At every event I attend, no matter how big or small, I get asked the same thing. It’s universal, and universally beautiful in its way; parent after parent, teacher after teacher, comes up to me and asks, “I’m not an engineer. How do I walk the walk?”
What they mean is, “How can I help my kid think about these things differently? How do I support them? How can I make a difference?”
Here’s a not-so-secret: I’m not an engineer either. I went to the school of hard knocks and got my degree in Rainmaking, but I could not have told you what an incline plane was a year ago. (It’s a ramp. Seriously). I am here to tell you that walking the walk is not all that difficult. Most of the things we can do to support our kids are hidden in plain sight; they’re the kind of things that, when said out loud, feel so obvious. In life and engineering, simplicity is king. So here we go:
A Very Important And Obvious List of Things You Can Do To “Walk The Walk”
1. Don’t default to male pronouns.
See what I mean? Obvious. Using a mix of pronouns in the way you talk about jobs and careers is the most basic thing you can do to support your kids in an understanding that anybody can do any dang thing they want. It’s a way of framing their thinking – by talking about engineers, architects, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, doctors, and whoever with female pronouns, you help undo the myth that women can’t or shouldn’t be these things.
Your kid: “I met a fire fighter at school today!”
You: “Great! What did she teach you?”
2. Call it like you see it.
Parents basically become wallpaper, especially to our young kids. What we do is basic and ongoing background noise to their own inner lives, but we can and should totally use this as a way to describe the world to them in what might be the most influential way possible. So when you see a Female Police Officer, say, “Hey, check out that Female Police Officer! Isn’t her job cool?”
Sometimes people point out that by remarking on a woman doing a stereotypically male job, we as parents are making the fact that she’s doing that job an anomaly. I disagree. The world does enough of pointing out that women are supposed to be anomalies; by not saying anything, you’re letting the world do that work without correcting it. But by pointing out women doing cool and gender-role-defying things, and saying them as if it’s no big deal (“Isn’t her job cool?” instead of “Isn’t the fact that she’s doing that job cool?”) does the opposite.
3. Seek out role models, and be one yourself
Out of necessity, my mother, a public school teacher and single mom, used to fix the roof, paint the house, replace the toilet, and snake the drain – she never said anything about it, but her doing these things provided an important role model for me. My mother could do these things herself; so could I.
And I do – but when there’s something I can’t manage (read: I already tried and made it worse), I do my best to find a woman to come in and do it for me. This is shockingly easy. The Internet is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Female plumbers, electricians, painters… all at your fingertips (http://www.yelp.com/biz/womens-plumbing-repair-oakland).
We all know that our first exposure to anything or anyone sticks with us; these first impressions become our internal archetypes. The word “Pediatrician”, to me, will forever conjure up the image of Dr. Pulford; a sweet and wickedly funny man that soothed broken skin and hurt feelings with lollipops and knock-knock jokes. To my kids, this word is connected to a hilarious and endlessly capable woman named Joy. Similarly, though “engineer” always meant “pale, nerdy white guy” to me, my kids picture their Mama and her buddy, Debbie. Go figure
4. Let them own what they do and who they are.
For instance: when they hand you a drawing, say “you’re an amazing artist!”
When they build a bridge out of the random junk they find under their beds, say “You’re an engineer!” Ask them to tell you about what they made, and why they made it. The words “tell me more about that” are surprisingly effective.
On top of this, watch your adjectives. Tell your daughters that they’re funny and smart, strong and courageous; tell your boys that they’re beautiful and kind, creative and loving. Arm yourself with a vocabulary that defies the things that the world will tell them about themselves, and they’ll understand that they can be all those things, and they’re all wonderful. After a recent lice-induced haircut (ugh), my 7 year old son started a sentence with the words “Now that my hair isn’t as silky and luxurious as it used to be…”
These things sink in, folks. They really do.
5. Don’t be afraid of overcorrecting.
You know how if you speak too softly, the wisdom around training your voice is to be much louder than you think is appropriate? It’s because there’s a gap between how you hear yourself and how the world hears you; what seems like an overcorrect to you won’t seem that way to the rest of the world. And the rest of the world is so full of messages around what girls and boys can and can’t be, what they are and aren’t.
Last Saturday night, I attended the closing ceremonies for my boys’ little league teams. After the raffles and ice cream, awards and trophies, the league erected a pop-up screen, and set up a projector. The sun went down, kids gathered on the lawn in the outfield, and they played a movie called “The Sand Lot.”
This is a movie about 5 boys that love baseball. Real Americana, right down to the scene where one boy hurls the worst insult possible to a member of the opposing team: “You throw like a girl.”
The kids sprawled around field around me giggled and moved on, but my blood boiled. In the car on the way home, I pointed this injustice out to my boys.. I don’t want to be a kill joy, but COME ON. They were one step ahead of me: “Yeah! That must have made Liliah feel mad, because she’s REALLY good!” Liliah, of course, is a hardcore slugger in the league, pink cleats and all.
So be vocal: call it like you see it. The world will bring them back to center.