Last winter, my 8-year-old daughter wanted to join the basketball team. She'd only played in her school gym class, but loved the game, and after shooting a few baskets, she felt confident in her nascent abilities.
After breezing through the co-ed tryouts, she realized she was one of just three girls who made the team, yet she remained unfazed. "Most of the boys on my team are my friends," she explained to me, excited about the prospect of bonding with them on the court.
At practice, she held her own, got a few baskets and felt invigorated, encouraged. But during the first game — and all games that fell after — none of the boys would pass the ball to her.
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Understandably, she fast grew weary of being underestimated. Her eyes would roll and her arms sagged at her sides while she waited for passes that never came. Her water breaks became more and more frequent. She stopped protesting when it came her turn to sit out.
Her coach took notice of my daughter's waning enthusiasm. A loving dad with a daughter of his own, he chose his words thoughtfully, encouraging her to wave her arms about and demand the ball. Show the boys she meant business.
After this chat, her head hung low for the whole walk home. The boys' lack of sportsmanship had become her problem, and it sucked all the joy out of her experience. It tortured me to see her doubt her abilities because of it.
"Do you really want to play?" I asked.
She nodded yes. I told her not to give up, to get back out there and keep trying.
"You are good," I told her. "And with a little more practice, you'll be really good."
As soon as those words left my lips, I internally chastised myself. She was trying as hard as any of the boys on her team. Why was it up to her to try harder? Why weren't the boys held accountable for not giving her a turn?
"What difference does it make?" she said, with more resignation than anyone her age should have. "They don't think I'm good. Even if I was the best player on the court, they wouldn't think I was good because I'm a girl."
I realized this may be true. I had to get creative. "Are you playing for them?" I asked. "Or are you playing for you?"
She shrugged as a note of pain crept into her voice. "I'd hoped to play with them," she said.
"Let me tell you something," I said. "The biggest mistake anyone could make is to underestimate someone like you. Because you work hard, you are smart, and you are powerful." I couldn't decide if this what she needed to hear, or just what I needed to say.
She dove to hug me, right there on the sidewalk. I clutched her to me and hoped at least a kernel of the sentiment had lodged into her outlook.
At the next week's practice, she did as her coach recommended. The ball bounced and flew about the court, around and around her as she waved and she waved in vain. It was as if she wasn't even there. Her frustration emanated in near visible fumes.
On the walk home that night, she nearly combusted. "I was right, Mom. All that effort was for nothing." I realized: Here was the ugliness of sexism, as shown during its earliest possible germination period.
Then, things got really ugly.
At the game that Friday, my daughter managed to steal the ball and started to dribble toward the opposing basket, only to have her own teammate — someone she considered a friend — tackle her to the ground to wrest the ball from her hands.
Physically hurt and stunned by his sudden outburst of physical aggression, she screamed, "That's it! I've had enough!" To preserve her dignity, I whisked her coat on and we walked off the court for good.
Even though her 8-year-old teammates are being raised by kind, progressive parents, they still, for some reason, felt compelled to send my daughter the message that her capabilities were limited by sheer virtue of her gender. A normally sweet boy had, for some reason, been driven to an act of primal, animalistic aggression.
Through my frustration, I scrounged up the words to explain to my daughter that, unfortunately, this kind of experience was but a microcosm of what she'd go through in life. She'd have to work twice as hard and twice as long to get what she rightfully deserved — and get knocked down a lot along the way — but her efforts were not for nothing.
"I'd hoped and prayed things would be different by the time you grew up, but I'm not sure it will be," I explained as gingerly as I could, dousing calm tones all over my words to mask my anger. "I always had to fight as hard as I could for the ball — fight for things to change — so boys like that would learn to be civilized and share the ball. But it seems like you will too. I'm so sorry about that."
At first, I regretted being so brutally honest with my young daughter. But sugarcoating the reality certainly won't help her any in the long run. Just as with my daughter's basketball game, I'll be there to whisk her away from any unauthorized show of aggression and would rather draw my last breath before I allow her to feel like a failure.
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