My son never forgets the time he got to vote for president in preschool. No, a group of 4-year-olds did not get to influence our nation’s future, but they did hold a mock election in class. Now, a few years later, my son still talks about it fondly and is delighted that, “my guy won.”
So on a recent car ride, the subject of the next presidential election came up. After a quick chat on term limits, my son wanted to know who would be the next president. “I don’t know. We have to vote again,” I tell him.
“Will I get to vote?” he asks.
“No,” I tell him. “But you can come with me and help me vote.”
He’s excited about this, and I’m thrilled that he’s interested. But the thrill doesn’t last as the conversation turns toward who will be the next president.
I tell him this upcoming election could be exciting by the mere fact that if Hillary Clinton decides to run and she wins, he’d be alive to see the first female in American history run our country. By the way, in our house there is no division of labor between my husband and I based on gender so I figure a female president would totally make sense to my son. Plus, he has a sister. Of course he wants to live in a world where his own sister can be whatever she wants, I think.
Instead he says, “I don’t want Hillary to win. I don’t think girls should be president. Only boys.”
His words take me by surprise — and I get a lump in my throat. “Well what about me or your sister?” I ask, hoping to clarify. “Does that mean we shouldn’t get to be president?”
He’s steadfast. “No Mommy. Boys are more stronger than girls. Boys should only be president.”
I start to cry. He’s just a kid, but his words sting. He has no idea these words would be hurtful to me, but for days I can’t get them out of my mind.
Having grown up the youngest of three girls, there was no question we could do, and be, anything we wanted. Even though our dad would make old guy Archie Bunker-style jokes, we knew he didn’t mean them. He may have joked that women were bad drivers, but he never acted in a way that made us think we weren’t equal to boys. College was a must, and we were always encouraged to ambitiously pursue careers rather than just marry someone who had one. Feminism and my role as a female have always been on the forefront of my mind. And yet now, my own child is telling me I’m not as strong and powerful as his father. I fear I’ve failed as a parent and as a female.
I think about the conversation for days. I carefully observe our family dynamic, wondering if we’re unaware that we’re giving him subtle cues that might make him think women aren’t powerful. I don’t know who should be the next president and I don’t think it must be a woman. I do know, however, I want to live in a world where anyone can be anything she wants to be. I want my son and daughter to have the same opportunities as one another. And I want them to live in a world where they are merited for their hard work, with no bias toward their gender. I hope that’s the subtle cues my kids are getting from me.
And yet my son’s words still nag at me.
So I ask him again why he thinks a woman shouldn’t be president. “The president is in charge of the army,” he tells me. “And only boys should run the army. They’re stronger than girls and the army has to be strong.”
I should have known. My son is six and at six, kids are very literal. To him an army guy is a guy. So the president must be a guy as well. He’s not thinking that his own sister shouldn’t have the opportunity to be anything she wants to be when he says he doesn’t think a woman should run the country.
But I want him to live in a universe where an army “guy” doesn’t have to be a man and the president is whomever is best for the country. So I’m going to do my best to change the conversation. I want him to know that women and men are just as powerful as one another and equally qualified to run a country. I want him to know that currently there are women running many countries around the world. And they’re just as strong as men. That’s the best I can do, which is all I can do.
Hopefully, he’ll change his mind on his own. And hopefully our country will, too. Who knows? Maybe someday my son will see his sister run for office and win. Anything’s possible.