I was 8 or 9 years old when I realized that the way I walked was too loud.
Running through the hallways of our local sports complex after swimming lessons, my sister’s and my bare feet slapped and thudded loudly against the hard tile floors. And at some point I realized I could actually control the weight with which my footsteps landed. I would practice running, not to improve my endurance or speed, but to reduce the heaviness of my step. To make my movements quieter, less conspicuous.
This is only one example of how I learned to make myself smaller.
This is what it was like, growing up as a cis-gender girl.
I learned to do this early on, from everywhere and nowhere in particular. As someone who identifies as a girl, I needed to be feminine (FALSE). And feminine people are smaller, quieter, softer, gentler, etc. (BULLSHIT).
These lessons strongly influenced my relationship with my body growing up. And as an adult it has taken a lot of conscious effort to unlearn some of my resulting patterns of behavior.
Things like dressing in a way that reads as feminine, even if it doesn’t feel comfortable to me. Trying to make myself smaller in crowded places, so that I don’t offend anyone with the closeness of my body. Or my instinct to cover up so that others don’t have to look. Not speaking over another person, even when that means my voice is silenced. Not singing or speaking or laughing too loudly, or doing anything else that might draw too much attention. Apologizing for things outside of my control.
And as I work through these behaviors, I’m slowly allowing myself to spread out. I’m re-learning to take up space.
And I want something different for AFAB kiddo.
I think about this now, as I watch my toddler careen through the house, screaming at the top of her lungs for who knows what reason. Her feet slap and thud loudly. Her voice reverberates off the walls (and my eardrums). She is joyful and determined, completely unrestrained.
She hasn’t yet learned to minimize herself. She hasn’t learned that minimization is necessary to be acceptable. And I’d like to believe she never will.
There’s nothing I can do about outside influences. She’s going to learn these social rules no matter what I do. But I can provide a counter-example. I can try to show her that it’s okay for her to be big, and bright, and loud.
So this is how I’m teaching my daughter to take up space.
1. Don’t tell them to be careful.
Seriously. I try to never tell Little Bit to be careful (sometimes it slips out). Telling a child to be careful tells them that what they’re doing is wrong or dangerous, but not how. And it definitely doesn’t teach them how to think about a situation critically.
On top of that, girls are a lot more likely than boys to be warned about potentially dangerous situations. Like Scary Mommy says, it teaches girls “to play it safe, instead of facing their fears.” This keeps girls from exploring the abilities and limitations of their bodies, and teaches them to doubt and fear their abilities.
The Backwoods Mamma also wrote a really great article about this, and what to say and do instead.
This is exactly what I try to do with Little Bit. I encourage her to run, jump, and climb… even when it scares the crap out of me. And I use words that will help her learn to be aware of her situation and plan out her actions accordingly.
2. Let them fail.
This is another part of letting them explore her abilities and limitations. You’re not always going to be able to save them from hurt and failure, and that’s a good thing! We learn from falling down, picking ourselves back up, and trying again.
Yes, you absolutely should make sure that they stay safe. And it’s absolutely fine to be there for them in case they want or need your help. But it is absolutely essential for them to experience failure and disappointment, and learn how to deal with those situations and the resulting emotions.
They can’t learn to persist if there’s nothing to push against!
3. Don’t tell them to be quiet.
Once again, we’re way more likely to teach girls to be quiet. When boys run around screaming it’s just “boys being boys” (excuse me while I puke), while girls are told to “act like a lady” (I’m going to need a bigger bucket).
This gets even worse once kids enter school, where teachers still tend to pay more attention to boys. And by then children have already been taught that it’s okay for boys to interrupt girls, but not the other way around. This carries over into the workplace, where women have learned to stay quiet and wait their turn (which may never come, since we keep getting interrupted, by the way).
So I don’t tell Little Bit to be quiet unless I really need to. If I have a headache, or need to make a phone call, I’ll tell her I need quiet for now. Then I find the next possible opportunity to let her make ALL THE NOISE!!!
4. And actually listen to what they say!
When kids are really little we praise and celebrate every new word they learn. But then they get older… and they keep talking. Sometimes nonstop, about the silliest things.
And eventually, we as adults tend to lose patience. We tell them to be quiet. To stop asking questions. Or we just tune them out like we do with annoying adults we’re forced to interact with at social events.
But consider this:
“Listen earnestly to anything [your children] want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they’re big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.” – Catherine M. Wallace
To a child, everything they discover is amazing and worth sharing, because everything is new. And if we teach them early that we aren’t interested in hearing their big news, they’re eventually going to stop trying. They’re going to learn that what they have to say isn’t important, or that we can’t be trusted to listen.
Now, I’m not going to claim that you should be able to listen with rapt attention to 100% of the things your kid says. Not even close. But do try to tune in at least a little each day, and give some genuine attention to what that little person is saying.
