, she lets us know that she set the house on fire. Sometimes, she’ll lick a finger and sssss – let it sizzle on her hip. She’s hot stuff. She’s full of awesome. I want her to stay that way. I encourage her to keep practicing and working.
Yet, when it was time to sign up for t-ball, we passed. Why? I’m not really sure. My husband was worried that the scrutiny of an audience would freak her out (which is fairly legit; Robin is definitely a bit shy). I just thought, how do we do this? I never played an organized sport before college. My parents never signed me up for youth soccer or ballet or anything like that (and I never asked, so how would they have known I cared?). I don’t know that world at all. We’ve considered martial arts, dance classes, t-ball, gymnastics. We’ve done none of them, mostly because they are crazy expensive and the class schedules are weird. It also seems to require a mentality we may not share: as a family, we’re not predisposed towards working out or being the best at something or competition or large, organized group activities. We are not Tiger Parents. Right now, a scooter and a rope swing are enough. But taking a class – declaring her a ballet girl or a karate girl a la Yoshimi – seems like it might carry us through that awkward transition out of playful childhood into that weird tweeny/teen stage when kids start to striate into boys/girls, kids who play kickball at recess and kids who play Star Wars and kids who read books, kids who are good at school and kids who are good at soccer, etc etc.
As a teacher in a college program for recruited students, I certainly saw how organized athletics can benefit young women: I’ve known some phenomenal girls who’s athletic accomplishments are world class, and I can see that they carry themselves with an assurance that is totally foreign to me (at least until they start qualifying themselves as “just” soccer players or “just” track or “just” golfers to the football players – oh yes, I’ve seen that happen more than once).
I don’t necessarily want my girls to be college athletes. They may hate sports. They may strongly prefer piano or books or theater. That’s great. But I want that possibility to be available to them in a way it wasn’t to me, and more broadly, I want them to be healthy and fit for life and not just for youth. (I should mention here that I am a TERRIBLE role model when it comes to fitness.) So, what do you think is the best way to do that? How do you encourage your daughters to have brave, strong bodies? How do you bridge that gap between childhood play and big kid life?