We asked readers what steps they’re taking to raise a gutsy broad. Here is Katy S.’s response:

In our experience, up to a certain age, there isn’t much difference in how we raise the kids. It’s like building a house: You have the foundation and the walls — those are hard boundaries and provide needed structure. Within that framework, there’s a lot of freedom, but the boundaries don’t move.

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When J was little, his favorite character was Dora of Dora the Explorer. We took him to see Diego Live, but for him the whole draw was seeing Dora. When other parents or kids asked why he liked Dora (since he was a boy), we said it was because he liked Dora and he could like whatever he wanted. My parents gave him Dora toys, and as he became more interested in Star Wars and Batman, Dora faded away. When he lost interest in baseball, then basketball (after his father had coached his team for three years) it wasn’t a big deal — just like when SB said she didn’t want to do ballet.

In my family, there wasn’t a lot of talk about “gender roles don’t mean shit,” “live your life and we’re proud of who you are,” “work hard at whatever you do and be a good person.” That was all just understood, probably because we didn’t have the luxury of women deciding not to work — everybody had to pitch in to support the family.

If I were to pick one thing that I think makes a difference for both the kids, it’s affirming their dreams. When J says he wants to be a professional musician, we say, “You would be great at that. You’re such a talented artist. We would love to help you achieve that goal.” And then we give him examples. It struck me with J that he never considers the idea that he can’t do something. He’s notorious for telling us after he’s auditioned for a solo, delivered a presentation, etc. I have never felt that way in my life. If you look in the dictionary under “impostor syndrome,” the reference will be “Katy’s entire life.” I wondered if J was so confident because he was a boy, and I wanted the same for SB: that she’d look at opportunities based on what she wanted, not what she thought she’d been “good” enough to warrant favor.

As SB’s grown up, we’ve offered her the same encouragement J received. She told us she wanted to be a marine biologist in Antarctica studying leopard seals, and we responded: “That would be a great career for you. You’re so wonderful with animals, and so smart. Let’s watch videos together of people doing that so you can teach me more about it.” We look up the colleges that have programs for whatever they’re interested in doing and tell them what they have to really focus on.

We let them fail, so they learn that failure is not fatal. We talk about our own failures and what we did next, and about the problems that don’t have solutions – and that those things do suck, but we’re strong enough to handle it. I guess I’m praying that when the day comes that the failure is big, and they feel inadequate or unattractive or unworthy, they won’t believe the lies they hear from those shitty voices in their head – they’ll know that they aren’t defined by their failures any more than they’re defined by their successes.

There aren’t a lot of light conversations in our house, I guess. Everything is a chance to plant a seed of possibility – that they can do anything they’re willing to work hard enough to achieve. I have a saying about unconditional love. Some people say it means loving someone in spite of their flaws; I don’t agree. Unconditional love means loving someone because of their flaws and their strengths. Without their flaws, they’re a different person I don’t know. I love them because of them. There’s nothing I would change, because that would make then someone else.

Today SB says she’s going to have anywhere between four and 15 babies, and she and her husband and all of her babies will live with us and J in her mansion, while she does her jobs as a veterinarian and a marine biologist studying leopard seals in Antarctica. We tell her that sounds great. She gets mad when she can’t wear a dress because the activities for the day require long pants and boots, and we tell her she can wear whatever she wants when we get finished, but safety first.

When SB talks about beauty, we tell her she’s beautiful on the inside and out, and the inside part is most important. You never really know if what you’re saying is sinking in. There are a million little (and big) messages women get every day, so a lot of it is inculcation:

“No, your hair would not be prettier if it were blonde. You have the thickest and shiniest brown hair I’ve ever seen, and you have super-curlies (our word for our naturally curly hair) but when you want it straight you just brush it and that’s like magic hair.”

“Your smile makes your whole face light up; your eyes are so clear and you can see how smart and kind and thoughtful you are.” 

“Your dress is so pretty because you’re wearing it.”

“I love how you pick out outfits that are so cute and stylish and creative.”

“You are the most wonderful girl, and I’m so glad God picked me to be your Mama.”

“Your Daddy loves his smart and funny and sweet little monkey – our family is happier because of you.”

SB likes getting a little light makeup when we’re playing, and I don’t make a thing out of it, but I worry because — let’s face it — nobody’s therapist ever said, “Your mother is totally irrelevant. Tell me nothing about her.” One day I said a prayer of thanks because she was a bit exasperated with me for taking too long to get ready. She said, “Mamaaaa, you’re not beautiful because you wear makeup; you make the makeup beautiful.” Thank you, Jesus.  

J is entering the dreaded stage of middle school, and he’s talking to his dad about things he can’t say to me. I tell him how proud I am of who he is — his intelligence, his insightfulness, his humor, his understanding of the world and people that is so far beyond his age — and how he’s so handsome, and such a good looking guy, and I’m so lucky he’s my son. For the first time, I see that he doesn’t agree with me about his appearance, and it breaks my heart. One day, SB will look at me with the same doubt, and I hope I’ll be able to draw on the experience with J, where I believed enough for both of us, and he finally came around.

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