The #MeToo movement got me in the gut. It wasn’t a surprise—I volunteered on a sexual assault crisis line 30 years ago and was aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse even before that. But the recent wave of revelations affected me on a deeper level, and I think it’s because I now have two granddaughters. It astounds me that we’re still grappling with sexual violence and gender inequality on such a large scale, two decades into the 21st century. But as I do whenever I’m faced with an overwhelming issue I can’t alter, I’m searching for the areas in which I do have power. I can’t change the culture my granddaughters were born into, but I can look for ways to empower them as individuals. This is what I’ve come up with so far:
We can see and hear our granddaughters.
My mother, wise by inclination and a family therapist by profession, was very intentional about the time she spent with her grandchildren. She took them on dates and gave them her full presence when they were together, listening without interruption or judgment, and paying attention to their loves, fears and interests. Her attention was a simple gift, and yet it had a profound influence on my daughters, particularly when they were teenagers. Simply by choosing to see and hear them, my mother told her granddaughters they were loved unconditionally and that what they said mattered. My mother has been gone for five years, but I still see the power of this gift reflected in how my adult daughters honour their own voices and expect to be heard when they have something to say.
We can tell our family stories.
When we share our family stories—both the victories and the defeats—we encourage resilience in our grandchildren. This is especially true when we share the stories of the strong women in our family trees: the women who survived wars, crossed oceans, built new lives in new communities, launched businesses, challenged conventions, broke cycles of abuse or neglect, or stretched meagre resources to feed and clothe their families. These stories matter, and in passing them down we give our granddaughters powerful role models. We tell them they come from strong stock, and that they too have the inner resources to embrace life courageously.
We can share other stories of strength.
We can give our granddaughters even more role models by sharing stories of other powerful girls and women. From feisty, fictional characters like Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables or Fern Arable from Charlotte’s Web, to real-life trailblazers like Emily Carr, Jane Goodall or Malala Yousafzai, our libraries and bookstores are full of inspiring stories. The website amightygirl.com has a curated list of over 3,000 girl-empowering titles, with a detailed book menu to help you find exactly what you want. You’ll see award-winning classics and new favourites, from cultures all around the world. I gave myself half an hour on the site, and came up with a whole slew of new titles to add to “Grandma’s library.” I can’t wait to get my hands on Storm Run: The Story of the First Woman to Win the Iditarod Sled Dog Race or Amelia to Zora: 26 Women Who Changed the World. These are important books to share with our grandsons, too!
We can be intentional in our gift-giving.
In 1975, only two per cent of toys in the Sears Catalogue were marketed explicitly to boys or girls. Walk into the toy department of any large store today, and you’ll be faced with a sea of “colour-coding.” This has consequences. Beyond reinforcing limiting gender stereotypes, playing exclusively with “girl toys” can actually affect our granddaughters’ brain development. According to a recent National Geographic article, “How Today’s Toys May Be Harming Your Daughter,” girls are less likely to play with complex puzzles or building toys that help develop spatial awareness—in part due to marketing. Jamie Jerout, a developmental psychologist, argues that spatial awareness is important for higher level thinking, and may be “a piece of the explanation for the underrepresentation of women in science and tech.”
What can we do about this as grandparents? We can certainly be aware of this gender bias, and look for gifts that offer new experiences and creative ways to play and learn, rather than limiting our granddaughters—or our grandsons—to the toys marketers are trying to sell them. We can give the gift of experience as well, teaching our granddaughters new skills, or paying for a confidence-boosting drama workshop or rock-climbing camp—with their input, of course.
We can live our own lives with grace and courage. My mother’s influence on my daughters was profound in large part because of the example she set herself. She went back to school in mid-life and pursued a career that she was passionate about. She valued the contribution she had to make to the world, while respecting the contributions of other people, and this gave her a wonderful dignity. We can be role models to our granddaughters as well, finding our own voices, speaking the truth, taking new risks and trying new challenges. It’s never too late to examine our lives and to fill in the gaps or make any necessary course corrections. It’s important work in itself, and even more important when our granddaughters are watching. Empower ourselves, and we empower future generations.