*Feature* Raising a Strong-Voiced Girl
by Lynne Marie Wanamaker

When I was a little girl, my dad could silence me with a single, terrifying look. Alright, I admit it—I'm a 40 year old black belt, feminist, self-defense instructor, and parent myself— and sometimes he still can. Just writing this I can feel the shrinking sensation and flush of shame I get when he shoots me that dark, focused, "Dad's-getting-mad" glare.

A client told me about a parenting philosophy that posits that our generation of liberal, mindful parents differs from our parents primarily because we do not rely on the threat of physical violence to ensure our kids' compliance. My sister and I were never hit, but the threat of wrath was the number one tool in my folks' arsenal for ensuring that we stayed "good kids"—quiet, compliant, submissive to the grown ups. Mom largely lost this technique as we all aged and the kids' rage grew a lot scarier than hers. Kids don't miss a trick, and we absorbed a panoply of dysfunctional anger management strategies: from simmering family feuds to the sudden explosion of a fist hitting a wall. We walked around in those electric silences, past the smashed drywall, every day, and we learned well how to be scary-mad.

So it's not that I don't know how to squash my brilliant, persistent, beloved and yet maddening five-year-old into submission. I can be really frightening—karate students tell me all the time, "When I met you, I was really scared of you." I've trained in feminist self defense for twenty years and that practice has taught me how to use my eyes, voice and body language to stand up for myself and take up space when necessary. I can harness the wild eyes characteristic of our style of karate to get the attention of someone who's stepped over the line, and I have a really loud voice. And then there's all that good home training—I can seethe, rant, smash and yell as well as any member of my family of origin. Being a Buddhist art, my karate training suggests that I be attentive, rather than reactive, to my feelings of rage. So I try to breathe in peace and breathe out strangling fury, and I fly off the handle decidedly less often than I did ten years ago. But a skill set like that doesn't go away and when I slip up I can see the light go out in my little girl's eyes. I know that I am stronger and scarier than her, and in a battle of wills I can win.

And sometimes I have to think, "Why not? Why can't it be my way? I'M THE MOM!" If it was exhausting in those first few months of motherhood to accommodate her every physical need it is no less emotionally exhausting now to accommodate her every developmental and lifestyle need. For someone as stubborn and selfish as me, it's hard not to be the most egocentric, unpredictable narcisist in the room. "It's a drag sometimes, isn't it?" I said to her the other day when she wanted to watch TV but her other mom was napping in the same room. "Being in a family and having to be considerate of everyone else's feelings and stuff."

I could get her to do what I want: put away her shoes, wipe the yogurt smears off the table, stop trying to manipulate me into playing Little House on the Prairie again, just stop talking for a single moment so I can hear myself think. All it takes is an evil death look and a strong and scary voice. So why don't I do it? And why am I so filled with self-recrimination when her defiance overwhelms me and I resort to my parents' go-to strategies?

I think it comes down to what I believe this parenting gig is all about—what is my job here? My mom and dad thought it was their job to have "good" kids. They took a lot of pride in being able to bring us into adult situations, like grown-up restaurants, with confidence that we would "behave." While I recall being warmed by my parents' pride, I also remember being so afraid of the consequences of misbehaving that I endured these events in terror of a misstep.

I don't think goodness is something I have to instill in my kid. I think all kids are good, it's just that some of them are easier for the grown-ups to be around. And I do think that being easy to be around is something that I need to teach my kid. I don't do her any favors if I fail to teach manners, respect, or co-existence. But I don't want to teach her compliance. I don't want to teach her to submit to another's will. I don't want to wipe out her defiant spirit, and I never want to see the light go out her eyes.

I think my job here is to help her grow what she'll need to be bold and unique woman. I think I'm supposed to hold the space for her little soul to express itself. I think the best part, and also the hardest part, of this gig is witnessing who she's going to be. I'm not creating this kid any more. That ended after nine months of gestation. Now I'm the midwife: I'm attending the creation of her self.

And I think my job is to keep her safe. This used to be infinitely harder: damn the vulnerability of infants, their complete and utter obliviousness to their own self interest, their total inability to act in their own defense. But it was also infinitely easier, in those days when she was completely subject to my actions, lolling about in a sling attached to my body, literally an extension of me. Now keeping her safe means teaching and honing her skills of self preservation and self protection.

I don't imagine that my girl will grow up without ever being squashed, without ever feeling herself diminished or her will submitted to the strength of another. I packed her off to public school this week so I'm pretty much sure that she'll be experiencing that confinement of spirit fairly soon—perhaps at this very moment. But I want her to know and name that experience as a violation—or at the very least, a compromise—and not the accepted order of things. I don't want her to ever feel accustomed to being cowed; I don't want her to be okay with being made to feel small. I want her to fight back.

I've been training for twenty years in self defense, teaching for more than fifteen, and it's still work, every day, to re-grow that fight-back spirit in myself. I've witnessed the struggles of countless women to reclaim the defiant voice that rang out so boldly at two, or four, or six, before someone silenced it with a slap, or a look, or a judgment . We need that voice to make it in this world. Of course, it's not always appropriate; sometimes it's just polite to let the other person talk for a change, and it's nice to put your dirty panties in the hamper without arguing about it every time. But being able to speak up for yourself, loudly and confidently, is a great and amazing asset in life.

Parents worry about their kids being victimized. But we're complicit in their victimization when we teach them that what we value most is their compliance and submission. I want a girl who can set limits about her own body, even if she practices that limit-setting by forbidding me to kiss her and only allowing hugs. I want her to be able to use a strong voice to say "no." If she can stand up to me, she'll be better able to stand up to pressure from her peers. I want her to be able to ask for what she wants in a strong voice, without whining or apology. Today she asks for an ice cream cone, but in the future she'll apply for a prestigious opportunity; she'll ask for help when she needs it; she'll request a raise that she deserves.

After twenty years of learning and teaching self defense, I believe the most fundamental skill women learn from this practice is the ability to stand up for themselves. The best self defense teachers structure their classes to rehearse that core experience of stating what we expect, desire or require and having it honored. It becomes normative to be heard and to have our boundaries respected. I teach like this now and I know that it works. So why not parent this way too? It's not like parenting isn't going to be a royal bitch anyway. There's no way to make this job easy, no way to transform coexisting with a growing little being into living with a rational adult—or into living alone, which is what I secretly crave on my most selfish days, no matter how deeply I love my family. So I may as well cultivate those skills I want for her, even if it means she's not always the "good" kid. The cost to me—if you can call it that—is having to really live my values, having to recognize my daughter's full humanity in every moment. Yes: even those tired, end of the day minutes when we are both coming unraveled, I have hours of work ahead before I can lie down, and I just want her to do what I say. The benefits are myriad, but on the short list is the fact that I can worry about her just a little less as she moves away from me and into the world. She's growing the skills she needs to fight for herself. I've got the bruises to prove it.

Lynne Marie Wanamaker is a karate black belt, a certified personal trainer and a feminist mama. She holds a BA in women's studies and American literature from the City University of New York. In convergence with her fortieth birthday Lynne Marie finds herself returning to the writing life after over a decade's hiatus. She lives with her wife and daughter in an old house in western Massachusetts.

feature added on 2009-01-18 :: ::

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