Back in the not-so-distant day, I would skip over stories’ “challenging” parts when reading aloud to my daughter.
Sasha is 4 years, 3 months, and 14 days old.
She used to be younger.
I remember the first time I cracked the cover on the original Curious George book. Sasha was settled on my lap, her thumb corked in her mouth, and I was aghast as my eyes scanned the page. I renamed the monochromatic monkeynapper “Dada” and tried to gloss over George’s wrongful imprisonment (by a uniformly white, male, and rotund police force). THIS was the book that inspired a thousand sequels?
When we first read Pinkalicious: Soccer Star, I omitted the goth-esque girls’ unnecessary taunts. I would have crossed out the words entirely but for fear of Sasha noticing the edit, demanding explanations, and raising hue and cry.
So when we got to Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’ entry on Hatshepsut, I would dance around the misogyny. That was a tricky two-step since it meant zhuzh‘ing the female pharoah’s entire story. It got to the point where I couldn’t remember what I’d reframed, what I’d surgically excised, and what I’d chunked out wholesale. Did I pare down the (overly long) sentence about what a “legitimate leader” looked like? Did I skip the informal, expository question?
One night, it might have been four months ago?, I was reading on autopilot and rattled off written words that Sasha had never heard before. I orated it all, including the part about Egyptians’ attempts to remove all traces of Hatshepsut’s successful, 25-year reign. When I realized what I’d done, I peered around at Sasha’s visage. Did she get what I’d said? Was she even listening? She appeared unperturbed, still slurping on that always-there thumb.
All righty then – easier at day’s end NOT to tango between the plot points. So I began to read the real text every time. Until one day, when I was feeling more alert and less comfortable with sexist treachery, I got back to my zhuzh‘ing.
As I concluded my sanitized tale, Sasha asked, “What happened to the part when they smashed the statues?”
I was gobsmacked. She HAD been listening.
So I resumed reading all of the words but I’d pepper in my POV – “I don’t like that choice. Girls can be pharoah and boys can be pharoah. She doesn’t have to wear a fake beard! That’s silly!”
Cut to last night. I decided to address the why. I explained that some people don’t want girls and women to do the same jobs as boys and men, etc etc, concluding my “Sexism for 4-Year-Olds” lecture with the word patriarchy, kinda tongue-in-cheek. I intoned the word in the same way I’d say Darth Vader, D-Strux, or Lex Luthor.
To which Sasha replied, NOT.EVEN.MISSING.A.BEAT, “We don’t like the patriarchy!”
Damned if she didn’t pronounce it right.
I gaped. Then laughed. And echoed, “We don’t like the patriarchy!!!”
It felt like a parenting win, a “Check out this delightful human” moment, and a life lesson all at once. This is what’s possible if we lay the groundwork, bathing our kids in stories so they can easily identify the heroes and the villains + critically questioning injustice so our kids can problematize and problem solve…
This is what’s going on “beneath the surface,” proving that still waters run deep…
This is why I can’t just curate a “good book” collection or stop at the talk back. As my daughter grows and evolves, I have to grow and evolve, too, modifying my modus operandi, guiding (and stumbling) our way across new territory…
… so we can smash the patriarchy (instead of statues). And that’s just for starters.