How To Explain Feminism To A 5-Year-Old

My daughter is just beginning to recognize what it means to be a “girl” in this world.
yaruta via Getty Images

When I was about 7, I attended a party at a family friend’s home in a nearby town. My parents, both physicians, tended to make friends with other physicians in their community, and all of us kids, well, we just tried to occupy ourselves as best we could down in the basement with whatever toys and games were available.

On this particular evening, I can remember playing a board game with the son of the host of this party when he asked me what it was my mom did for a living. I told him she was a doctor, and he then proceeded to tell me I was wrong.

“There’s no way she can be a doctor,” he argued. “She’s a woman. She must be a nurse.”

“A nurse?” I thought. Did I have it wrong all this time? After I snapped out of this fleeting state of self-doubt, I shot back.

“She’s not a nurse,” I declared. “She’s a doctor, like your dad.”

I can’t quite remember what happened after this, but this moment has stuck with me throughout my career—and is particularly resonant with me today with equality and women’s rights at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

As I think back, my reaction to what he said was my first brush with feminism.

It’s not that I thought nursing was a less worthy profession than being a physician. It was this boy’s assumption that my mom couldn’t possibly hold an occupation that in his mind was “a man’s profession”—a profession that only people like his father could hold.

Having now spent almost 20 years in the working world, that conversation is still very much ingrained in my mind, especially as I raise my own 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter as a working mother.

My own mother’s career continues to be an inspirational driver for me, which often causes me to think about my own children and how they perceive their mother’s career.

After I tell my son that I can’t pick him up right after school because I have a meeting, the image of his disappointed face stays with me for a large part of that morning, as does the mom guilt that comes with the territory.

But something else that stays with me is the admiration and glee in my daughter’s eyes when she asks me before she falls asleep, “Are you really someone’s boss?”

I tell her, “Yes. Yes, I am, and I actually really enjoy doing what I do.”

It’s this second instance that takes on a very special meaning for me, as my daughter is at an age when she’s just beginning to recognize what it means to be a “girl” in this world, in her eyes, and at times more painfully, through the eyes of others.

At 5 years old, she is surrounded by images of pink princesses wherever she goes (even though her favorite color is black), and some girls in her class are already telling her, “Your hair would be pretty…if only it was just a little bit longer.”

If only.

Is this the right moment to explain what feminism is to my daughter?

In her book We Should All Be Feminists, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly argues that in order “to dream about and plan for a different world…this is how we start: We must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.”

We must raise our children differently so that every child believes they have the opportunity to succeed in school, college and career, regardless of how they look, where they start or where they live.

I haven’t sat down with my daughter (or my son for that matter) to explain what feminism is. If they ask me, I will gladly welcome that discussion. What I think might impact them more, however, is exhibiting what it means to be a feminist, in the experiences that I have with them every day.

It means picking up my daughter when she falls off her scooter and skins her knee, but a few minutes later, whispering in her ear, “You know, I think you’re ready to get back on it if you want.”

It means transforming the guilt I may feel at not being able to pick them up from school early by picking them up early—but taking them back to the office with me to see why the work I do matters to not only them, but to all the kids I hope to help through the work I do at a math educational technology company.

I have no doubt that my kids will someday experience how extraordinary opportunities to be feminists can occur in the most ordinary of moments, much like I did over that board game discussion more than 30 years ago. And my plan is to take every opportunity before and after that to show them that feminism is much more than a fixed definition in the dictionary.

It offers everyone—including kids like them—the opportunity to shape what it means going forward, and the beauty of knowing that they are more than capable of doing so.

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