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Raising Strong Girls to be Fearless Women

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“Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be…” Clementine Paddleford

The first time I saw this quote, it didn’t just strike me, it full on surrounded my brain. I saw it on a t shirt by the company Human Unlimited, and fell in love with it. It comes from a poem by Sarah McCane (read the entire poem here) written for her daughter, Clementine who is quoted in the text. I realized that for the majority of my life, I had a wishbone and not a backbone. How many years, how many instances of my own happiness did I forfeit to please someone who is no longer in my life, shouldn’t have been in my life, or didn’t deserve my time and energy more than I did? In short, it was a lot. Since before her birth, I decided that Tiny may have baggage as an adult, but she would at least have it in a different set of luggage to carry around than I did. I would not pass on the same time worn, over stuffed, tattered bags I had only sat down within the last few years. No ma’am, not her, she deserves more.
If you are anything like me, have you thought (read that as over thought) about why you have the insecurities, baggage and character traits that you do? Have you ever wondered if you were going to pass those on to your own daughter? I certainly have. I was raised in a home that was deeply Southern to say the least. Women are expected to not only be subservient, but joyful in their supplication. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties – after a marriage I didn’t want but didn’t have the backbone to walk away from, and years of struggle trying to grow up and speak with my own strong, fierce voice that my own epiphany occurred. I don’t want Tiny to spend 10 years of her life trying to find joy in things that she doesn’t believe or be submissive to any person, period.
She is a fiercely independent little thing, has a sharp and analytical little mind, but doesn’t always know or trust her voice yet. That’s ok, she’s 9. One thing I didn’t get that she will, is someone who asks her to use her backbone rather than her wishbone. I want her to learn to trust her gut from an early age – to analyze a situation and determine what is best for her and what is ethical for the larger group – whether that is friends, family, the larger society, or just her. By helping her use her voice as a child, she will internalize how to express herself, trust her judgement, and have her voice heard.
Recently, we were coming home from work and school and it had been a really long day. I didn’t feel like cooking, and didn’t have a meal on tap and prepped for the evening – from scratch wasn’t happening. The local McDonald’s had a toy she particularly wanted, even though she isn’t crazy about their food. I agreed, and through the drive through we went. When we got to the monstrously large and bright menu to place our order, she realized that she wanted the “boy” toy. She grumbled a bit, because who wants to be a boy? You have to love her spunk. The attendant asked us if the Happy Meal was for a boy or girl. Knowing which toy she wanted, I said boy. Something inside her little head clicked and she promptly told me that she didn’t like lying about being a boy. She didn’t think it was right to make someone lie to get a toy. WOW! That is a deep thought for a 9 year old. She then waxed empathetic and we began discussing what would happen if a young boy wanted a toy that was arbitrarily assigned to a girl. He might not want to say it was for a girl, he may not get the toy he really wanted. What was the purpose in assigning labels like boy or girl to a toy?

This conversation continued for a good 15 minutes as she nibbled on fries and rolled her toy from hand to hand. I began to think, this obviously bothered her on some level. I asked her what she wanted to do about it, and not surprisingly, she said she didn’t know. We determined that when her Father or I are not happy with a process or policy of a company, we write a letter. This simple act will likely get absolutely no response. It will go into the same waste bin as other letters, but that wasn’t the point of the letter. It was a means of teaching her to use her voice. It was designed to give her a vehicle to act ethically – advocate for a position or belief she that obviously felt stirred by. It gave her a sense of empowerment and capability that most adults do not embrace. She impressed me with her thoughts, her language – she is obviously listening to the conversations that go on in my office, at our dinner table, and in our car. She wrote the content and only asked me grammar and spelling questions. My heart is pretty full right now.
These are the first steps towards raising a strong, empowered woman. A woman who is going to use her voice, her backbone and not her wishbone. This beautiful little girl of mine, such an amalgamation of child and old soul. I don’t hold her future in my hands, but I know these things:

  1. She is amazing as she is – she is enough.
  2. She inspires me with her intelligence, generosity of spirit and ferocity of the depths of her love.
  3. She will change this world – she has already changed mine.

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