Children think in absolutes. Percentages and shades of grey come. Eventually. Later. But children first think in absolutes.

Which makes explaining sexism (or racism or any form of discrimination) complicated. My daughter, at nearly 8 years of age, has had several pediatricians. Three of them are women. Two of them are men. In her eyes, therefore, doctors can be either gender. Children can be boys or girls. Grown ups can be boys or girls. Doctors can be boys or girls.

She has had 13 teachers (including assistant teachers). One of them – from her first preschool class when she was 2 years old – is male; the remaining dozen are women. But children think in absolutes and so my daughter says “both men and women can be teachers.” She doesn’t yet see that the majority of teachers at an elementary level are women. She sees only “both men and women can be teachers.”

My daughter knows some gay women and men. She knows a couple of families which include children and same sex parents. The majority of the families she knows have opposite sex parents. This majority doesn’t prevent her from knowing that a couple of people of the same sex can be parents.

On the surface this is a lovely thing. Her black, Asian, Latino and white teachers have all held equal positions of authority and therefore race does not determine intelligence or power. She’s seen her mother use power tools more often than she’s seen her father do so. But she has seen her father do so. Therefore, tools are not a thing for one gender or another. Women grow babies. Women nurse babies. But women and men clean, cook, change diapers, have offices, drive cars cabs trains planes.

On the surface, this is a lovely thing. But the reality is that though 3 of her doctors have been women and 2 of them have been men, and though therefore, in my daughter’s eyes being a doctor is not a job which takes gender into account – well, the reality is that female doctors are still paid less than male doctors. In fact, the pay gap has widened in recent years. A decade ago female doctors earned about $4,000 a year less then their male counterparts. Now that difference is over $16,000.

A thing I struggle with is how to prepare my girl child for this world without shattering the benefit her absolutes-clouded viewpoint affords her. Right now, my daughter believes she can do anything she wants to do, except father a child. But even that – in her limited understanding of the role gender plays in procreation – feels possible to her. Her current plan is not to grow babies but adopt them. Which means that she won’t be pregnant or nursing, but still every bit a parent – like a father.

I don’t want her to grow up feeling – or worse yet, believing – that women are less valued than men. On the other hand, I teach her to look both ways before crossing a street so that she doesn’t fling herself blindly into oncoming traffic. I teach her to mind her belongings so that she doesn’t lose something precious either by forgetting where she’s left it or because other people may claim an unattended item as their own. How can I not prepare her for the danger of allowing herself to be undervalued and of undervaluing herself? How can I throw her into a world that will absolutely not treat her as an equal – without giving her the extra strength she will need to defy the burden of prejudice?

I don’t want to set her up for self-doubt and failure because she believes society when it tells her she is worth less. Nor do I want to set her up for heartbreak and failure when she flings herself, unprepared, at a society which will not accept her as equal.

The time is coming. She is noticing things. Two days ago she asked me why the barber shop had photos of men in the window, but not women. I explained that some shops specialize in services particular to men rather than women. For example, I pointed out the haircut + shave special. She immediately pointed out the old woman in the park who sits on a bench and calls out “God bless you!” to everyone who passes. The old woman who has a beard. I fumbled something about how those photos of men show haircuts that are generally preferred by men. She asked me “what if I went in there and asked for that haircut, would they do it?” and I said “sure, probably” and I could see her mood lighten. But mine grew heavier as I instantly thought “but they’ll charge you more for it, because the sign clearly states than men’s cuts are $20 and women’s are $35.”

My daughter has always focused on gender equality. Almost pathologically. And while I spent her babyhood painting a reality of “there are no boy things and girl things!” she is slowly realizing that the rest of the world is not in agreement.

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