5. Provide a variety of toys and experiences, and follow the child.
All children need to experience a range of play. And if you want to accomplish that with your child, you’re going to have to step outside the societal box.
Despite some major improvements, toys these days are still highly gendered. This feeds straight into the patriarchal stereotype of femininity, telling girls that they should be a certain way, and like certain things.
Girls should like pink. They should play with dolls, kitchen and cleaning sets, makeup and princess dresses. The toys most heavily marketed to girls are those that teach care taking skills and beauty as a primary aim.
And here’s the thing: there’s nothing innately wrong with these kinds of toys. It’s the fact that they’re ONLY marketed to girls, and that they’re pushed waaaaay more frequently than things like building blocks, science kits, and sports equipment.
It becomes even more complicated for trans- and gender-nonconforming kids, who may not be given access to the toys that match their interests. They’re more likely to be shamed for their toy selections, and possibly even punished.
All children need access to all kinds of toys. Different toys teach different skills, and skills are NOT gender-specific.
Now, this doesn’t mean that your kid is going to like everything you offer. That’s when the “follow your child” part comes in. If you offer a variety of toys, without judgment, your kid will show you what they prefer to play with. The end result will be that they’re able to develop the skills that suit their interests, rather than the skills that have been assigned to them according to their birth genitalia.
6. Find books with diverse protagonists.
You probably already know how important it is to read to a child. It helps encourage language development and early literacy skills. Even older kids benefit from having someone read aloud to them.
But the books you choose are just as important as the toys you choose, and this is where we tend to fall short. All children should be exposed to books where kids of color, indigenous kids, LGBTQIA+ and gender-nonconforming kids, disabled kids, and fat kids are doing awesome, meaningful things.
For one, all kids need the chance to see kids like them represented in the media. But they also need the chance to see kids that aren’t like them at all, and to learn that those people are capable and worthy, too.
7. Encourage situationally appropriate clothing.
If a kid’s going to explore their environment, they’re going to need clothing that allows them to move.
When Little Bit was a baby, this meant that I never put her in skirts or dresses. I didn’t want them to get in the way of her learning to crawl or walk. So we stuck to leggings and rompers.
As a toddler, this means making sure she wears sneakers or good boots (we love Stonz Three Seasons Stay-On Booties!) when she goes outside, because they let her run and climb and tumble. And we’ll continue to encourage this kind of dressing as she gets older.
8. But don’t restrict their clothing choices.
That being said, Little Bit is allowed to choose what she wears. She doesn’t really care yet, but when she does, she gets full autonomy. We will continue to talk to her about what people usually expect in certain situations. But she gets the last word when it comes to what goes on her body.
Yes, that even includes situationally inappropriate clothing. If we need to go somewhere in the winter, and refuses to put on her boots, I’m not going to, I’ll take her boots with me because I promise she’s going to get cold and change her mind. That way it becomes a learning experience. We wear boots outside in Michigan winter because it’s f-ing cold, not just because Mom says so.
And yes, that includes if she wants to wear nothing but pink. Or black. Or clothes from the “boys” section. Or whatever.
And YES, that absolutely includes revealing clothing if she so chooses. Our society teaches young girls that they are responsible for the actions of boys, and that is pure unadulterated bullshit. If a boy can’t concentrate on his schoolwork because he can see the shape of a girl’s nipple, THAT’S ON HIM.
9. Compliment them on more than their looks.
We want our children to grow up understanding that they have value above and beyond what they look like. Yet the most common compliments we give them (especially femme children) are based on their looks. And this sends the message that their appearance matters. A lot.
And your appearance isn’t something you can actually control (despite the fact that we spend billions every year trying to). The end result is that we’re teaching kids that their value is tied to something they can’t control. And that leaves a whole lot of people SOL from the get-go, since society so strongly favors the white-cis-hetero-male image.
“When we compliment children on qualities and characteristics that are not based on appearance it helps children develop the sense that who they are matters — not just what they look like. This helps them understand that the ways they relate to others, the skills and talents they have, the behaviours that they exhibit are all meaningful and important.” – Nicole Beurkens
But sometimes it’s really hard to think of compliments that aren’t based on appearance because… well… we’re so used to only complimenting each other on the way we look, I guess?! So here are The 10 Best Compliments For Kids That Aren’t ‘Pretty’ or ‘Handsome’.
10. Love and support them unconditionally.
The most important thing you can do for your child is to love and support them, no matter what. Your kid is going to do things you don’t really like. They’re going to choose clothes, toys, and music you don’t understand. And they’re most likely going to become someone you never really expected.
Your job is to love them, and to make sure that they know your love is not dependent on the toys they choose, or the clothes they like to wear, or the volume with which they speak, or the career they aspire to. Your job is to provide them with resources and opportunities, then sit back and enjoy the amazing and absolutely unique person they become.
Your job is to allow them to take up space.